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Trail shoes vs. road running shoes…is there really a difference? Yes, and it can affect your performance in ways that may surprise you.
A shoe is a shoe, you might say. And to a degree, you’d be right. You can, of course, wear trail shoes on pavement and road shoes for forest or fell.
But each type of shoe is designed for a specific use. Each has features that can improve performance, increase comfort, and, most importantly, help to prevent injury.
Trail shoes and road shoes have the same parts. Mostly. The differences lie in the size and shape of those parts, and in the materials that comprise them.
The upper encases your foot from above. It might be made from leather. More commonly, however, the uppers of athletic shoes are made from a synthetic material.
The insole is the bed upon which your foot rests.
Some athletic shoes have extra padding on the insole to provide support. Others have minimal padding to provide greater contact with the ground.
The difference in height between the heel and toe is called the heel drop or, simply, drop. Some people prefer a greater drop, for example, ten millimeters. Others may prefer less of a drop, or even zero drop.
The stack height is the total height of the outsole at its highest point. Some super-cushioned shoes have a stack height of over one inch.
The midsole sits between the insole and the outsole (which many people simply call the sole.)
This is another place where a shoe may have cushioning.
The outsole, or sole, is the part of the shoe that contacts the ground.
There are other features that you might find in specific shoe types.
A lug sole has thick indentations that help to provide stability and grip. You’ll find lugs on athletic cleats, hiking boots, and many trail running shoes, too.
A medial post is an insert, often made from high-density foam. It sits on the inside of the midsole of some road running shoes. It provides extra stability.
The difference between off-road running and running on pavement is more than the scenery. Different terrain affects the way your feet move and interact with the ground.
Terrain differences can also impact your joints. On top of that, they can increase your chances for injuries that you might not even have considered.
Trail running shoes are built to make off-road running safer and easier.
The soles of trail shoes tend to be stiffer than those of road running shoes.
First, a stiff sole helps to protect your body from unexpected twists and torsion, which can result in various injuries.
Also, a stout sole can provide protection from rocks and other environmental hazards.
Finally, a thick, stiff sole can provide increased traction. And when you’re running off-road, traction can be paramount.
Some trail shoes may be stiffer than others.
For example, shoes made for light trails may have soles similar to those of road shoes. The New Balance rishi Trail V1 is an example of a shoe for light trails.
Shoes for rugged terrain, on the other hand, may have soles that more closely resemble those of hiking boots. The Salomon Speedcross 4 is an example of an aggressive trail shoe.
A road shoe needs to be light. However, for the trail, protection is more important than weight.
As you might expect, the uppers of a trail shoe tend to be more rugged than those of road running shoes.
Though both are most often made from synthetic materials, trail shoes may have reinforcement at stress points, such as the toes, heels, and sides.
The Merrell Moab 3 is a trail running shoe with rugged reinforcements.
Many trail shoes have a wide toe box. Extra room in front allows your toes to splay while you run. This, in turn, provides both greater stability on hills and greater comfort overall.
The Altra AL0A4PE5 Lone Peak 4.5 is an aggressive trail shoe with a wide toe box designed to let your forefoot do its job on technical terrain.
Quite a few trail running shoes have waterproof or water-resistant uppers.
You might also find some trail shoes with an internal neoprene or EVA sock to protect against water and dirt.
The La Sportiva Synthesis GTX is one example of a waterproof trail running shoe.
Some models don’t bother trying to keep the water out. Rather, they are made to drain easily and dry out fast.
Shoes made for rugged trails or fell running may have a rock plate in the midsole for extra protection against rocks.
The Saucony Peregrine 10 is a trail running shoe that has a rock plate.
Lug soles improve traction and stability. Deeper lugs grip soft or crumbly terrain and help to prevent slips.
Lugs can vary in size, shape, and depth. Shoes made for lighter trails may have smaller or fewer lugs. Shoes made for heavier trails, on the other hand, may have quite deep lugs.
The Innov 8 Women’s Rocklite 315 has deep, aggressive lugs.
Some trail shoes have features that you won’t find on road shoes.
For example, you might find lace pockets on the tongues of some trail shoes. These allow you to tuck away your shoelaces so you don’t trip over them.
You might also find attachment points for gaiters. Gaiters protect your ankles from sticks, branches, and other environmental hazards.
They can also help to keep rocks and debris out of your shoes.
Trail shoes vs. road running shoes: the difference isn’t merely cosmetic.
It’s important to strike a balance between protection and weight. For road running shoes, light weight and flexibility are the name of the game.
Road running shoes have protective features, too, of course. But the features themselves, and the hazards they protect against, are different.
Road shoes tend to be more flexible than trail shoes. Increased flexibility helps your feet to connect better with the pavement. And this, in turn, can help to prevent injury.
Toward this end, uppers are rarely reinforced. Also, they typically don’t have waterproofing features like a stiff Gore-Tex layer.
The outsole of a road shoe is often made from blown rubber. Any lugs tend to be smaller and softer.
The midsoles of road running shoes also tend to be more flexible, and you probably won’t find a rock plate.
The Altra Torin 4 is a lightweight, well-cushioned road running shoe.
One type of reinforcement that you will find in a road shoe is a medial post. This is a stiff foam insert that sits on the inside of the shoe and improves stability.
As we mentioned earlier, trail shoes have stiff soles to protect your feet and ankles from twists and slips. Road shoes also protect you, but they do it differently.
Some road shoes, like the ASICS Gel Kayano 26 have a torsion bar.
Other manufacturers have a torsion bridge that allows the forefoot and the rearfoot to move independently.
Many Adidas models, like the Adidas Ultra Boost, have this type of torsion system.
Pavement is hard. Many road shoes have extra cushioning to protect your joints from the repeated impact of running on pavement.
Some people like extra cushioning because they find it more comfortable. But padded running shoes can also be helpful for:
There are different levels of cushioning and a number of cushioning technologies.
You might find, for example:
When choosing a cushioning level, you will always have to balance cushioning with height.
A super-cushioned shoe like Hoka One One provides maximum protection. Some runners, however, may worry that the towering stack height may increase their risk for turning an ankle.
When in doubt, of course, follow your instincts and listen to your body.
The ASICS Gel-Kayano 27 is a road running shoe that uses a combination of gel and foam to provide additional cushioning. This combination protects joints without excessive height.
Road running shoes need to be light. And because there are no environmental hazards to consider, manufacturers have found numerous ways to lighten the load.
First, many road running shoes are made from lightweight synthetic materials like nylon.
Also, the outsoles of road shoes tend to be thinner and made from lighter materials. They don’t typically have deep, thick lugs.
Minimalist or “barefoot” running shoes minimize cushioning and support in order to promote more natural movement and contact with the ground.
Some people find that minimal shoes improve their comfort and performance. Others find the lack of support and cushioning to be hard on their feet and joints.
Either way, studies have shown that suddenly transitioning from traditional to minimalist running shoes can increase the chances of certain types of injuries.
So if you’re going to take the plunge, it’s important to build up to it first.
Do you really need a different pair of running shoes for road and trail? That depends.
If your trails are highly technical, then you absolutely need a pair of shoes made for technical terrain.
What do we mean by technical terrain? We mean trails that are difficult to traverse. For example:
Increased difficulty and complexity mean an increased likelihood of injury. That, in turn, means a need for increased protection.
On the other hand, if your trails are more road-like — think fire roads and flat, smooth, well-kept trails — then you might consider a road-to-trail hybrid shoe.
These shoes combine the best of trail shoes and road shoes to give you a good experience on both types of terrain. Not to mention less expense and more room in your shoe closet.
The Innov 8 Park Claw has excellent features that will serve you well on-road or off. It’s well-padded for road work. At the same time, it has medium lugs and a wide toe box to add stability and grip on the trail.
We’ve touched on six very different types of running shoes:
So, how do you decide which you need?
Terrain will dictate how much support, protection, and traction you will need.
For road running, a lightweight road running shoe is the best choice.
A road-to-trail shoe is an economical way to equip yourself for a wide variety of runs, both on-road and off.
For well-kept trails, fire roads, and other light off-road use, a light trail shoe will protect your feet without being bulky.
And if you like to run difficult, technical terrain, then technical trail shoes are a must.
Both trail and road shoes come in minimalist and support varieties.
If you want extra joint protection, or just find a cushioned shoe more comfortable, then choose a support running shoe.
And if you want to try minimalist or “barefoot” running, be sure to work up to it first.
When considering trail shoes vs. road running shoes, remember that they both provide protection, stability, and comfort. But the hazards they protect from are different.
What may work on the trail may hamper performance or even cause injury on the road — and vice versa.
When choosing a shoe, consider your terrain first. Then choose a model that fits well, is comfortable, and provides the combination of features that work best for you.
Last update on 2021-09-16 at 11:42 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API