Trail Shoes Versus Running Shoes – How Exactly Are They Different?

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Welcome to the world of running.

knackered runner

How strangely rewarding it is. Who would have thought that getting this hot and bothered could actually be a good thing?

That there would be such a thing as being happily tired and even a perverse sort of pride in counting the blisters at the end of a training session.

And experiencing a camaraderie, with complete strangers, with whom you have nothing else in common.

And that now, inconceivably, you even enjoy getting out of bed at 6 AM on a cold Sunday morning, to go out into the snow and rain.

runner in mankini

The running bug is a compelling one and it continues to bite at you…
…But there is just one thing bothering you…

What is the difference between a running shoe and a trail shoe?

Aren’t they both the same thing? After all, they are both worn for running.

Maybe, if you are just getting started, you might be thinking that you only need one pair of running shoes for all terrains.

Perhaps you can’t really see the need to purchase a completely separate pair of shoes, for going overland, as opposed to on asphalt and tarmac.

But you really should do. Because, even though it may seem to the untrained eye that a trail shoe is just a running shoe, by another name. it is rather more than that.

Here’s our guide to spotting the differences between a trail shoe and a running shoe – and why you should wear each one for the job it was designed to do!


peregrine 7 saucony

The number one difference between a trail shoe and a running shoe, is its soles.

Flip over a pair of trail shoes and you will immediately notice they have chunky soles, with substantial grips on them. This is because trail shoes have soles which grip to surfaces, which are not smooth asphalt.

A trail, by its very nature means going over rocky and rough terrain. The more extreme the trail you want to run, the stronger the grips need to be.

salomon speedcross sole

Whereas a straightforward running shoe is designed for wearing on the road or track.

If you are a sprinter, marathon runner or road jogger, you want a running shoe. If you are doing something like Parkrun or like beach running, you want a trail shoe.

Mixing the two up runs the risk of you skidding and landing in an undignified heap. Perhaps even getting hurt in the process.


salomon speed cross toebox

Trail shoes come with mesh uppers, which protect your feet from any dirt which blows in. Trail shoes also have toe protectors and usually also a hard plastic plate in the midsole. This makes them a bit stiffer than the more flexible running shoes.

This is to stop sharp abrasions getting through the trail shoe onto the sole of your foot and to save you from a world of pain.


trail shoe la sportiva helios

The design aspect of a trail shoe is all different. One key difference is the tongue.

Trail shoes have tongues which are gusseted, this keeps out any trail dirt and debris which might get inside.


merrell running shoes

Pick up a trail shoe in one hand, and a running shoe in the other, and almost every time the trail shoe will be the heavier of the two.

Although sometimes there may be lighter trail shoes available, it is seldom you will find a running shoe which is heavy.

The weight is a defining feature of whether something is a trail shoe or a running shoe and should be a giveaway if you aren’t sure.


new balance trail shoes

Put simply, running shoes lack the stability of a trail shoe. They are designed for different things. A running shoe is supposed to be flexible and easy for your foot to move in.

A trail shoe is designed to protect and stabilize the foot.

You are going to be running over rugged terrain on your trail. You will leap in and out of ditches and muddy puddles. Therefore, you need something to help prevent a twisted ankle.

A trail shoe has more in the way of stabilizers in it. A running shoe doesn’t usually have this feature, unless it has been designed especially for overpronators.

salomon speedcross 3 trail shoe

Trail shoes come with stronger materials, to better support the foot. They strap it down into place and prevent it from sliding from side to side.

The heels tend to fit more securely, and the toe box is designed to be wide.

If we had to pick one word to describe a trail shoe it would be chunky whereas our runners are sleek.


montrail hybrid

If only it was always that simple.

There is more to the world of trail and running shoes.

One word; hybrids.

The hybrid is just that, it is the offspring of a particularly frisky trail shoe, that got together with an amorous running shoe, in a dark and lonely locker somewhere.

This is one solution, for anyone only looking to purchase one pair of shoes or wanting a one-size-fits-all answer for their running needs.

The Weather Conditions

shoe on puddle

When we said that you shouldn’t really wear a trail shoe on the road, we didn’t mean ever.

There may be some circumstances, where actually, wearing a trail shoe on tarmac might be prudent.

For example, in the snow. Or ice, or through driving rain.

Unfortunately, a lot of running shoes are not thoroughly weatherproof. In bad weather, a trail shoe may make a lot more sense, to help you grip the road better.

Likewise, on a really hot and stifling day, maybe a decent pair of running shoes, with excellent traction, might feel better on your poor overheated feet, than a heavy pair of trail shoes will.


runner on road

The choice is ultimately yours, about how much you want to spend and what type of shoe is best for your own situation.

And whether it is trail running or straightforward road running shoes you opt for, the most important thing is that they fit properly and support your feet well.

If it is just one pair that you want to get, then perhaps a hybrid would be a sensible route to go down.

But the first and foremost thing is that your shoes are comfortable and allow you to run the distances you want to, without ever breaking your stride!