The Difference Between Trail and Road Running Shoes Explained

Marc Lindsay
by Marc Lindsay
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The Difference Between Trail and Road Running Shoes Explained

With so many running shoe options to choose from, it can be tough to decide which model best suits your intended activity. From cushioned options for long runs and lightweight trainers for tempo days, which shoe you choose can have a big impact on your comfort and performance during your workout.

Trail shoes are one category runners commonly skip over, opting for their daily trainer to tackle the occasional off-road trail workout instead of buying yet another running shoe. But unlike a daily trainer that you might be able to get by with for multiple types of workouts, a trail shoe offers features specific to the terrain and can improve traction, stability, and protection over a standard running shoe.


READ MORE > RUNNING SHOES 101


Recently we asked Douglas Smiley, Under Armour product line manager for running footwear, about the differences between road and trail running shoes so you can determine which model is right for you.

Q: What instances would a runner be better off wearing a dedicated trail shoe?

Smiley: Road shoes can work only on the most groomed trails. For any terrain with varying surface and underfoot conditions like loose rocks, slick mud or solid dirt, where added protection from the elements is needed, a dedicated trail shoe is the best bet. Runners tend to prefer road shoes over trail shoes because they’re lighter, softer and less structured, but advancements in trail shoe innovation have translated that softer road feel into a good number of trail running options today.

Q: If you’re running on trails and pavement, would you advise a road running shoe or a commuter trail shoe that works well for both surfaces?

Smiley: When choosing footwear, it’s best to plan for the worst conditions you’re going to encounter. If you know there’s a chance of a downpour on a run, you’d bring a waterproof shell jacket just in case. Picking your footwear is no different. If you know you’ll spend some time on concrete but most on the trails, plan for those tougher conditions. The truth is most trail races and ultras require you to spend some time running across roads or harder surfaces, but a road shoe will not meet the demanding need of tougher trail sections.

Q: What are the primary protective features trail shoes have that road shoes don’t?

Smiley: For trail shoes, it really begins and ends with traction. Both the outsole material and the geometry spacing of the lugs provide a sure-footed grip that normal road shoes can’t. They’re also made of highly durable materials that hold up across tough conditions. Trail shoes also feature more durable, reinforced upper materials that lend another layer of protection to the foot but also hold up to abrasion when being dragged across rough surfaces. Trail shoes can also feature added toe protection if you run into rocks or roots, and the collar and tongue area is specifically designed to help keep rocks and debris from entering.

Q: How about the midsoles? Are the cushioning features in trail shoes any different?

Smiley: Typically the midsoles of both road and trail shoes feature many of the same cushioning technologies. Trail running shoes sometimes add rock plates in the forefoot for use on very rocky surfaces, but this is becoming more rare as midsole materials become more durable and resilient.


READ MORE > 5 COMMON MYTHS ABOUT TRAIL RUNNING


Q: What should runners consider when determining which size and depth of the lug pattern on the outsole is best?

Smiley: In general, higher lugs that are more spaced out are intended for more rugged conditions requiring ample grip and ground penetration. The downside here is that you’ll sometimes feel those lugs on harder surfaces since the outsole is putting excessive pressure on the lugs and not dispersing across the entire surface area of the outsole. Lower height lugs in a tighter pattern have a softer underfoot feel on hard surfaces, but they’re typically less effective on wet, muddy, and rugged trails because the lugs are too short to effectively penetrate. These represent the two extremes with a good number of outsole patterns in between, using a combination of some deeper gripping lugs that are lower height for underfoot feel.

Q: How about stability features? Are they the same between trail and road shoes?

Smiley: A runner’s biomechanics are very different on the road versus the trail, so you typically see a difference in the support features between road and trail shoes. Medial support on road shoes is focused on preventing the runner from excessive overpronation. Trail stability is focused on keeping the runner upright from a grippy outsole and optimizing the flexibility of the midsole to adapt to the trails without being too flexible. Trail stability is really about making a shoe that allows the runner to adapt to the changing underfoot conditions and keep moving forward.

Whether you want to run your first mile or set a PR, having a plan gets you there faster. Go to the MapMyRun app, tap “Training Plans” and set your next goal — you’ll get a schedule and coaching tips to help you crush it.

About the Author

Marc Lindsay
Marc Lindsay

Marc is a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Portland State University and is a certified physical therapy assistant. An avid cyclist and runner of over 20 years, Marc contributes to LAVA, Competitor and Phoenix Outdoor magazines. He is the former cycling editor for Active.com.

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