Trail Running Shoes vs. Running Shoes

running shoes closeup

With so many types of shoes, one would think that focusing with a simple ‘running shoe’ category would be enough. However, that is not quite the case.

Within the category ‘running shoes,’ you’ll find plenty of subsections dedicated to different types of running.. 

Whether you are a trail runner or keep to the pavement or sidewalk, the shoes you choose can significantly impact your feet’s comfort and the quality of your runs.

The Misconception

‘Running shoes’ is a widely used descriptor for any running-related shoe. However, it can be a little more involved than that.

Not all types of ‘running shoes’ are the same, and the difference is more important than you may think.

A lot of the time, the term ‘running shoes’ refers to road running shoes. Trail running shoes are different because their design focuses on running on the natural ground.

Road running shoes are mainly for running on pavement and working out.

Regardless of where you plan to do most of your running, it is essential to contemplate what features will best serve you.

This consideration not only helps narrow down your choices, but it also allows you to pick a pair your feet will appreciate.

What Are the Differences?

Ideal for running on unpaved surfaces, trail running shoes have a few differences from the average running shoe. Trail running shoes have extra durability and protection from uneven terrain.

Running shoes, on the other hand, are lightweight and best with smooth surfaces. 

These distinctions are apparent when looking at the design of each shoe type.

In contrast to running shoes, trail running shoes tend to be heavier and sturdier. The primary areas where variation lies are the uppers, the outsoles, and the midsoles.

Uppers

Rather than the breathable mesh material of a running shoes’ upper, trail running shoes opt for reinforcement.

The supporting material helps to keep roots, sticks, and rocks from damaging your shoes. Lightweight uppers of a running shoe can become damaged even with just a rocky misstep.

Outsoles

Most of the extra weight of trail running shoes is in the outsoles. With a deeper tread and softer, more prominent lugs, they provide traction on various surfaces.

From grassy hills to streams and bare rock, trail running shoes can withstand wherever your trail takes you.

Running shoes prioritize speed, which means the less friction, the better. They have flat, durable, smooth soles that hit the pavement just right.

This outsole is more durable with consistent running on pavement in mind.

Midsoles

With a firm midsole, trail running shoes allow for stability on unpredictable terrain. In some styles, there is a thin, plastic, or carbon fiber plate.

This ‘rock plate’ prevents sharp objects, likely rocks, from going through the bottom of your shoe.

Running shoes typically have a soft, cushiony midsole to absorb shock while on pavement or even a treadmill.

Even so, there is ample support for trail running and running shoes for their intended purposes.

How to Choose Trail Running Shoes

Trail running shoes come with varying features. If you are looking for the right pair, it is vital to know all of your options.

Shoes for running on trails require specific features, but some are more suitable than others for different circumstances.

Waterproofing

Depending on the conditions you expose yourself to when trail running, you may want to consider a waterproof pair of shoes. Trail running shoes have waterproof and water-draining options. 

Most waterproof designs easily keep out small amounts of snow, water, or dew. This feature helps keep your socks dry but only works to keep water out of your shoes.

If you are someone who runs through deeper puddles or heavy snow, there is only so much that waterproofing can do. 

Luckily, many trail running shoes have designs that allow excess water to drain. A well-draining trail shoe is usually a safer bet, especially with unpredictable weather.

Lugs

The time of year and terrain that your shoes will experience the most will help you decide the best tread pattern. The size of the shoes’ lugs should match the surface that you run on the most. 

Shallow, closely spaced lugs help maintain a good grip on rocky or other solid terrains.

For running on the beach or anywhere with sand, medium-sized lugs will suffice, but the addition of a gaiter can help prevent the irritation of sand-filled shoes. 

Trail running shoes with a deep lug have an exceptional grip. This grip is ideal for deep mud, mostly because it lets mud release from the shoe’s base.

Overall, the lug and tread pattern on the outsole of a trail running shoe differ and should be a deciding factor.

Cushioning

Everyone seems to have different opinions about the ideal amount of cushioning needed for a trail running shoe.

With less cushioning, you have more of a feel for the terrain, but roots and small rocks can cause discomfort. On the other hand, more cushioning can pose a problem if your feet swell during a longer run.

The seasons also have an impact on the amount of cushioning that is comfortable. During the summer, more cushioning can be helpful if the ground is hard-packed.

Sand, mud, and other soft terrains allow you to have a little less cushioning, for they act as a natural cushion.

Rock Plate

Its position between the midsole and outsole allows the rock plate to act as a barrier between feet and sharp rocks or roots.

Rock plates are usually plastic or carbon fiber and are essential for stony, rocky, root-ridden trails.

Weight

Trail running shoes have great accessories that you can use to handle certain conditions better.

However, with the already weighty nature of trail running shoes, these accessories can hinder rather than help. 

Keeping weight on the lower side can also benefit in racing situations. While this is true, a small weight difference can be insignificant when it comes down to it.

Comfort level is the primary goal of a trail running shoe, and everyone has different preferences.

Drop

Shoes with high heels have what is known as a dramatic ‘drop.’ This term refers to the interior depth of both heel and toe.

Trail running shoes have varying drops, but most will have a lower drop than road running shoes.

Since drop is also a matter of preference, testing out different drop levels in the shop can give you an idea of what is most comfortable.

Keep in mind that the amount of cushioning and drop level do not have any correlation.

Support

The way that your foot sits in the shoe differs between trail running shoes and running shoes. Running shoes have fewer inner angles and, therefore, sit snugly in the shoe cradle.

Trail running shoes have more freedom to allow your feet to adapt to surface changes.

Aesthetics

Less importantly, the way your shoes look can make things easier or harder on you.

Even if you manage to find an all-white trail running shoe, the mud and dirt it picks up will only cause a headache.

Trail running shoes are either darker or have colors that embrace the inevitable grime your shoes will accumulate on trail runs.

Can You Use Running Shoes on Trails?

Something you may wonder is if you can wear your everyday running shoes on a trail. However, the answer is not as simple as a yes or no.

It depends on a few outside and personal factors.

If you have a pair of running shoes already, you can always take them on a trail for a test run.

As long as the course is smooth, relatively rock-free, and adequately groomed, running shoes can be acceptable for occasional trail running. 

You may find that trail running is what you have been missing in your running routine. In this case, a dedicated pair of trail running shoes are best.

Without the protection and support from a trail running shoe, you may have discomfort and possibly pain.

Additionally, the lack of grip is a potential danger when running on varying terrain.

Do Trail Running Shoes Affect Running on the Road?

It is entirely possible to wear trail running shoes whenever you want. Styles with a rock plate, however, are not quite so versatile.

This plate’s support can be too much for treadmills or pavement and can slow you down with their weight. 

For wearing off the trail every once in a while, opting for a trail running shoe with more responsiveness and flexibility will suffice.

Alternatively, an occasional run off the path may not warrant a whole new pair. It ultimately comes down to your running needs and intentions.

Can I Wear Trail Running Shoes on a Hike?

Since trail running shoes have a design for the same type of terrain you would experience on a hike, it makes sense to wear them while hiking.

Some hikers prefer to wear trail running shoes for their low-cut, lightweight design. 

While you can wear these shoes on a hike, it is critical to know that they are not ideal for backpacking trips or long-distance hikes.

You may find that there is not enough support and balance to handle the extra mileage and weight. If you like long walks or backpacking trips, a good pair of hiking boots is likely in order.

What About Hybrid Trail Running Shoes?

You can find a pair of hybrid shoes with trail and road running in mind. These often combine the lightweight nature of running shoes with the tread and outsoles of trail running shoes.

If the path you plan on running is debris-free and relatively flat, hybrids might be just what you need.

Find Your Perfect Shoe

Now that you know the differences between trail running and running shoes, you can invest in the ideal pair of shoes for your particular needs!

Click here for the best price and selection of trail running and running shoes.

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