We talk a lot about the best trail running shoes, the best trail shoes for wet conditions, the best ones for wide feet etc. but perhaps what we don’t really address is why it’s so important to wear them. Why can’t you just head on the trails in your normal road running shoes? Well, we’re here to answer why you should wear trail running shoes for trail running.
Your first thoughts when considering taking up trail running might be “I already have road running shoes that are really comfortable” and you may not want to dig into your pockets for yet another pair of running shoes. These are the thoughts of many road runners that are taking to the trails for the first time including my own!
Can I wear trail shoes on the road?
Let’s flip reverse it for a second and ask the question “Can I wear trail running shoes on the road?” The short answer is yes. Trail shoes are perfectly acceptable when running on the road. in fact, there are going to be times in your trail runs when you will need to run on tarmac whether that be running from your front door to the local trails or crossing between two trails through a section of road.
While it is OK to wear trail shoes on the road, we wouldn’t recommend it for runs of more than 10k. That said, if you are more of a trail runner and not really a road runner, you might want to choose trail shoes over road shoes if budget is a constraint!
Choosing trail running shoes
It can all be somewhat of a minefield when choosing new trail running shoes and your questions may include – what size trail running shoes do I need (do you go up half to a size like running shoes?)
- What brand (there are so many to choose from)?
- Do you need a certain heel drop?
- Can I wear these trails on the road and trails? See above if you haven’t been following so far!
- Do I need specific trail shoes for winter/summer?
- What size lugs should they have, do you need a rock plate, what even are gators?
- Should you get the same brand of road shoe in a trail shoe?
In truth, once you get into trail running, you may find you need more than one pair to suit different conditions and types of terrain.
Why you need trail running shoes
If you are thinking that trail shoes are just road shoes with bigger lugs and you can get away with it on dry trails then you would be wrong. There are many benefits to trail shoes that you don’t get with road shoes that suit a more rugged uneven terrain. For a start – a good trail shoe will usually have a rock plate, particularly useful if you kick a rock (it hurts – it really does).
Trail shoes, unlike road shoes, aren’t just designed to protect the base of your foot from contact with the ground. They are also built to protect the sides, fronts, and backs of your feet too. It’s not unusual to trip over or kick a tree root or loose rock.
And while we are discussing why you need trail shoes instead of wearing your normal road shoes, here’s another good case for trail shoes. Trail running will ruin your road shoes. It will make them dirty – the kind of dirt you won’t get out. It will also put them under too much duress meaning you may damage the cushioning, the soles, and the support of your road shoes rendering them useless when you come to do that next road race.
Aside from not wanting to ruin your very clean and pretty road shoes, let’s take a look at some of the key features of trail shoes:
We could dedicate a whole article to lugs. There is so much to choose from and many factors to consider – terrain, time of year, weather, mud… Let’s take deep mud for example. If you are running in deep mud, when you lift your foot out, the shoes will be full of mud. If the lugs are too close together, the mud will stick to the bottom of the shoe and not clear out. This makes your feet incredibly heavy and then it becomes hard to get good traction. You need deep lugs that are spaced apart to allow the mud to clear. On hard terrain and rocks, deep lugs can be slippy so a shallower lug is required and a good rubber grip. In sand, medium lugs will be more suitable.
The Inov8 Mudclaw is a great shoe for muddy conditions with widely spaced lugs that release mud as effectively as they grip it.
The rock plate of a shoe is found between the outsole and midsole. It provides protection underfoot from injury from rocks and stones. Usually, made of a material such as carbon or plastic fibre, they stop the awful pain of stepping on loose debris on the trails.
The toe rand around the front of a shoe is also great for protecting your toes when stubbing them on a rock or tree root. You will find the whole upper of the shoe is designed to protect you from harsher terrain. This is the reason they are a little heavier than your usual road shoe.
We have a whole article dedicated to waterproof trail shoes so we won’t bang on about it too much here but waterproof shoes are great in really wet and cold conditions. They are great for runners who spend a lot of time running through light snow or through that fresh morning grassy dew as they stop the water from getting in and making your socks wet. This is not only uncomfortable but can also lead to blisters. Waterproof trail shoes are made from GORE-TEX or GTX – be careful when ordering trail shoes that if you don’t want the waterproof version, you don’t order anything that contains the word GORE-TEX.
The major benefit of waterproof trail shoes is that they stop the water from getting into your shoe along with stones and debris when making your way through puddles on the trails. The converse of this is that they also stop the water from getting out. The ventilation is also less than a normal traIl shoe meaning your feet can get terribly hot. They are not the kind of shoes you want on a really hot day.
Cushioning and support
The type of cushioning and support you require will depend on the type of terrain that you are running on. Some might say that the less impactful running on trails means you don’t require as much cushioning as on the road, however, let’s not forget that some off-road terrain can be very challenging and unforgiving. A light trail with sand, mud and soft tracks won’t require as much cushioning as hard, rocky mountainous trails.
Mud is a natural cushion so if you are running in muddy conditions, you won’t need as much cushioning from your shoe. If you spend a lot of time running in rocky mountains, you’re going to want something that offers more support. Hard summer trails can also be harsher on the feet and if you are running longer, your feet and joints will thank you for a more comfortable and cushioned trail running shoe.
When it comes to support, make sure that the shoe is comfortable – that it doesn’t sit too high up on the ankle bone. The cradle of some shoes can become very stiff and unforgiving once a shoe gets wet and hardens. A softer upper may be better.
A shoe like the Hoka Speedgoat 5 offers a great cushioned ride
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Features like deeper lugs, a rock plate, toe rand, and additional support mean that a trail running shoe is inevitably going to be heavier than a road running shoe. If you are racing, you are probably thinking you need to keep the weight of the shoes down where possible, however, worrying about how much your shoe weighs isn’t going to make any difference to your overall speed.
What will slow you down is if you are racing in the mud and don’t have the right lugs or if you have to contend with ice or snow and need to attach micro spikes for example.
How many times have you heard the word ‘drop’ when it comes to trail running shoes and thought ‘What does that mean?’ Well, the drop of a shoe refers to how deep the shoe is at the heel vs the toe. High heels have drop – albeit much more than a pair of trail shoes. The drop can vary from 0 to 10mm and sometimes more. Trail shoes often have a lower drop than road shoes however you can get trail running shoes with a big drop.
The drop you require will very much depend on your personal preference and whether you suffer with any specific issues. If you tend to struggle with Achilles pain, a higher drop will be more suitable. A zero-drop shoe can put stress on the calf, ankle, foot and Achilles.
Do you have to spend loads on a pair of trail running shoes to get the best results? The answer is ‘no’. If you search the sites for the latest models, you will generally find yourself paying £120-£150 for a branded latest edition from Nike, Hoka, Inov8, Salomon, etc however, if you carry out a proper search, you can often find big discounts on last season’s models and colors with quite a hefty discount.
If you are new to trail running, it is often advisable to shop around and look at last season’s shoes and then invest more as you get more accustomed to what your feet need, when you actually start to run and race more off-road.
Finally, a word to the wise. While we spend our time choosing pretty colors for road running, don’t waste your time, or money, when it comes to trail running. They will get dirty! Accept that whatever color you choose, you are going to see them mostly covered in mud!