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What’s the Difference between Road & Trail Running Shoes?


My trail runs often start at a campground/ trailhead popular with local hikers and next to a road with a loyal running crowd. While swapping stories and talking, their eyes struggle to make out the strange names on my shoes…Altra, Hoka, LA Sportiva…The question I most hear after that is: Do I really need special shoes for trail running?

And while my first instinct may be to answer, “no, unless you want to actually make it to the summit without sliding down the mountainside”,  a more helpful thing to do is to offer some real advice.

See why you really DO need Trail Running Shoes

The answer is an emphatic yes, go get yourself some good quality, durable and comfortable trail running shoes. 

What is the difference between trail running shoes and running shoes?

Road running shoes are designed to be, in general, lightweight, responsive and able to cushion your foot against the solid road surface. Trail running shoes are designed to be, again in general, more dense, grippier, and offer your feet and ankles support and protection from the uneven ground and rocks you will encounter. 

While the soles may be the most obvious visual difference, with many trail shoes featuring deep lugs and grooves for grip, the biggest difference is structural. A well designed trail running shoe will offer just the right amount of torsional rigidity to keep your ankles and arches well supported throughout your run. Many will also offer a “rock plate” that runs along the sole to guard against stepping on rocks. 

Don’t ruin your road shoes by torturing them through the trails, and don’t wait until you kick a rock before you realize you need a bit more protection.

While you can mostly get away with wearing your road shoes on the trails without suffering any serious consequences on your typical, casual trail run, you should really move into pair of good quality trail running shoes once you get out on the trails regularly.

Does Nike make trail running shoes?

Many popular mountain running brands are on the smaller side and may be unfamiliar to many of you. Altra, Hoka One One, and others may be well known inside the mountain running community, but are still relatively unknown outside of it. 

Really, the vast array of choices in footwear can be a bit intimidating. Terms like “zero-drop” and “rock-plate” can add to the confusion instead of helping you sift through it and many of the best brands can be hard to find at a brick and mortar shop, making the online buying option also a bit intimidating.

I think that may be the reason another question I often hear is “Does Nike make trail running shoes?”  We still rely on what is familiar when we are unsure of something new (no knock against Nike – anymore – their new Wildhorse is a pretty darn good shoe!) and will naturally gravitate towards a well known brand. 

Your best option is to take the time to visit an established running store near you. Even the most bare bones shop will have trail running models from big brands like Brooks, Saucony, Addidas, Nike and others that you can explore. Once you try a few at the shop, you may want to explore more niche brands not available nearby, online. Having tried or worn a pair or two will give you more confidence to evaluate shoes you come across online.

If you want to see an example of why you need sky running shoes, take a look at this vid: Western States 100 Endurance Run

Your Connection to the Trail

Our running shoes play an even more critical role out on the trail than when you are on the road.

Your road running shoes are there to provide the appropriate level of support & comfort while you run and train. As long as we are comfortable in them, we don’t really ask too much more out of them.

It is a different story while you are out on the trail. 

Trail running shoes must do everything a road shoe does, while also providing protection & grip. 

Protection is needed for the loose rocks you will inevitably end up kicking down the trail as you run and additional grip is needed to keep you from flying off the edge of the trail as you come around a blind corner, full speed!

The brands we are highlighting the best out there in building a better shoe for the trails. They all offer the comfort, grip, durability and protection you will need while running along your favorite single track. 


Some of the best brands in trail running are still relatively unknown to many of you out there. This is partly due to the fact that trail running is still a small, but growing sport with little media coverage or support. Also, many of the largest brands are based overseas, mainly in Europe, where trail running is far more popular.