Trail Running Shoes vs. Running Shoes: Know The Difference

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When choosing footwear for running, you must consider the surface you’ll be running on. Different terrains require different materials; some shoes are better suited for softer and rougher terrains, while others are designed for harder surfaces.

We’ll cover the differences and similarities between trail running shoes and running shoes and explain when to wear them.

Trail Running Shoes vs. Running Shoes: Differences and Similarities

Let’s review the most important differences and similarities between trail and road running shoes.


As you can assume, trail running shoes are footwear designed to be used on trails. What does this mean? Think sharp rocks, jagged roots, dirt, steep inclines, mud, etc. Trail running shoes allow you to conquer such surfaces with ease.

On the other hand, running shoes are designed for manmade, hard surfaces like concrete. Since they are lightweight, breathable materials, running shoes are usually unsuitable for extreme weather conditions.


The exposed part of the shoe that touches the surface you’re running on is the outsole. Like all parts of the shoes, the outsoles differ depending on their intended purpose. Their job is to provide grip and traction.

The outsoles of trail running shoes often feature studs that provide a better grip for rougher terrains. Even if they don’t have studs, such shoes usually feature a bumpy design with lugs that guarantee grip and traction. Compared to road running shoes, trail running shoes have stickier outsoles. This ensures traction on slippery, uneven, and rocky terrains.

Since road running shoes aren’t designed for rough terrains, there’s no need for lugs and studs. The outsoles of such shoes are usually smooth and provide a good grip on pavement but can’t handle tougher surfaces.


The cushioning property of every shoe is usually located in the midsoles. This is the part of a shoe between the insole and the outsole, typically made of foam materials that provide comfort. The level of cushioning depends on the shoe type and its purpose.

Generally, trail running shoes aren’t known for their cushioning properties. Since they are intended for softer terrains, the pounding impact isn’t so bad, so there’s no need for as much cushioning. Plus, with trail running shoes, the emphasis is on proprioception, i.e., the perception or awareness of the movement and position of the body.

When running on rough surfaces, you must use your body to “examine” the surface under you. Cushioning may provide more comfort, but it can disguise the surface and send wrong signals to your body, creating a distorted sense of the surroundings.

In contrast, road running shoes are designed for hard surfaces, which can put pressure on our feet and joints. Hence, these shoes usually have more cushioning.

Of course, these are only tendencies. You can find trail running shoes with more cushioning and road running shoes with fewer cushioning properties. So whether you’re buying road or trail running shoes, remember to try a few pairs to see what level of cushioning works best for you.

Heel-to-Toe Drop

The amount of cushioning from the heel to the toes varies; this difference is called a heel-to-toe drop. Usually, road running shoes have a more significant drop to lower the risk of potential injuries caused by running on hard surfaces.

On the other hand, trail running shoes usually have a milder drop, ensuring maximum stability.

Medial Post

A medial post is a device within the midsole made of firmer materials like EVA, thermoplastic urethane, or carbon fiber. Its primary purpose is to provide more stability and control pronation.

Road running shoes labeled “stability road shoes” or “motion control shoes” have this insert. Typically, trail running shoes don’t have a medial post to not restrict the natural movement and motion of your foot.


The upper of a shoe is the material that secures it to the midsole, including the rand, heel collar, laces, and the tongue. Since trail running shoes are made for rough, uneven surfaces and more extreme weather conditions, they feature sturdier, tougher materials. Such materials protect your joints and muscles and lower the risk of injury.

Some trail running shoes feature Gore-Tex or another waterproof fabric that keeps your feet dry. However, not all trail running shoes are water-resistant. Some models are made of breathable mesh that prevents excessive heat and moisture inside the shoes. These models are more compact than waterproof shoes.

Road running shoes usually have a thinner and lighter upper, allowing more breathability.

Keep in mind that the upper can vary greatly depending on the brand. If buying your first pair of running shoes, try models from different brands to establish what works best for you.


Lacing is an adjustable element that should maximize support and comfort while running. Regarding lacing, trail running and road running shoes are very similar. But specific differences exist. For example, many trail running shoes feature locks that ensure the laces don’t untie and become a safety hazard. In addition, many brands have developed unique lacing systems for maximum support and efficiency.

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Generally speaking, road running shoes usually don’t have complex lacing systems or additions. In addition, road running requires less ankle and foot movement than trail running, so there’s no need for an advanced lacing system.


Trail running shoes are usually more expensive than road running shoes. This is because they are made of sturdier materials and often have a technical design with additional features to increase longevity. In contrast, road running shoes usually have a simpler design, making them more affordable.

Of course, this is a generalization. These days, trail running and road running shoes vary significantly depending on the brand, manufacturing process, materials, etc.


Since they’re made of sturdier materials, trail running shoes are usually heavier than road running shoes. Within the trail running category, you can find models of varying weights. For example, if you’re running on well-maintained trails, you’ll get excellent support from lighter trail running shoes.

On the other hand, if you’re running on unstable surfaces and different types of terrain, you’ll need heavier shoes that can handle that.


Road running shoes come in a wide range of designs and colors. Choosing a particular color combination allows you to make a statement with your shoes and match them to your favorite outfits.

In contrast, it’s not very common to see trail running shoes in bright or light colors. Instead, they are usually black, gray, or brown. These colors are ideal for hiding mud and dirt.


Many trail running shoes have a gusseted tongue, i.e., a tongue attached to the upper at the base and along the sides. This prevents water and debris from sneaking inside the shoe. If you’re often running on wet surfaces, running shoes with a gusseted tongue are a must.

Some road running shoes may feature a gusseted tongue, but they usually have a tongue that attaches only at the base.

Toe Box

A toe box is where the toes reside. Trail running shoes usually feature a wider toe box to ensure maximum comfort and prevent injuries. Moreover, such shoes typically have a rubber layer that protects the toes from rocks, debris, and other trail elements.

The toe box of road running shoes is usually lightweight and breathable.

When to Wear Trail Running Shoes

Trail running shoes are designed to easily handle wet, slippery, uneven terrains. In addition, they will keep your feet and ankles stable, dry, and protected.

Some may wonder whether trail running shoes can be worn while running on the road. Technically, you can do this, but it’s not recommended. Namely, running in trail running shoes on concrete can cause discomfort for your feet and ankles because of the sturdy materials. Moreover, trail running shoes will succumb to damage much faster when exposed to hard surfaces like asphalt. You can even damage the surface with the shoes’ studs and lugs.

In some cases, wearing trail running shoes while running on the road is perfectly acceptable. For example, trail running shoes will provide more traction and stability if the road is covered in snow or ice. Plus, since trail running shoes are usually more resistant than road running shoes, they will give you maximum comfort.

Trail Running Shoes vs. Running Shoes

When to Wear Road Running Shoes

Road running shoes are designed for hard surfaces like concrete. Therefore, they are ideal for those who enjoy faster workouts, sprints, races, interval training, etc. In addition, since road running shoes are made of more breathable, lightweight materials, they are excellent for hot and humid weather. Essentially, such shoes are perfect for any surface that doesn’t require a lot of traction.

Hybrid Shoes

If you enjoy running on trails and roads but don’t want to buy two different pairs of running shoes, you can look for hybrid models. Such shoes give you the best of both worlds and allow you to run on various surfaces without difficulty. However, keep in mind that you should consider the features of such shoes carefully to get the best results.

How to Choose the Best Running Shoe

Whether you’re buying trail or road running shoes, it’s crucial to know how to choose the best model. Here are a few tips:

Think About the Surface You’ll Be Running On

Most running shoes may look the same if you’re a novice. But they contain specialized technology and materials to help you stay comfortable and protected while running. Hence, you should first consider the surface you’ll be running on.

For example, you’re probably running on asphalt surfaces if you live in a city area. This means you need lightweight shoes with cushioning. On the other hand, water-resistant features may not be necessary if you’ll run indoors or live in areas that don’t get a lot of rain.

Get the Right Fit

While this may sound easy, finding shoes that fit you perfectly can be challenging. What’s more, many people make mistakes when purchasing running shoes and end up with shoes that are too big or too small.

When trying out the shoes, there should be roughly a thumb’s width between the end of your foot and the shoe. This will prevent your toes from hitting the end as you’re running.

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Some shoes are wider, others are narrower, and deciding on the right width can be hard. The right shoes should wrap around your feet comfortably, without pinching or feeling sloppy. If you feel even a bit of discomfort while trying on the shoes, they’re probably not the right fit.

Tip: Go to the shoe store in the afternoon or evening. Although this may seem ridiculous, that’s the best time to try on shoes. This is because our feet swell during the day, even when we’re not physically active. Trying on your shoes later in the day will allow you to determine the right fit more easily and prevent getting a pair that’s too tight.

Choose the Design

Besides feeling comfortable, you want your shoes to look nice, too. Fortunately, the market has never been as versatile. Most road running shoe models are made in a wide range of colors, allowing you to choose the one you like best. Although trail running shoes don’t come in as many designs, there are usually a few options.

Many runners don’t care about the design as long as the shoes are comfortable, and that’s fine. However, maximum comfort and stability should always be a priority.

Know What You’re Paying For

A higher price tag usually means the shoes feature a more advanced technology or high-quality materials. But this isn’t a universal rule. You don’t want to overpay for a pair of shoes that don’t provide enough stability and comfort. Likewise, opting for an affordable pair of shoes may save you money, but it may not be the best option. Such shoes may not be designed with running in mind and may not be as durable.

Think About Pronation Features

Pronation represents the foot’s natural movement while landing, walking, or running. Excessive foot motion like over-pronation or inward rolling can increase the risk of injuries. If you have such issues, it’s best to look for shoes featuring technology that will keep your feet stable while running. Medial posts and dual foams are only some of the tools designers use to enhance the level of comfort, stability, and protection.

Don’t Assume Your Size

Many assume that shoe sizes are the same regardless of the brand and model. While this would make purchasing running shoes much easier, it isn’t true. How a shoe is stitched together, and the upper’s shape affect the size. Even if you’re always buying shoes from the same brand, we recommend trying them on every time before buying them.

How to Make Your Running Shoes Last Longer

Most runners have a favorite pair of running shoes they’d like to wear forever. But, unfortunately, the shoes can’t last forever. Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t extend their lifespan by taking proper care of them. Here are several tips that will help your shoes last longer.

Take Them Off Carefully

Although slipping off shoes using your feet is much faster, it puts extra pressure on the heel and laces, potentially leading to damage and faster wear and tear. If you want to make your shoes last longer, take the time to untie and loosen the laces.

Use Running Shoes for Running

When you find a favorite pair of shoes, you want to wear them all the time. But if you wear them daily for regular activities and walking, the cushioning will break down faster, and you won’t be able to get as many miles from them. So it’s best to use your running shoes exclusively for running.

Store Them Properly

Avoid exposing your running shoes to heat. That means you shouldn’t leave them in your car, on the balcony, or near an AC or radiator. High temperatures can damage the glue and cause the material to shrink.

Read the Label

Taking proper care of your shoes is crucial for keeping them in excellent shape for a long time. But, of course, “taking proper care” doesn’t mean you should clean your shoes every time you come back from running. In fact, frequently cleaning them can lead to faster wear and tear.

All shoe manufacturers offer detailed instructions on maintaining the shoes. It’s essential to follow these guidelines if you want to make your shoes last longer. As a rule, running shoes shouldn’t be washed in the washing machine or thrown into the dryer. Moreover, you shouldn’t use aggressive cleaning products, especially those containing bleach. Instead, clean your shoes with mild solutions and air dry them.

Learn the Difference

As you can see, trail running shoes and running shoes differ in many ways. Since their purpose is different, we can’t say one is better than the other. Your choice will depend on the terrain you’re running on and your preferences. If you’re not sure what kind of running shoes to get, it’s best to consult an expert who will be able to help you make the right choice.

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