WHY TRAIL RUNNING SHOES ARE ESSENTIAL FOR OFF-ROAD SUCCESS
I have been very fortunate having grown up in the countryside with trails my standard running playground. However, when I first began guiding for Run the Wild and consistently got asked ‘do I really need trail shoes?’, I must admit at the time I was somewhat bemused how anyone would need to ask this! I am now a bit older and a bit wiser and having met so many more runners through Run the Wild, I have a far better understanding and appreciation of why this question is asked!
I already own road shoes...
Before we look at why trail shoes are so beneficial for running on trails, lets consider why a road runner may not want to dig into their pocket for new shoes:
- I already have running trainers for the road, I don’t need (or can’t afford) to spend money on a second pair
- My road shoes are really soft and comfortable to wear
- My road shoes are really light weight, trail shoes seem very heavy in comparison
- I’m confused as to what I would need, there is too much talk of drop, lug height, cushioned/minimal, rock plates, toe rand, uppers, waterproof/non waterproof, heel counter, gusseted tongue… the list goes on!
- The road shoes I like don’t have a trail shoe equivalent
- How can one trail shoe be adequate for all different types of terrain; grass, mud, rocky trails, waterlogged, slab rock, sand, chalk escarpments, hills, flat…
- Even if I go on a trail run, I usually have some sections of tarmac within that, or to get to the trails
These are all valid points, and you need to exercise some common sense, and prioritise these factors for yourself. The size of the trail shoe market will give you some indication that the perfect shoe for one person or one set of conditions, may be a poor fit for another, but let us consider for now why trail shoes are a good idea, and then how you can answer some of the above concerns.
Why you need trail shoes:
Trail shoes are not road trainers with bigger lugs. Yes, they typically do have bigger lugs, but this is only part of it. Trail shoes have to be more robust than road shoes, for the impact of running on uneven ground vs the smooth (ok…not always) surface of a road.
Further to this, whereas road running shoes are designed to protect the foot from impact through the base of the shoe, a trail shoe can provide protection for the toes and sides of the foot against errant rocks or roots.
In terms of lugs, this is quite dependent on the terrain you will more often be running on, and the time of year.
In deep mud, a trail shoe should provide maximum grip, while also releasing mud from the base of the shoe so a deep lug with good spacing is usually best. On hard terrain or rock slab, a very deep and hard lug can be slippery, in which case a shallower lug and a shoe with a grippy rubber sole will be more beneficial. On sand, a medium lug is usually sufficient, but may be worth considering a gaiter to prevent sand going into your shoe. Sand may be the creator of pearls, but it also is the creator of more than a few blisters!
Rock plates are embedded between the outsole and midsole for providing underfoot protection from sharp stone and rock bruises. They are made from a material such as carbon or plastic fibre. If you wince at the thought of stepping on a piece of Lego while in just your socks, you will have some idea why a rock plate is a necessity on rocky and stony trails.
Similarly, many trail shoes have much hardier uppers than their road equivalent around the toes (the toe rand), to prevent bruising from kicking into a rock or tree root. Generally, the upper of a trail shoe is more robust overall than road shoes, which in part contributes to a slightly weightier shoe.
The tongue may also be stitched behind the laces as opposed to free moving, to reduce the amount of debris that makes its way into the shoe which can lead to blisters.
In terms of whether waterproof shoes are necessary, again it mostly depends on the conditions your shoe will be exposed to.
If you are running in shallow snow, or on dew-covered grass, a waterproof shoe can be helpful in preventing your socks getting wet. As soon as you are in deeper snow, or running through puddles that will splash over ankle height, a waterproof shoe becomes as effective at keeping the water in, as preventing it from getting in in the first place. Running in a pool of water for any period of time will likely cause problems, so it is often better to consider a shoe which drains well, as opposed to being designed to keep the water out.
In terms of overall cushion, the market is fairly divided. Yes, the terrain will be less impactful than running on tarmac, but repetitive pounding on uneven surfaces in a minimal shoe can also be very uncomfortable.
If running on soft terrain, whether mud, sand or other soft ground, a less cushioned shoe which allows you a greater ‘feel’ of the trail may be preferred, but harder trails with smaller rocks and roots may influence a more cushioned choice. I tend to find running in deep mud, which is my typical terrain over winter in the Chilterns, I can get away with a minimal cushioned shoe, as the mud is a natural cushion anyway!
In summer the trails become more hardpacked and having suffered from plantar fasciitis a couple of years ago, I always pick a more cushioned shoe. Similarly, for a long run I will choose a more cushioned shoe to try and reduce the impact on my joints. I am aware that minimal shoes may encourage toe or midfoot strike, but this is a style that requires training in itself.
Also note that the foot swells on long runs, so it may be worth buying a half sized larger (this is relevant for road shoes also, but I tend to find the softer upper on a road shoe have more flexibility anyway).
Weight and Accessories
The weight of the shoe becomes a consideration if you are racing, or if you have additional hardwear on your shoes.
In winter I am often running in snow with microspikes attached to my trainers. These are a considerable extra weight, so I do what I can do reduce shoe weight, otherwise my feet feel more like pendulums!
In a race situation, again, keeping weight down is beneficial, but I would say there are not many runners I see on a day to day basis, where an extra 100g on each shoe is going to make a meaningful difference to performance or ease of run. I know myself I could certainly lose more than 200g of bodyweight, so worrying about 200g of shoe weight seems immaterial.
The shoe cradle refers to how firmly the foot sits within the shoe. On a road run, the angles of ascent and descent, and sideways camber, are much less than on the trails. As such your foot will stay much more rooted in the same place within a road shoe, than within a trail shoe.
When trying shoes on, consider how high up under the ankle bone the shoe sits. If it is a high shoe that your foot is likely to move around in substantially, you may find rub under the ankle bone. I do find that some trail shoes suffer from the upper and cradle, becoming very hard once they are dried, after having been thoroughly soaked. This can lead to cracking and holes in the shoe. A softer upper sometimes reduces this.
The drop of a shoe refers to the depth of the shoe at the heel versus at the toe. Think of a pair of high heels…that’s an exaggerated form of drop!
In trail shoes the drop varies between flat to well over 10mm (it is usually measured in mm). Overall trail shoes tend to have slightly lower drop than road shoes, but this is quite a personal preference.
Try them out in a shop, and see what works for you. It is not necessarily true that a highly cushioned shoe has a greater drop, as some of the most cushioned on the market are actually zero-drop as the cushioning at the front is the same as the cushioning at the back.
Do I need to spend a lot? Actually, no you don’t!
I tend to find in conditions that most need a trail shoe are those where the mud is deep, and a road shoe would just slip around making the run completely impossible. Running on muddy trails where the whole shoe gets wet and caked in mud, requiring them to be hosed off, tends to shorten the lifespan of even the most expensive shoes.
For this reason, I tend to have one cheap pair of trail shoes that look almost like football boots in terms of their lugs and cushioning. I am happy to replace these every few hundred miles, and actually even if they develop holes around the ball of my foot, it doesn’t impact the ability of the shoe to grip so I can wear them to their death!
Because trails are my life, I can justify having an assortment of trail shoes that are each uniquely beneficial for certain conditions.
As with road shoes, go into a shop and try some on. See what feels best and most comfortable for you, and perhaps worry less about the colour…they will all be brown with mud after a few gos anyway.
Happy trails everyone!
RUN THE WILD
Karin Voller is a Lead Runner for Run the Wild - the UK’s first premier, dedicated trail running holiday adventure company. Operating in the UK and the Alps, they deliver holidays that combine the sense of 'team' from mountaineering, with the thrill of trail running in wild places. Karin is an experienced trail and ultra runner with a marathon PB of 3hrs 20mins. She is also a qualified Leader in Running Fitness.