Regardless if trails have become a second home to you or you’re just starting out on your adventures as a trail runner, we think we can agree when we say that conquering these terrains becomes much easier with the right pair of shoes. The great outdoors is ever so diverse and so is the notion of trails; from your local park to steep mountains, as long as it is natural, unpaved ground, you can consider it a trail.
This variety of ground, however, calls for adjustment when it comes to your shoes, which can often confuse runners who are looking into finding a suitable pair. There are certain factors and features to consider when it comes to trail footwear, which is why we have compiled a guide to help you answer all your questions on how to buy trail running shoes that fit your needs.
What Are Trail Running Shoes?
While in theory we know that the name of trail running shoes is quite self-explanatory, when it comes to their function, it is often difficult to distinguish them from regular running shoes. They are, after all, shoes meant for running. So, what makes trail running shoes different?
Trail shoes are made to support the feet on the uneven surfaces of trails, contrary to the paved and flat surfaces of roads. Trails can be muddy, dusty, rocky, and have obstacles that you wouldn’t typically find in road running, which is why your trail shoes need extra grip, support, and stability features. Apart from that, trail footwear are more durable than other types of running shoes, since they are made of thicker rubber and features designed for off-road conditions.
Choosing Trail Running Shoes: Assessing Your Needs
Assessing your shoe needs is the first step into the process of buying any pair of shoes. When it comes to trail running shoes, there are three main things to consider before diving into other more specific features:
Type of trail
First and foremost, you need to consider the type of trails you will be frequenting most often, as this will be an important factor that will help you decide what feature you need to look for on a trail shoe.
All types of terrain
If you plan on running on all types of trail terrains and want to buy a shoe that is more flexible, then you should be looking for a pair of lightweight, versatile shoes with shorter lugs.
Snow and ice
Trails covered in snow or ice can be quite technical and hard to run in. For tackling this difficult ground, you will need a running shoe with a thick sole and good tread, which are the parts of the shoe that contact the ground, deep lugs, and metal studs for traction.
Muddy and soft terrain
Mud and soft ground are an invitation for childlike and uninhibited fun, but if you’re not careful, some slippery accidents might occur. That is why you will need trail running shoes with an aggressive tread and deep, wide lugs.
Rough and rocky terrain
Technical trails with rough surfaces and rocks, where the obstacles are maximized, call for trail shoes that offer stability features. To stabilize the step, shoes made for this terrain will have a stiffer outsole, as well as rock plates and reinforced uppers for protection.
When choosing running shoes, it is important to have your gait analyzed before buying a new pair. The way your foot rotates for impact distribution when it hits the ground (pronation) should be taken into consideration, so you choose a shoe that supports your feet depending on whether you have neutral pronation, overpronation, or supination.
The importance of a good biomechanical fit applies to trail running shoes as well, therefore if you have a gait type that requires extra support, you should take that into account when it comes to these shoes.
Intensity of usage
Will you be running often in your new trail shoes? Or perhaps you just like the occasional trail run to get away from life in an urban setting. Deciding on how often you will use your shoes will help you rule out and consider features according to the intensity of usage for them.
For runners who like the challenge of long-distance runs and are preparing for an off-road trail race, running shoes are an important tool for speed and endurance in those long miles. If you plan on racing, choose very lightweight trail shoes, with a good level of cushioning and durable traction.
Occasional trail run
If you are more of a recreational runner, your trail shoes should be lightweight and versatile for most terrains. A good level of cushioning is nice to have, but if you will not be running long distances, it can be on the minimal side as well. Although, make sure to choose shoes that have a good grip for most terrains, and most importantly, a proper fit.
Features of Trail Running Shoes
When looking into the right trail running shoes for you, you may often come across shoe lingo that may sound unfamiliar. To help you with that, let’s break down some of the main features that are commonly listed for this type of shoe, so you can make more informed decisions on your next purchase.
Stability features are designed to offer support to the arches of the feet, especially if you are an overpronator. Depending on your needs, they can vary from neutral shoes that have no stabilizing features, to stability for moderate support, and motion control shoes for severe cases of overpronation that need maximum support.
When it comes to cushioning, preferences and stances vary from runner to runner. While some runners enjoy a more minimalist shoe cushion, others appreciate the additional support of a maximum cushion. The terrain of the trail you will be running should also be noted, as a low and moderate cushioned shoe is preferable for softer ground, whereas your feet may need more cushion for technical trails with rocks and other obstacles.
Just like with clothing made for running, breathability is an important factor for ensuring comfort in running shoes; especially after running for some miles. Your feet can get sweaty and damp, which is where breathability features come to the rescue. In most running shoes, including trail models, you will find mesh uppers that allow the shoes to breathe and drain better. However, if it is a particularly wet terrain, the mesh will often not protect you from water and moisture, which leads us to the next feature:
There is an ongoing debate whether trail running shoes can be both waterproof and breathable. However, with some of the latest designs and technologies in shoe production, we have seen it made possible. While waterproofness is not a crucial feature to have, if you are running in damp conditions or when it is likely to rain often, water-resistant uppers can be a nice addition to your trail running shoe checklist.
Good traction is perhaps one of the crucial features that a trail running shoe must have and one that differentiates it from other types of shoes for this sport. The bottom part of the shoe that contacts the ground as you run, its tread or outsole, is a determining factor when it comes to traction. There are a variety of options when it comes to traction for trail running shoes, as some are designed for slippery ground and mud, therefore have deep lugs and aggressive treads, while others used for dry and rocky trails benefit more from closely spaced and shorter lugs.
The considerable number of obstacles you may find on a trail, such as rocks, gravel, mud, or roots can all both damage your shoes and contribute to possible injuries. For this reason, trail running shoes are made of thicker rubber than usual running shoes and offer additional features to protect the feet. If you need additional protection for your trail run, look for shoes with high ankle gaiters or rock plates, which will keep debris, dust, and rocks out of the shoe.
Shoe manufacturers constantly come up with new and intricate designs of trail shoes, which can sometimes make the decision-making process for buying them even more difficult. However, we hope that this guide has made things easier and was helpful in informing you of the features to look for in a shoe depending on your needs. See you on the trail!