As a trail runner, hitting the tarmac definitely isn’t your ideal run, but sometimes you have no choice. Perhaps you’re short on time and can’t squeeze in a drive to the hills or maybe the trails are waterlogged due to mud season. Whatever the reason, sometimes it’s either the road or the couch, and you definitely don’t want to choose the couch. But if you’re a trail diehard, you might not even own a pair of road running shoes. So can you use your best trail running shoes on the road? We cover the differences between the two, explain when you can use your trail shoes on the road and when you might want road shoes, and introduce you to the best type of running shoe for mixed terrain use.
What is the difference between road and trail running shoes?
If you own a good pair of trail running shoes, you picked them out specifically because they meet your needs on uneven, rocky terrain. As we explain in more detail in our article on trail running shoes vs running shoes, they’ve got less flex and lots of traction in the form of cleats, less cushioning and a lower drop than a running shoe, plus weather resistance. As a result, they’re going to be heavier and usually more expensive than a road running shoe, and for that reason you definitely don’t want to wear them out on the hard stuff if they’re not even appropriate for that type of running.
Road running shoes, in contrast, feature more flex and a smoother sole, plus more cushioning and a higher drop to help absorb the impact of the harder surface. They're usually lighter than your trail shoes as well. With all that in mind, it seems clear that road running shoes aren’t really robust enough to support you on tough trails, but is the same true in reverse? Does the added weight of trail running shoes plus the lack of cushioning and Achilles support mean that they won’t provide protection on the concrete?
Can you use trail running shoes on the road?
The short answer here is that, if you love your trail running shoes and you’re not doing a lot of road running, you can use them on the road. If you have extremely rugged trail shoes meant for very technical terrain, they might slow you down on the road, and it might not be worth wearing them down on the tarmac, but if your trail shoes aren’t overly aggressive, they’ll be fine for a spot of road running.
Interestingly, there are even some situations when your trail shoes will be better than your road shoes for road running, primarily if you’re running in icy, snowy or rainy conditions – here, you’ll actually benefit from the extra traction and weather protection of a trail shoe. It's worth bearing in mind that these shoes will almost certainly be heavier than your road shoes, but we’re talking an ounce or two per foot here; it’s not like running with concrete shoes.
In contrast, if you’re doing a lot of road running, interval training involving sprints, or running in hot weather, you’ll be better off with the flex, light weight and breathability of a road running shoe.
Finally, if you’re expecting mixed terrain, or just planning on mixing up your road and trail running more, we highly recommend you check out our list of the best road to trail running shoes. As the name implies, road to trail running shoes are designed for a mix of terrain, with cleats to help you keep your footing when things get rocky, but enough cushioning to absorb the force of hitting the pavement when you get back into city limits.
Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.
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