Road vs. Trail Shoes

Here we take a close look at the differences between the road running shoes and the trail running shoes to know when to use the right pair of shoes on your cardio journey.

A close look at someone wearing a pair of running shoes.

Unlike my middle, my wardrobe is kept on the lean side. Why buy two pairs of shoes when one will do? But parsimony costs, and after years of flitting between the road and bush, I’ve come to appreciate that off-road adventures need specialized gear.

Road shoes are optimized for the rigors of high-impact landing on tar. These shoes are built for comfort. Trail running shoes have proprioception and surface protection in mind.

They share the latter property in common with hiking shoes, which are also built to be durable.

To ensure proper kit-up, we’ll deep-dive the differences. Understanding the design objectives will facilitate the right choice of footwear.

Table of Contents

What are Road Shoes?

Hoka Women's Rincon 3 Road Running Shoe, Plein Air/Orchid Hush, 8.5M

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Although road shoes all resemble sneakers, they come in three flavors:

The first two categories are built for runners. What sets them apart is a set of design choices that reflect the different challenges of short-range and endurance running.

Walking shoes are built for exercise walking in urban streets. These shoes are built for comfort.

What are Trail Shoes?

New Balance Men's 481 V3 Trail Running Shoe, Team Away Grey/Magnet/Black, 13 M US

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Trail shoes come in two types:

Trail running shoes look like minimalist sneakers. They have thin, though outsoles that provide grip on slippery surfaces and are hardy enough to run over jagged rock with no damage to the shoe or injury to the foot.

Hiking shoes are made for walking trails. They have thicker uppers than trail runners and thicker, more rigid soles. While trail runners uppers are constructed from flexible synthetic materials, leather continues to be the material of choice for hiking boots.

Hiking shoes resemble either brogue-like dress shoes or boots. The boots are preferred as they protect a larger area of the foot, including the sensitive ankle.

How are they Different?

This is a close look at a someone walking a trail wearing shoes.

Hiking shoes are strikingly different in physical appearance from road shoes. On inspection, trail running shoes can be confused with road running shoes. Throughout, there are very specific differences in features, which differences serve the design objectives of the different types of shoes. We’ll consider them in turn.

Design Features

Protection

This is a look at someone jogging in the park.

Both types are designed for protection, but there are striking differences because of the divergent environments in which they’re used.

Roadrunners hit the ground hard. The acceleration of a runner in full flight causes her to smack the tar thrice her body mass. This creates reactive ground forces that travel up the leg, shocking the joints they encounter. To protect against this, road running shoes have cushioned undersides.

Road walking shoes offer only mild surface protection. Walkers receive sufficient protection from ground impact through their joint cartilage.

Trail running shoes offer surface protection from rocks and thorny bush. They do not offer as much shock protection as road shoes because this will dampen their reactive properties (see “proprioception” below).

Hiking shoes offer maximal surface friction protection.

Material

This is a close look at a pair of trail shoes on a forest floor.

In road running shoes, the materials are chosen to strike a balance between weight and protection. In sprint shoes, this balance tends to be struck in favor of weight minimization.

High-end endurance running shoes include modern materials for energy optimization. These materials do not endure the rigors of rocks and branches and so are not used in trail shoes.

Hiking shoes are made from the toughest materials. Leather is fancied for the thick uppers and dense resin for the soul.

Weight Minimisation

Lightness is a key performance factor in running shoes. Sprint shoes have minimal weight, so that speed is maximized. Endurance shoes have to add padding for protection. This makes them heavier.

Trail running shoes are built with much thinner soles than endurance shoes for the road. Their weight is comparable to sprint shoes. Rugged hiking shoes are the heavier of the lot.

Energy Redirect

This is a man hiking on a mountain trail wearing shoes.

The reaction force mentioned before has a plus side. Modern endurance shoes include materials shaped to redirect this energy into a propulsive force that helps move the body forward.

This technology is not in use in trail shoes. It requires fortification of the sole, which is inimical to the minimal design of trail running soles. Walking does not generate massive reactive force, so the redirection technology is absent from hiking shoes.

Proprioception

Trail runners navigate a wide variety of textures as they traverse diverse terrain. To retain stability, they need to feel the ground beneath them. This has led to a sole design that maximizes proprioception.

Roadrunners have a very little variance of terrain. Their feet maintain little contact with the ground. These two factors reduce the need for sole proprioceptive design.

While hikers share the same terrain as trail runners, their shoes are optimized for protection, with thick soles that take away from the ability to feel the ground.

Gait Correction

A woman running on a trail wearing running shoes.

Road running shoes come in varieties that help runners manage their foot landing. This includes overpronators – runners with a pronounced inward tilt of the feet. There are stability shoes that serve runners whose feet have sideways flexion that detracts from forward motion.

The rigidity of stabilizing road shoes deters performance on the trail, where the runner needs more sensitivity underfoot.

Range of Motion

Road and trail running both happen in a forward plane. But whereas the road runner’s only required motion is to roll the foot forward over the ball from the midfoot, the trail runner is required to make sideway and angular motions to navigate uneven terrain.

Consequently, trail shoes are built with soles that endure abrasive contact over a wider range than their road counterparts.

Flexibility

This is a woman running on a sandy beach.

Further to the previous point, trail shoes need flexibility outside of the forward plane in order to accommodate the jagged turf. A trail runner in road shoes will feel a lack of stability due to the inflexible tenor of her gear. This puts the runner at risk of falling.

Both classes of the shoe are flexible for forward motion.

Comfort and Wearability

Road walking shoes are built for comfort, as that is the only performance inhibitor for exercise walking. As a result, these shoes can easily be worn for everyday activities.

Used road running shoes will have less of a spongy sole than new ones. This makes them wearable, although active runners are advised against this as they spend too much time in cushioned shoes.

The thin high-traction soles of trail shoes make them less fit for casual wear, although trail addicts may be hooked on the feeling.

Size

A hiker at a forest trail wearing running shoes.

Trail running and sprinting shoes are worn at the same size as dress shoes. Endurance shoes are worn one size higher to allow for the high impact forward motion associated with running. Without this adjustment, runners will have their toes slamming into the fronts of their shoes.

The larger-than-dress size of road running shoes also provides for the swelling of the feet that happens throughout an hour-long run.

Durability

Trail running shoes are more durable, as they are assembled to endure abrasive contact over a wider range of motion, over rocks, twigs, and mud. Their soles are particularly resistant to tear.

Road running shoes assume forward-only motion on asphalt and are more susceptible to wear and tear from rough environments and irregular movements. Their protective cushioning wears out after 5oo miles.

Cost Differences

These are various shoes on display at the store for sale.

There are cost differences within the subcategories of running shoes. Mid-level road and trail running shoes cost the same. But high-end trail shoes tend to be more expensive. These shoes employ advanced design and materials to finesse the balance between minimalist fit and durability.

Conclusion

There are no comparing road shoes and trail shoes. Hiking shoes are clunky road walkers. Marathon footwear can leave you slipping and sliding over pebbly riverbeds. Substituting across categories invites misadventure at best and injury at worst.

The best is to decide what your indoor and outdoor repertoire is likely to be and then pick the right gear from within the road or trail category.

References:

Running Magazine: How do I Choose a Trail Shoe

Fleet Feet: Trail Running Shoes vs. Road Running Shoes

REI: Difference Between Road and Trail Running Shoes

Very Well Fit: Can I Wear Trail Running Shoes on Road

Map My Run: Difference Between Trail and Road Running Shoes Explained

Polar: How to Go from Road Running to Trail Running

Asics: Trail Running vs. Road Running

Active: Trail Running Shoes 101

Shape: Trail Running or Road Running

Kathmandu: Differences Between Trail and Road Running Shoes

Adidas: Trail Running Shoes vs. Running Shoes

Advnture: Road Running vs. Trail Running

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