Rather than invest in a pair of trail running shoes, you may have wondered if road running shoes would do the trick. After all, why spend the extra cash if you can get away with road running shoes that you already use?
You can wear road running shoes on the trail, and you won’t see a big difference on a simple trail. However, you may struggle on the more challenging terrain-based trails with mud and loose gravel since trail shoes have more support and protect you from slipping.
When Trail Running Shoes Make Sense
In many cases, road running shoes will do fine on a non-technical trail, but you do have situations where you might want to bring along trail running shoes. For example, if you only plan to run a trail every once in a while, then road running shoes will work just fine.
If you plan to trail run three to four times per week or even once a week, you may want to invest in a good pair of trail shoes.
Trail running shoes will have features designed to protect your feet from trail running. For example, rock plates in the shoes use firm plastic or carbon fibre to protect your feet from sharp and irregular-shaped stones (see this post about using road shoes on trails). Running on wet trail surfaces is more treacherous for those with road running shoes.
I’ve known many people who would run in regular road running shoes, however, and they performed fine as long as the trail didn’t become too technical. Injury prevention is a lot of the point of trail running shoes. Trails are infamous for causing twisted ankles. Running on uneven terrain without the proper gear increases the risk. If you suffer an injury while running, it can set you back in your progress.
Outside of injury protection, trail running shoes were designed to grip softer surfaces. They often use stickier rubber for the outsole. On hard pavement, trail running shoes will have this worn away faster since it provides less shock absorption.
What is the Difference between Road and Trail Running Shoes?
Road running shoes provide better shock absorption since hard pavement has little forgiveness. They will have a smoother sole because of less need for traction on pavement. Instead, you need good cushioning and support to run on pavement because wearing worn-out running shoes can trigger knee problems over time through continual pressure on the knees.
The issue has become so prominent that doctors have even coined a term called Runner’s Knee. This injury happens from overuse of the knees and affects 30 percent of female runners and 25 percent of male runners. Trail running isn’t as hard on the knees because of the softer surface. You can still have problems, but it lessens the issue slightly.
A good pair of trail running shoes will have lugs or studs to grip the soft ground better, but the depths of the lugs will depend on what kind of trail running they were meant for.
Not all of this will be as straightforward as it looks. Some trail running shoes have extra cushioning, and some road running shoes have less cushioning. The cushioning depends on the shoe brand as much as the type of shoe.
It works the same way as how running shoes will last from 300 to 500 miles, but you have some pairs that might last only 150 to 200 miles. The type of shoe doesn’t matter as much as the brand. This variation is fine because what one runner thinks of as comfortable would be a nightmare run for the next.
Why Do I Need Trail Running Shoes?
You don’t need trail running shoes if you only plan to trail run once in a while, but I strongly recommend them if you plan to make it part of your regular running routine.
Trail running shoes have a unique feature meant to protect runners. For example, if you run a lot of areas with stones, grit and vegetation, you can buy trail running shoes with a stone guard feature, which stops stones and grit from getting into your shoes.
Road running shoes were meant for flat surfaces with little variation and a high level of repetition. The trail has less uniformity of the terrain, and you may even run on uneven terrain. This will require a more technical lacing system for greater comfort.
Trail running shoes come in handy for the following scenarios:
- Downhill trail running that requires a strong grip
- Muddy trails with uneven terrain
- Lots of sharp rocks on a trail
- Running on trails in a wet climate where you’re more likely to slip
- Ungroomed trails with more challenging terrain
On a less technical trail, you can run with road running shoes without a problem and not see too much of a difference, but they come in handy for a lot of trail running scenarios.
Can You Use Trail Running Shoes on the Road?
Technically, you could use trail running shoes on the road, but they may wear away much faster since the sole wasn’t designed for hard pavement. They made it from a stickier rubber meant to grip the trail better.
Trail running shoes don’t have as much cushioning in the upper midsole to allow for shock absorption. For that reason, I can’t recommend them for runners who have problems with their knees since this could worsen knee problems.
The other point to be made here is how trail running shoes often cost more than a pair of road running shoes because of their more complex design. Why would you want to use them on the road? If you plan to do more road running, it makes more sense to buy road running shoes. Some people do run trail running shoes on the road, however.
How to Choose a Pair of Trail Running Shoes
First, I would look at the lugs and the soft rubber. Large lugs and soft rubber wears down faster on pavement, which would make them a poor choice for use with both. Many experienced trail runners also say to shop with your feet, not your eyes. Try on a bunch of shoes to see what fits the best for you. Every trail runner will have a different preference.
For the more rocky terrain, you will want trail runners with toe guards and durable uppers. Look for trail shoes with extra protection since this terrain can beat up your feet. A good grip will also be essential since a fall on rocks is no one’s idea of a good time.
Consider where you will run. In a state like Arizona, for example, where the terrain is rocky and insanely technical, you want a pair of shoes that can handle dry and rocky terrain. Your choice depends on where you will trail run.
Finally, trail running shoes should feel snug around the heel and arch to prevent lifting.
If you occasionally have to run on a treadmill (like due to the weather), its worth considering which running shoes can be used on a treadmill.
What if I Can’t Afford Trail Running Shoes to Run on Trails?
Let’s say that you don’t have the money to afford trail running shoes, or you only have enough money for either trail running shoes or road running shoes—you can only choose one. In that case, I recommend that you buy for the main type of running that you plan to do. For example, if you do road running 70 percent of the time and trail running 30 percent of the time, I recommend buying road running shoes. You might target the less extreme trails, such as those that were brushed off.
I have heard of people who wear road running shoes for trails and they do fine. The biggest thing is that you won’t have a shoe made for trail running, which may make it slightly harder. Your road running shoes may also break down faster because they weren’t meant to handle the abuse in the wilderness. They designed them for a different type of running. Trail running shoes tend to be a little tougher when used in their environment. They don’t break down as easily. Wearing the right type of shoe will simply make for a more enjoyable experience when out running.
If you wanted to use road running shoes on the trails, you could get away with it, but having a good pair of trail running shoes will make the experience more enjoyable. Some trails wouldn’t pose a problem because they resemble a road in many cases. Much of this depends on where you plan to go trail running.