Trail running and road running are so fundamentally different that they could be considered entirely different sports. The smooth, hard road could not be further removed from the softer, more rugged trail. But what if you want to engage in both forms of running?
First, let’s ask ourselves… Are trail running shoes good for road running? Yes, the less aggressive models of trail running shoes are good for road running and can be used on both mediums quite seamlessly. As long as your trail running shoes provide ample support for your feet on the harder surface of the roads, then you can use them for road running. You’ll also want to steer clear of trail running shoes with an extreme amount of traction/over sized lugs. There are many models of trail shoes that work great on both surfaces.
For those of us who like to alternate between the two, there are hybrid running shoes that are suitable for both the roads and trails, and we will feature our top picks below.
Trail vs Road Running Shoes – Key Differences
Trail running shoes offer longer, thicker lugs on the outsoles that promote far better traction on a variety of different terrains. You will need those soles to be able to cling to slippery, wet surfaces, and to plow your way through mud and bogs. Road running shoes offer a smoother and harder outsole that promotes sleek transitioning from heel to toe.
But just a word of caution on your shoe choice. It is best to avoid the roads if you are wearing extreme trail shoes with aggressive soles. You may find the long traction lugs are conducive to hot spots developing on the balls of your feet. The extra pressure could even lead to other issues such as blisters, and in extreme cases, plantar fasciitis.
Not only that, but you can wear out the lugs quicker if you do too much road running. It will decrease the overall life expectancy of your shoes and reduce grip efficiency on the trails.
As the roads are harder, road running shoes require extra cushioning to provide the necessary protection for the feet and legs. They tend to enhance the drop between the heels and the balls of your feet, creating a rocking motion that is designed for forward momentum. It also takes pressure off your feet and ankles.
Trail running midsoles are stiffer and often feature rock plates. They are simply added layers of plastic that protect the soles of your feet from jagged rocks and dangerous debris.
Your trail shoes are going to offer a lot of extra protection here – from things like sharp rocks and sticks – and will therefore be a little bulkier. They may also feature some extra protection around the toe box region in the form of reinforced materials. Road running shoes will be made of more lightweight and breathable materials.
“Hybrid” trail running shoes
Just as there are hybrid bicycles that bridge the gap between the mountain and the road, so too is there a hybrid shoe that seamlessly switches between pavement and trail. The challenge is to build a shoe with enough cushion to protect the runner from high-impact pavements, without taking away too much of the ‘feel’ and responsiveness that is necessary when negotiating trickier sections of trail.
The challenge is to find a balance between smooth outsoles for comfortable running on the flat, while still providing enough traction on those slippery trails. Here are three of our favorite hybrid trail running shoes on the market:
HOKA Challenger ATR 5
The ATR part of the name stands for all terrain, and for good reason. This well-regarded shoe features 4mm lugs that are spread evenly over the outsole. This means they provide more than enough traction on slippery terrain without getting in the way when you turn to the tarmac.
Without detracting from trail stability, the over-sized EVA midsole absorbs impact points and provide excellent cushioning for those long miles on the pavement. The upper features dual layers of mesh that protect your feet while still keeping the shoes breathable.
- Good value for money
- Great cushioning midsole
- Features a textured TPU toe reinforcement for better toe protection and durability
- The soles don’t stand up to extreme terrains
- The shoe can feel a little bit stiff
More info: hokaoneone.com
SALOMON Sense Ride
This is the budget-friendly version of the Hoka above, with a startlingly similar design to its competitor. This shoe from hiking footwear giants Salomon comes with an all-surface rubber outsole with a versatile lug pattern that affords unreal traction in wet conditions. I love that the lugs are directional.
They provide traction on the up and downhills in equal measures, while their perfect spacing and non-intrusive size will barely be noticeable when you make the switch to road.
The midsole comes with Salomon’s Vibe Technology. It is a unique system devised to reduce potentially harmful vibrations in the body while remaining super responsive. The upper mesh is durable, breathable and hugs the foot for a perfect fit.
- Budget friendly
- Comfortable cushioning
- Features directional lugs for up and downhill traction in equal measures.
- Does not perform too well on rocky trails.
More info: salomon.com
BROOKS Ghost 12
The Ghost is more traditionally a road running shoe, but because it performs so well it has forced us to consider it as a hybrid. The high-performance traction and front crash pad (essentially an integrated suspension system of shock absorbers) ensure a smooth ride through varying terrains.
The smaller lugs will provide some off-road traction, but if you are heading off onto rugged trail, then perhaps a more trail-running specific shoe is what you are after.
The mesh upper is designed to gently grip your foot for a comfortable fit. The BioMoGo DNA cushioning midsole actually adapts to your stride. What you are left with is an exceptionally clever, well designed and adaptable running shoe.
- Great value for money
- Cleverly designed for high performance
- Well cushioned and balanced for forward propulsion.
- Could use a little more room in the toe box
- Not as much traction as the other hybrids in this list.
More info: brooksrunning.com
How often should you trail run?
If you are considering taking up trail running, then you probably already engage in some form of pavement running. If this is the case, start by moving one of your weekly runs onto the trail. After you have become accustomed to this, then you can start adding more runs per week to the trail.
If you are completely new to running, then I would recommend getting into shape on easier terrain before taking this leap. Start by taking easy jogs around the block. Move it to the park and then when you start to feel fitter, try some longer-distance pavement runs.
Purchase a sports watch or use a smartphone app to record your information. Seeing the improvements in speed and therefore fitness can become an excellent motivational tool. Once you can run 3 miles at a steady pace without too much difficulty, I think you are ready to upgrade to the trails!
Is trail running good for marathon training?
Trail running can be a useful addition to your marathon training schedule. Letting loose over the varying terrain of the trails strengthens all the little muscles in your feet, ankles and calf muscles that are not targeted while road running. Over time, this will lead to improved forward efficiency, which will go a long way to completing your next (or first) marathon.
It will also take the strain off the larger muscles in your legs that do a lot of work.
Trail running also offers a chance to run on soft ground, which reduces the impact on your muscles, joints and tendons. Combine the trail with one of your active recovery runs. Ignore the time on your watch – trail running is always going to be slower than on the road – and instead enjoy the naturally shorter strides, moving at a steady pace and putting your muscles through the motions.
Are trail runs harder? (than road/sidewalk runs)
This will vary from runner to runner based upon preference, but there is a school of thought that trail runs are actually easier than pavement pounding. As well as the softer surfaces and the less impact that goes with it, there are other things to consider. Trail running is more of a full body workout.
There is little point trying to run up a steep, slippery incline, so trail runners can hike these sections. They can use their arms to help with the scramble and core muscles to help lift. This also limits the repetitive impact that can be the cause of injuries for road runners.
The other school of thought is that trail running is actually harder because it utilizes so many different muscles, and because you are forced into so many more balance related situations. It could be argued that trail running is harder if you are not used to it. Either way, trail runners and road runners are likely to have different answers to the above question.
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As a travel writer and photographer, Gordon spent the better part of 2018 visiting 13 different countries as far apart as Chile, Morocco and Vietnam. He is in New Zealand in 2019, writing a third travel book, while exploring pretty much anything that forms a bump on the Earth’s surface.