Root growth requires substantial amounts of energy and thus carbohydrates. The energy costs of root growth are particularly high in both dry and compacted soil, due to high soil penetration resistance. Consequently, more carbon must be allocated from aboveground plant tissue to roots, which limits crop productivity. In this study, we tested the utility of root cortical cell diameter as a potential selection target to reduce the energy costs of root growth. Isothermal calorimetry was adopted for in situ quantification of the energy costs of root growth of 16 wheat (Triticum aestivum) genotypes under three levels of penetration resistance. We show that cortical cell diameter is a pivotal and heritable trait, which is strongly related to the energy costs of root growth. Genotypic diversity was found for cortical cell diameter and the energy costs of root growth. A large root cortical cell diameter correlated with reduced energy costs of root growth, particularly under high soil penetration resistance. Moreover, significant correlations were found between the ability to radially enlarge cortical cells upon greater penetration resistance (i.e. phenotypic plasticity) and the responsiveness in the energy costs of root growth. A higher degree of phenotypic plasticity in cortical cell diameter was associated with reduced energy costs of root growth as soil penetration resistance increased. We therefore suggest that genotypic diversity and phenotypic plasticity in cortical cell diameter should be harnessed to adapt crops to dry and compacted soils.