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Is a Triathlon Shoe or Road Shoe right for me?

Is a Triathlon Shoe or Road Shoe right for me?
April 4, 2019 Nick Seitz
tri shoes vs road shoes

Is a Triathlon Shoe or Road Shoe right for me?

As a triathlon shop, we often get the question “what’s the difference between a triathlon shoe and a road shoe?” It’s a good question, and the differences may not be immediately obvious. Try wearing a running shoe while biking and you’ll intuitively understand that is not the shoe you’re looking for while riding. However, if you wear a road shoe and a tri shoe back to back, you might not even realize the difference.

There are certainly differences between the two types of shoes. There’s not a chasm of difference by any means. If you have a budget or a preference which pushes you towards one style, by all means, wear that shoe.

However, it’s certainly good to understand the differences and make an informed decision. If you’ve got a sharp eye, you may notice pros in long distance Ironman or Half distances wearing road shoes. If the pros opt for a road shoe, there are reasons you might want to as well.

Let’s dive in then!


First, let’s talk what the shoes will almost certainly have in common.

They are both bike shoes, first off. If you’re entirely unfamiliar, it’s important to know that key focus for these types of shoes are stiffness and retention.

  • Stiffness comes from the material of the sole, typically either carbon fiber or a nylon composite. It allows efficient power transfer between the rider’s force and the pedal system, on down through the drive train, and so on. If you’ve ever biked in flexible street or running shoes, you’ll know that you lose control and power without stiffness. Both tri and road shoes will be stiff in the soles.
  • Retention is the ability of the pedal and the shoe to attach. This can be very daunting for a new rider, but the benefits are huge! From old school “cage” systems (or clips, as they were known) comes the “clipless” system. Even though we are “clipping in”, modern shoes and pedals lack any sort of clip going over the front of the shoe, hence “clipless”. Triathlon and road cycling shoes almost universally will use clipless foot retention.

Both shoes will also have some kind of closure system, of course. While some mountain biking shoes may have laces or ratcheting straps, tri and road shoes will opt for either BOA closure systems or velcro- sometimes both, and in varying numbers, but they will both obviously tighten and secure on your foot.

Those are the main common points- let’s talk differences.

Triathlon Shoe

Triathlon shoes are optimized for quick entry- pure and simple. They incorporate several features which aid in quick entry and exit:

  • Large, velcro closure. Easy to grab, easy to fasten down, and easy to get going.
  • Divided tongue across the upper virtually eliminates the chance that you’ll fold the tongue under your foot.
  • Huge heel loop gives you an easy point to grab and pull heel back.

Additionally, there are several triathlon-specific adaptations for comfort:

  • Mesh upper which allows airflow over the foot. This helps your foot dry out after exiting the swim.
  • Softer internal fabrics and padding which makes the shoe more comfortable when not wearing socks.
  • Points for drainage in the bottom of the shoe to aid in water clearing if you come in especially wet.

These are the main points that you’ll see on almost every triathlon shoe. While triathlon shoes are very similar to road shoes, there are several points that make them the optimal choice for short-course athletes. If you practice a flying mount, or just want to get your shoes on fast in transition, the tri shoe is for you.

Road Shoe

Road shoes are optimized typically for stiffness, total fit, and comfort over long distances. Long distance triathletes may decide to trade the seconds they may save in transition for the minute or more they will save on the course with a perfectly fitting shoe.

Road shoes vary in their closure system, but check out the video above to see the Shimano RC7 which uses a BOA closure system. I’ll touch on a few points which make this shoe special:

  • BOA dials allow precise dialing in of tension, along with several routing option to adjust to foot contours.
  • Deeper heel cup ensure that the heel is completely secure and does not move within the shoe. This is another important aspect of power transfer.
  • Closed, smooth upper improve aerodynamics and also make the shoe more comfortable in colder weather.

The road shoe does not need to be considered in contrast to the triathlon shoe as much as it is a shoe optimized for a certain type of racing, and the tri shoe is optimized towards a different type.

The bottom line? Preference, basically.

No matter what type of shoe you choose to race in, a modern pedal / shoe combo will do wonders for you. By lowering rotational weight, making the system stiffer, and reducing friction, you will improve overall pedaling efficiency and form. It’s important to ensure that your shoes fit you and will not hurt after any amount of time, so you’ll want to try on both a triathlon and road shoe before committing to one.

Additionally, make sure to practice what you plan to race in. Especially in an event like triathlon which requires an apparel change mid-race, comfort with your equipment is vital.

We want to help you get fit right!

In the shop, we carry Shimano shoes. Our staff are trained by Shimano reps to get you sized for the right shoes. We also generally stock a full size run of both men and women’s road and tri shoes. We also can order anything from Shimano’s catalogue for you, transfer cleats, and honor Shimano’s fit guarantee.

Our fitter Andrew Wolak is also available for consult on all fit related items on an hourly basis. If you’d like to weigh your options, talk insoles, address specific injuries or anatomical concerns, or fine tune your cleat and pedal position, Andrew is your guy. Cleat positioning is also addressed with the rest of your bike fit in a full fit, so that is an option to consider as well!

What’s your Experience?

Do you strongly favor triathlon shoes or road shoes for your racing? Leave a comment below. We’d love to hear from you if you found one worked particularly well, or there was an aspect of one shoe you weren’t expecting! Also, if you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me! [email protected]

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