Summer’s here. Glowing aspens and winding dirt paths tempt athletes to opt for the trail rather than the road. Have at it! Trail running is a rich and rewarding experience that more people should embrace. But while you might think running is running, trails call for different gear than paved road runs. Most importantly, trail running needs a different shoe.
Trail-running and road-running shoes have a discernible difference in their look and feel. But what do those differences mean for performance? And do you really need to own a pair of both kind of shoes?
To help you make some crucial summer gear decisions, I’ve broken down the differences between road and trail running shoes.
The shoe’s upper is the material above the sole that encapsulates your foot. It’s usually made from breathable materials like polyester, nylon and mesh.
On trail-running shoes, uppers are reinforced in critical sports, like the toes, heels and the sides of the shoe. The reinforced uppers are often synthetic overlays designed to allow runners to safely run over the uneven and unpredictable terrain they encounter on the trails.
Some trail-running shoe uppers have waterproof linings or coatings to help keep moisture out. Waterproof shoes can be helpful for wet conditions, but it’s good to know when moisture gets in, the shoe won’t drain as easily as it would in non-waterproof shoes.
Some trail-running shoes feature lace pockets on the tongues and gaiter attachment points on the heels and/or toes. Runners can stuff the loops of their laces into the pockets to keep them from getting snagged on a trail’s roots, rocks or sticks. Gaiter attachment points secure gaiters, sleeves that attach to the shoe and go over the ankle to help keep out dust, mud, rocks, water and snow.
Since road running doesn’t usually put you at risk of kicking rocks or roots, road shoes have a softer upper. As a result, the average road shoe is lighter and more breathable than your average trail shoe but lacks a trail shoe’s protection against trail hazards.
The midsole is the material between the inner and outer soles of a shoe built for shock absorption, stability and cushioning.
Trail-running shoes are generally stiffer through the midsoles for support on rugged trails and uneven surfaces. The softer the midsole, the less stable you are and the easier it is to roll an ankle or take a misstep. Some trail-running shoes include rock plates between the midsoles and outsoles that add protection against sharp objects, like rocks and sticks, without taking away too much of the feel of the trail. The height of the midsoles and the drop, the height difference between the heels and toes, varies based on how the shoes are intended to perform and feel on your feet. The right amounts of cushion and drop for you are primarily based on personal preference, but your anatomy and the terrain play a part, too.
Road-running shoes don’t need the same stiffness as trail shoes, but still need to protect feet from pounding the pavement. They typically incorporate softer cushioning in the midsoles than trail-running shoes. Road shoes sometimes include features meant to improve upon running form, like medial posts on the sides of shoes that help control excessive inward or outward motion, otherwise known as pronation and supination. Trail running shoes, on the other hand, almost always tend to be neutral.
One of the most visible differences between trail and road-running shoes is in the outsole, the part of the shoe that makes contact with the ground.
Trail-running shoes have more prominent lugs for better grip over rocks, roots, and uneven trails. They dig into the softer ground of a trail. The size and pattern of the lugs vary based on the type of terrain the shoes are designed for, so it’s best to match your shoes to the surface you’ll be running on. Shoes for a muddy trail have a more aggressive lug pattern. Shoes designed for rocky terrain will have a stickier outsole, similar to climbing shoes, so you can run with confidence over granite slabs. A trail shoe’s rubber is typically softer than road shoes so that it can grab and bend around obstacles in the trail for excellent grip. The softer rubber means that running on pavement can wear the soles out more quickly than the softer surface of a trail.
Road-running shoes have flatter, less-knobby soles to create a stable, consistent surface for running on paved roads. The rubber generally holds up better to constant friction with concrete surfaces than the rubber on trail shoes.