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What's the difference between trail running shoes and regular running sneakers? Experts weigh in

The best fit for those all-terrain trails you've been wanting to tackle.
Jordan Siemens / Getty Images

It's no secret that purchasing a new pair of sneakers requires research, time and — more often than not — money. Affordable and durable pairs are hard to come by, oftentimes making them an investment that is sure to last you for a number of miles.

Whether you're finally purchasing the 'it' running sneaker all over TikTok or simply shopping for the perfect option that will aid you on your daily treks, trail running sneakers have been slowly but surely populating the sneaker space.

But what are they? How do they differentiate from regular running sneakers? And how can you confidently shop for one?

We spoke with Rebekah Broe, the director of product performance for Hoka; vice president of footwear for Helly Hansen, Kristofer Eidsgaard; and three members of a Colorado women's running club on the different features to keep in mind when shopping for trail running shoes, as well as how they differ from other sneakers.

What are trail running shoes? | Are they different from regular running sneakers? | What are they made of? | Wear and care on muddier trails | How to choose a pair | Trail running shoes to shop | Meet the experts

What are trail running shoes?

Trail running shoes are sneakers that can be worn to exercise on different types of terrain, from gravel to paved roads, dirt and uneven paths. When compared to other sneakers, trail runners often incorporate more breathable fabrics and materials, as well as more friction and stability on the bottoms.

"You should consider getting a trail running shoe if you find yourself adventuring off-roads because they are specifically designed to provide support and stability to keep you protected" says Broe. "While a standard road running shoe may perform well on perfectly smooth trails, once you start to encounter lots of roots and rocks, you will be glad to have the support of a trail shoe."

What's the difference between trail running shoes and running sneakers?

Cushioning and ample amounts of support are important aspects to consider when it comes to deciding upon a running shoe, but so is the type of pavement you're going to be running on.

"Trail running shoes need to balance cushioning, comfort and stability in a different way than road running shoes as the uneven ground and multiple surfaces demand more consideration when designing and constructing a performance trail shoe," says Eidsgaard, vice president of footwear for Helly Hansen.

While traditional and trail running shoes might share certain features, such as carbon fiber plates (which have become more popular in recent years) or various levels of cushioning, there are modified aspects to trail runners that make them more durable for rougher terrain.

"Components of the shoe’s outsole and midsole are structured differently in a trail runner," says Broe. "Trail runners require an outsole designed with more traction and grip for the diverse terrain encountered on the trail. These attributes are provided by soft, sticky rubber and lugs laid out in special patterns to provide traction on more technical and rugged terrain."

What materials are used to make trail running shoes?

Trail running shoes need to be able to withstand the elements that they're placed in, according to Eidsgaard. Because of this, they're often made with mesh to provide a breathable layer, as well as a bellows tongue construction (which is when the tongue is attached to the upper where the laces run, rather than being a separate piece of fabric) to keep debris from entering the shoe.

It also depends on the type of trail you're running on. If you're running on rugged pavement that requires a bit more traction and stability, features such as a rock plate (plastic inserts meant to protect the feet from sharp objects that might get in) will "shield the underside of the foot from rocks and sharp objects whilst adding additional stability," emphasizes Eidsgaard.

Most trail running shoes boast how lightweight they are. Does this have an impact on how durable they are as well?

"With new construction methods and materials, there are many ways to achieve lightweight constructions whilst preserving the needed amount of protection and durability for a trail running shoe," mentions Eidsgaard.

Features specific to trail running shoes also increase durability, whether it be the materials used when crafting the shoe or accessories added on.

"Trail running shoes do feature different materials than road shoes for increased durability," suggests Broe. "...gusseted tongues or integrated gaiters also increase durability by keeping trail debris from getting inside of the shoe."

Wear and care on mud trails

After a night of constant rain, the trails you're used to running on have now become a slippery slope, now coated in mud. While regular running sneakers might not have the bandwidth to support this type of run, trail runners do.

Picking out a pair that can stand up against muddy and wet trails, as well as how you take care of them after the fact, will help maintain their longevity and condition.

When it comes to having optimal stability on a muddy, slippery trail, you really want to be sure your trail runners have a multi-directional grip system on the outsole with carefully engineered lugs that work throughout all phases of the gait-cycle," Eidsgaard notes.

In addition to lugs, Eidsgaard mentions that shoes with rock plates provide stability, as it "prevents any unnecessary lateral movement and retains the runner’s direction and energy throughout the gait-cycle."

In terms of cleaning and upkeep, it's fine to take a traditional approach — remove the insoles and run them through soap and water, scrub with a toothbrush and set them out to dry. Eidsgaard advises against setting them out to dry in the sun or near a radiator.

How to choose a trail running shoe

There are two things to keep in mind when shopping for a trail running shoe (or any running sneaker for that matter): the fit and the drop.

The fit refers to how the shoe fits your foot. Are your feet wide (forcing you to size up), or are they petite and require you sizing down? Are they tight around the edges or loose near the ankle?

The drop refers to the difference in height between your heel and your toes. When a shoe says there is a 5mm drop, for example, that means that your heel is at 5mm and your toes are most likely at 0mm. When your feet are flat on the ground, they're at zero.

These are "individual preferences," according to Eidsgaard, who recommends visiting a specialized running store to find the right pair "that best fits your needs."

For Carol Clark, member of the Colorado Columbine Women's Running Club, there is a plethora of requirements a trail running shoe must have before deciding to purchase them.

"Grippy lugs, plenty of space in the toe box, a rock plate under the forefoot, the rubber sole needs to extend up over the toe and an extra grommet near the ankle for heel lock-in lacing," she summarizes, further noting that cushion has become a more important factor to her over time.

Trail running shoes to shop

Saucony Excursion T16 Trail Running Shoe

Colorways: 1 | Sizes: 6-11, including half-sizes | Widths: Medium | Key features: Cushioned footbed, foam midsole

For all-around comfort and coverage, this Saucony sneaker has got you covered. With padding at the tongue, collar and a cushioned footbed, blisters will be a thing of the past. The carbon rubber sole works to stabilize your feet during your run, and this shoe weighs 10.1 ounces, ready for you to take flight.

Saucony Peregrine 12 Trail Running Shoe

Colorways: 3 | Sizes: 5-12, including half-sizes | Widths: Regular and wide | Key features: Made with lightweight recycled materials, has a rugged traction

This pair of Saucony shoes are Clark's go-tos when it comes to trail running because they meet "all of the requirements listed above. Plus, I can usually get a previous year's model at a decent price."

These shoes are available in both a regular and wide fit, three colors and a wide range of inclusive sizes. Saucony describes them as a light option with rugged traction for support on trails.

Brooks Running Cascadia 16 Trail Running Shoes

Colorways: 9 | Sizes: 5-12, including half-sizes | Widths: Medium and wide | Key features: Provide neutral support and all-terrain stability for trails, but specifically mountain trails

Made with a mountain trail in mind, these sneakers make trail running easy thanks to the grooves featured on the midsole. The brand promises "adaptability" while out on the trail with said grooves. Plus, a "rock shield" on the outsole helps to prevent rocks and other debris from getting stuck in the shoe and messing up your stride.

Altra Running Superior 5

Colorways: 5 | Sizes: 5-12, including half-sizes | Widths: N/A | Key features: Incorporates six of Altra's trademarked design features, including cushioning, foam inserts and lugs on the outsole

With a whimsical bottom that resembles a paw, these trail running shoes are outfitted with a number of Altra's trademarked features, such as their Quantic foam, which is a lightweight foam that sits at the midsole, as well as Trailclaw, that features both jutted and conclave jugs for traction and preventing debris.

Salomon Ultra Glide 2 Trail Running Shoes

Colorways: 4 | Sizes: 5-11, including half-sizes | Widths: N/A | Key features: This lightweight shoe features the maximum amount of cushion this brand has to offer, making your runs feel more comfortable, especially on rocky roads

Melissa Hoskins, president of the Colorado Columbines Women's Running Club, believes there are four factors that go into selecting a trail running shoe that one should measure: "Durability, stability, grip and comfort."

With that in mind, Hoskins switches between these Ultra Glide shoes and Nike for her road shoes. This pair from Salomon is available in four colors, and the brand notes that it's best for two to three runs per week on mixed terrain.

REI Co-op Swiftland MT Trail Running Shoes

Colorways: 3 | Sizes: 6-11, including half-sizes | Width: N/A | Key features: Made with mostly recycled materials and provide extra security for your ankles thanks to the higher upper fabric

After selling this type of sneaker for years, REI decided to throw its hat in the ring and create their own trail running shoe. With a foot opening that resembles a sock (aka easy to slip on and off), this shoe also features moderate cushion, meaning your feet will feel supported on even the rockiest of roads.

Recycled elements make up this shoe, with everything from the shoelaces to the rubber on the bottom being made with at least some percentage of recycled materials. These sneakers also weigh a little under 1.3 pounds, meaning they won't drag you down.

Altra Lone Peak 7 Trail Running Shoes

Colorways: 8 | Sizes: 5.5-12, including half-sizes | Widths: Regular | Key Features: Altra notes that this is their bestselling trail shoe, most notably due to its ability to stabilize runners while on-the-go

This shoe features a plethora of Altra's trademarked features, including Altra EGO foam, meant to provide both comfort and support during your run and a MaxTrac outsole that pairs traction with grip to give you a stable run. Outfitted with mesh, they'll prove to be waterproof and breathable to battle against sweat and any creek you choose to skip over.

Lululemon Blissfeel Trail Running Shoe

Colorways: 5 | Sizes: 5-12, including half-sizes | Widths: N/A | Key features: Allows runners to move from road-to-trail seamlessly, thanks to the rubber sole that provides ample traction

Padding surrounds the ankle of these Lululemon shoes, making it easy to slip-on and go, while also preventing blisters. These shoes were designed with women in mind, making them crafted specifically with petite, light feet in mind.

The brand recommends that those with wide feet size up a half size. Weighing in at just shy of 10 ounces, the springy cushion promises to keep your feet light and airy during a run.

Nike Zegama Trail Running Shoes

Colorways: 4 | Sizes: 5-12, including half-sizes | Widths: N/A | Key features: An increased height in the heel of the shoe provides an abundance of cushioning

For out-of-the-box, eye-catching designs and colors, opt for Nike's Zegama. A lightweight yet heightened midsole helps to cushion your strides as you make your way through dirt paths, and the lug pattern on the bottoms help to grip the ground and ensure traction as well.

Hoka Challenger 7 GTX

Colorways: 3 | Sizes: 5-12, including half-sizes | Widths: N/A | Key features: This lightweight trail runner provides "plush" cushion, protecting your feet and knees during runs

A well-known and loved brand, Hoka's trail running shoe features a platform stack that sits higher than the last edition of these shoes (now offering more plush cushioning than before). From the fabric to the shoelaces, this shoe is made out of recycled materials.

Crafted with GORE-TEX, the brand promises fast drying times — perfect for running on hiking paths and through puddles. They're also ultra light, weighing in at exactly seven ounces.

Hoka Tecton X 2

Colorways: 3 | Sizes: 5-11, including half-sizes | Widths: N/A | Key features: Carbon fiber plates help this trail running sneaker stand out among the rest, which helps to ensure that the shoe isn't flimsy or unstable

These trail running sneakers are Gayle Zorilla's favorite, another member of the Colorado Columbines Women's Running Club. Depending on what she's training for, Zorilla will usually log about 25 to 40 miles per week, ranking up to about 300 miles per pair of shoes.

These have become her favorite because "they are lightweight, cushioned, have adequate and effective tread and they give me a "push off" feeling as I run in them yet they are not bulky as some prior Hoka models have been," she mentions.

Meet the experts

  • Carol Clark, Melissa Hoskins and Gayle Zorilla are three of the 140 members of the Colorado Columbines Women's Running Club. Members of this group have run everything from ultra-marathons to 5k's, on every type of terrain, from paved roads to dirt paths.
  • Rebekah Broe is the director of product for performance footwear at Hoka. She's hands-on in the process of creating new shoes and ensuring customer feedback is heard within new products.
  • Kristofer Eidsgaard is the vice president of footwear for Helly Hansen, an outdoor apparel company that specializes in gear meant to take on the elements.