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Trail Running vs Road Running Shoes: What’s the Difference?

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Saucony Peregrine 7 While road running has continued to be a mainstay in the running community, more and more amateur runners are exploring trail running for the first time as well. Trail running offers runners the opportunity to negotiate uneven surfaces and off-road paths like mud, dirt or sharp rocks. Trail runners can expect to encounter a variety of surfaces from trails, roads, creeks, and mountainous, rocky paths. Road running, on the other hand, typically feature even surfaces on clearer pathways.

As a result, the running footwear one chooses to wear on either trail running or road running is immensely important to protect your feet. Either type have specifically different features designed for either trails or roads. For example, trail running shoes focus on protection from debris and offer wide soles with prominent lugs to provide traction and stability on uneven surfaces. Road-running shoes, on the other hand, focus on breathability and ensuring runners are offered a combination of responsiveness or impact protection. Below, we evaluate the true differences and similarities of both. Specifically, we focus on the upper, outsole, and cushioning comparison of the road and trail running shoes.

Upper

Trail

Trail running shoes for hiking typically feature a synthetic mesh upper with strategic structural overlays made of synthetic materials. The combination of synthetic mesh and structural overlay provides protection from the elements, while also maintaining flexibility for agility and running long distances. These elements allow random debris during hiking and running to bounce off the upper of the shoe. For instance, the Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 4 features a breathable flymesh upper highlighted by a protective tongue to keep debris from sliding into the runner’s shoe during runs.

Trail running shoe uppers also feature a pronounced and stably structured heel counter for use in unstable lateral movements. The heel counter on trail running shoes will also keep wearers in their shoes during downhill runs. The heel counter will offer additional protection as runners kick up dirt and rocks during runs. The Saucony Peregrine 7 is a great example of a protective, yet well-constructed heel counter. On the Peregrine 7, Saucony designed the heel counter to keep the runner securely in the shoe while ensuring it does not dig into the runner’s foot during runs.

Trail running shoes have an interesting relationship with reconciling between breathability and waterproofing. Therefore, it is important for trail runners to think carefully about how they intend to use the trail running shoe and more importantly, in what environments they envision using the shoes. For those who will focus more on wet conditions or creeks and shallow rivers, we recommend finding an upper with a waterproofing or resistant upper. For instance, the North Face Ultra 110 GTX features a Gore-Tex waterproof upper for water-resistant protection during runs. These shoes also feature lugs specifically designed to handle wet or moist conditions as well.

For use during running in warmer climates, trail runners should focus on breathability. Trail running can be a heat-intensive, sweat-inducing experience and breathable uppers can make the experience infinitely more enjoyable. For these trail runners, we recommend focusing on breathable mesh uppers that allow for moisture wicking and airflow. For instance, the Salomon Sense Ride trail running shoes feature a breathable mesh upper, while still offering some moderate protection from debris.

Trail running shoes also feature a reinforced toe area to guard against getting caught in between mountain crevices during hiking or come in contact with various branches during running. Sturdy toe reinforcements also help in prolonging the wear of the shoe when it will be in constant contact with the elements. Trail running shoes also offer significantly more room in the toe box area than their road running counterparts. For instance, the Altra Olympus line consistently features a roomy toe box for comfort on uneven surfaces. Roomy toe boxes are particularly important in trail running shoes as narrow or tight shoes can risk injury while navigating uneven surfaces.

Unlike road running shoes, trail running shoes will typically employ a more secure and protective lacing system. For instance, some feature a unique hybrid between a traditional and Ghillie lacing system. A Ghillie lacing system features material as lace loops instead of using punched holes. Others offer quick lace systems allowing the shoe’s tongue to provide ample protection. These lacing systems are designed to offer the runner additional forefoot protection as various elements can strike the runner’s foot. For instance, the La Sportiva Helios will typically offer a Kevlar lacing system to provide additional protection to the runner.

Trail running shoes also offer a padded tongue for additional protection atop the foot. Some feature a gusseted padded tongue or a wrap feature designed to keep the runner locked into the shoe. For instance, the New Balance Vazee Summit offers a wrap-around-like tongue to keep the runner secure. However, tongues on trail running shoes also require a decent amount of flexibility for a variety of foot positions as runners will often find themselves in different situations on uneven surfaces.

Road

Like trail running shoes, road running shoes also feature synthetic materials designed to move with the runner with strategic overlays to provide some lockdown and security. Most road running shoes, however, do not prioritize protection from elements or debris. Instead, most road running shoes focus on breathability as the main feature. In fact, even budget road running models offer this as a core component of the shoe. Therefore, any structural overlays are designed to keep and maintain fluid flexibility for the runner without inhibiting movement. In fact, the most unsuccessful running shoes are the ones that almost always offer a rigid or unforgiving upper. This is an expected feature for road running shoes.

Breathability is important for road running shoes as runners will typically run in warmer climates and will sweat as well. Breathable uppers allow moisture wicking and an overall more comfortable run. Additionally, road running shoes are not only offered in synthetic or engineered mesh. Due to their focus on flexibility, road running shoes can be offered in other forms such as knit based uppers. For instance, the Nike Lunarepic series promoted an extremely comfortable and breathable flyknit upper that maintained its shape while providing a secure ride. This makes road running shoes not only a popular choice for runners, but also for casual wear as well. It also increases their versatility as well over trail running shoes as road running shoes can be worn casually.

While both road and trail running shoes place a premium on lockdown through midfoot cages and lacing systems, road running shoe uppers also feature other elements that are designed to keep the runner both safe and comfortable on runs. For instance, road running shoes offer reflective patterns to keep the runner visible during nighttime runs. They also offer bootie constructions and semi-rigid heel counters as well. All of these elements are designed to keep the runner comfortable on level or fairly even surfaces.

Traction

Trail

The sole of the shoe is one of the most distinguishing characteristics between two. Trail-running shoes, similar to road running shoes, focus on grip and maintaining the runner close to the ground. In trail-running shoes, however, the grip is focused on digging into the ground to minimize slippage and ensure a steady take-off. Trail-running can be extremely demanding on a shoe’s traction and has certain requirements for maintaining grip on uneven surfaces.

The most distinguishing characteristic of trail running shoes is spaced lugs designed to shed dirt, mud, and other debris as well as dig into uneven surfaces. In most cases such as the Nike Terra Kiger, the outsole lugs are formed in a waffle pattern evenly spaced out with enough room to keep debris from getting stuck. In higher-end models such as the Salomon Speedcross, the lug depth and material tend to be more prominent to offer more traction support.

Similar to higher end running shoes such as the Hoka One One Vanquish 3, higher end trail running shoes will feature carbon rubber compounds resistant to extreme wear. The Hoka One One Challenger ATR offers carbon rubber lugs that are both durable and aggressive in various terrains. These lugs also tend to hold up against getting stuck in between rock crevices with no risk of breaking off. These compounds also have a decent amount of tackiness to maintain a grip on a variety of surfaces from slippery rocks to muddy inclines.

However, prominent lugs limit trail running shoes to certain situations. For instance, while trail running shoes are ideal for uneven and trail surfaces, they are typically useless on road surfaces. Additionally, the lugs may cause instability on firm flat surfaces. As a result, many choose hybrid models such as the Nike Wild Trail or the Salomon Sense Pro for running on both trails and roads, which is more typical.

Another aspect of traction on trail running shoes is the added protection in the sole unit through a dedicated rock plate. Rock plates provide additional protection from extremely jagged or pointed services that traditional rubber outsoles cannot. While these rock plates cannot protect the user from nails or spikes, they do provide a good amount of protection from other sharp surfaces. However, the downside with rock plates is that they limit some sole flexibility. While some cheaper trail running shoes will forgo the rock plate out of cost, they do increase the flexibility of the shoe overall. Higher end models such as the Brooks Cascadia 12 and the Salomon Sense Mantra 3 will feature a rock plate for hardcore outdoor enthusiasts.

Road

While trail running shoes focus on keeping the runner stable on uneven surfaces, the traction of road running shoes focuses less on stability and more on speed and grip on even surfaces and overall durability. Trail running shoes feature lugs to shed mud and debris from trail running. Road running shoes instead feature a traction pattern focused on maintaining a grip on even surfaces. As a result, road running shoes feature ridges in a variety of patterns that typically mimic the runner’s foot. They are designed to maximize traction in high impact areas and then transition the runner to an effective toe-off position.

Road running shoe outsoles are also offered in a number of different rubber compounds. Cheaper budget models are offered in normal rubber compounds while other brands such as the Adidas Ultra Boost offer a continental rubber outsole to enhance durability and traction. These rubber outsoles are also offered in a variety of different thickness depths. Some thicker models focus on impact protection while thinner rubber outsoles focus on responsiveness.

Road running outsoles also enhance its versatility as a running, gym, or casual shoe as well. While even hybrid trail running shoes feature outsoles with some type of tech intended for trails, road running shoes only focus on comfort, grip, and balance. As a result, road running shoes are popular for a number of different activities. For instance, many will often purchase road running shoes for orthopedic support during normal walking and standing. For instance, Brooks and Asics are often popular choices for walking shoes partly due the grip and stability they offer walkers.

Like trail running shoes, road running shoes also focus on flexibility for the outsole as well. The flexibility allows the runner to seamless transition through their normal gait. Unlike trail running shoes, road running shoes do not need protection from the elements. As a result, they can focus on ensuring the runner has enough impact protection and comfortable transition particularly for heel or midfoot strikers.

However, most road running shoes typically fail to perform well in slippery conditions. In fact, in most shoes we have reviewed, we found this to be a consistent con for road running shoes. Simply, the design and rubber compound do not maximize the tackiness in moist conditions.

Cushioning

Trail

Like road running shoes, trail running shoes offer a variety of cushioning systems based on the runner’s needs. However, cushioning is typically offered in three distinct setups: barefoot or minimal, moderate or medium, and maximalist. Each of these cushioning systems offers different forms of protection and performance for runners. Therefore, there is not a one size-fits-all option.

Similar to the road running minimalist movement, trail running shoes are also offered in barefoot or minimalist offerings. Both offer better ground feel but with trail running shoes, they offer better ground feel for uneven surfaces capitalizing on the foot’s flexibility to stabilize the runner throughout the trail. This allows runners to navigate trails nimbly, while still being able to stay anchored to the ground. Models such as the North Face Litewave and the New Balance Minimus offer a minimal outsole promoting ground feel and responsiveness.

Minimalist trail running shoes are typically for advanced trail runners with the adequate foot strength to handle lack of cushioning and correction. These runners like to feel uneven surfaces so they can adjust accordingly as they work their way through off-road conditions.

Moderate or medium cushioning offers some EVA or other foam-based cushioning systems with a blend between responsiveness and impact protection. This is the most common setup for trail and road running shoes. These systems allow trail running shoes to offer more protection than minimalist trail running shoes from twigs, branches, and rocky surfaces. It also offers a decent amount of cushioning to make trail runs a comfortable experience for runners.

Moderate or medium cushioning systems are typically found in budget models since EVA foam midsoles are relatively simple to construct while offering enough features for the runner. These cushioning systems also offer a decent amount of flexibility during runs. Some models will place rock plates in these cushioning systems to offer additional protection as well.

These cushioning systems are most popular for runners trying out trail running for the first time or for those who anticipate wanting both cushioning with responsiveness. These systems also tend to be more cost-effective than the other two systems as well. Lastly, moderate cushioning systems are perfect for those that anticipate a mix between trails and roads as they offer a good amount of performance for both. For instance, the Altra Lone Peak line offers a great combination of responsiveness and cushioning while trail running.

Road

Road running shoes are also offered in multiple cushioning styles to fit the needs of the runner. Similar to trail running shoes, road running shoes are also offered in a minimalist, moderate, and maximum cushioning systems. Also similar to trail running shoes, these cushioning setups are focused on providing both performance and protection for runners.

Like trail running shoes, most road running midsoles are comprised of EVA molds that allow for flexibility, durability, and impact protection. These midsole materials are highly moldable and will allow the running brand to design to fit the overall running profile and intent of the shoe. However, the downside of these midsoles is that they tend to compress over a period of time and will flatten after high-mileage usage. Additionally, compared to other setups available, EVA midsoles in road running shoes provide some comfort but more and more runners are opting for plush cushioning systems available in newer TPU based midsoles such as the Saucony Everun.

Minimalist cushioning systems for road running shoes focus on providing the runner with less feel on uneven surfaces and more on providing responsiveness on road surfaces. This allows runners to feel road surfaces and ensure a confident forefoot landing and takeoff. These cushioning systems typically feature a minimal cushioning exemplified through either low midsole depth or firm cushioning with low profiles and offset. Like trail running shoes, we typically see more advanced runners utilize minimal cushioning systems as they have both the mechanics and foot strength to navigate a lower cushioning profile.

Moderate cushioning systems are typically found in both budget or neutral road running models. These cushioning systems focus on providing a combination of responsiveness and impact protection. The firmness of these cushioning systems varies depending on the model and the makeup of the shoe. For instance, some moderate cushioning shoes are offering additional cushioning features to ensure a plusher running experience. For instance, the Saucony Hurricane ISO series feature a layer of their TPU based outsole. As a result, these offerings tend to focus more on plushness and impact protection. Others such as the New Balance Fresh Foam Zante V3 offer moderate cushioning systems to more closely mimic minimalist offerings with a focus on firmness and responsiveness.

Maximum road running shoes focus completely on impact protection and ensuring a plush running experience. These shoes sacrifice roads feel to focus instead on comfort. Maximum road running shoes typically display larger midsoles with an almost spongy feel during runs. Great examples of these include the Hoka One One Vanquish 3, the Asics GT-1000 6 and the Brooks Beast.

Maximum running shoes typically display the greatest difference between road and trail running shoes. These shoes place a premium on providing some corrective features for runners who tend to overpronate or require some assistance maintaining a correct gait during runs. Maximum cushioning shoes can do this by offering supreme cushioning combined with a firm medial component to keep the runner on the outside of their foot to prevent cave-ins during runs.

A final note on road running cushioning is that in recent years, more and more companies are moving toward TPU based midsole materials. Ushered in by the Adidas Energy Boost, these cushioning systems are by definition moderate and neutral. However, in feel, they are softer, more focused on impact protection than in other moderate cushioning systems. Other companies such as Under Armour and Saucony have followed suit and now offer moderate cushioning systems that are focused on plushness and comfort.

Maximum cushioning systems are also popular for beginner runners who need more comfort than speed and performance. These shoes are also great for the casual runner/ user looking for an occasional running shoe and everyday walking shoe. These shoes tend to also be popular with those with other issues such as back or knee pain as they offer maximum impact protection.

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