What is the difference between a road and trail shoe?

What is the difference between a road and trail shoe?

Whilst many customers now realise the benefit of owning a dedicated trail running shoe, we still frequently get asked “what’s the difference between a road and trail shoe?”. Maybe you have bought a cheap running shoe online and you’re not sure if it’s a road shoe or trail shoe or perhaps you’re wondering which shoe would be best for your needs? This article will help you to understand the real difference between a road and trail shoe and if you would actually benefit from a trail shoe.

 What is a Trail Shoe?

Trail shoe


Trail shoes are running shoes designed specifically for running off road, whether that is through forests, on bridleways, beaches or on a grassy field. If you are running off-road then you should probably be using a trail shoe; however whilst you can run almost anywhere with a trail shoe they aren’t so good at sustained road running. This is where the road running shoe is the master. This said, some trail shoes are better at road running than others, whilst some are much better kept off the road.

So there are different trail shoes?

Yes. The trail shoe category has become full of choice in recent years, so much so that there are now subcategories within the trail category:

  • Modified road shoes


As the name suggests, these are road shoes that have been modified to make them ideal for trail running. Normally the outsole is replaced with a grippier compound and deeper lugs, whilst the upper is reinforced to make it more durable and in some cases water resistant. As these contain all of the cushioning and support of a road shoe, this type of trail shoe is ideal if you are looking at doing very long runs off-road; or mixed runs of road and off-road. Some of the popular road shoes come in trail versions which is great if you get on really well with the road version, but simply want better grip.

  • Specific trail shoes

These are trail shoes that have been designed from the ground up, purely for running off-road. They generally have a lower profile and will be more stable when the going gets tough, their outsole will have been tested for vigorous trail running and multiple surfaces, they are very dynamic and may have trail specific features, such as lace pouches; toe bumpers; ripstop uppers; de-clogging outsoles etc. Whilst these are perfect for the ultimate off-road experience they are generally less cushioned and less supportive than the modified road shoe type option.

  • Lightweight trail shoes/fell shoes


This is where things get messy; literally! These shoes were born for the muddiest, messiest runs, if you are running an obstacle event such as tough mudder or need maximum grip for a muddy hill run; then look no further. Characterised by their thin midsoles, very aggressive outsoles and minimal uppers these shoes are perfectly suited to softer surfaces. Be warned, however, as thinner and lighter means much less cushioning and support, so you may end up with injuries if you venture off the soft stuff too often. While you’re here why not check the top five UK mud runs.

Do I really need a trail shoe?

  • This obviously depends on whether or not you run off-road. If you’re struggling for grip when you take your road shoes off-road, or you spend over 10% of your running off the road then you should probably consider a trail shoe.
  • Road running shoes aren’t designed to get wet and dirty and also the outsoles are designed specifically to grip on firm surfaces like pavements, so they don’t grip very well in wet, muddy or loose ground conditions.
  • Bear in mind that your biomechanics change when you run off-road, so it’s not as simple as knowing the trail shoe equivalent to your road shoes and running in them; always get a proper biomechanical assessment first.

So it’s clear that there are some big differences between road and trail shoes. Running in a trail shoe on the road will result in the outsole wearing out more quickly and you run the risk of injury from less cushioning and support. Running off-road in road shoes you will be compromising on grip and durability. This is why we always recommend using a trail shoe for your off-road running and a road shoe for your road running.

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Ryan has worked in the sports industry since 1999 and has a wealth of experience across most subjects. Ryan holds a BSc in microbiology and has studied sports physiology in great detail in his own time. His main areas of specialisation are: footwear construction, footwear technology, strength & conditioning and anatomy & physiology. He splits his 13 hours a week exercise between, Kickboxing, MMA, Crossfit, Rock Climbing and Running.