Like any runner can tell you, the most important piece of equipment for running, is a great pair of shoes for the task at hand. This is especially true on the trails. Having the correct shoe for the terrain or distance you are doing can make or break your trail running experience.
Some people ask, "Why can't I just use what I've been using for the road?" The answer is.. you probably could for nice dirt roads or those smooth groomed trails. The problem is.. most of the trails aren't smooth or groomed and a good trail shoe can help protect you better and give you much more confidence on the those trails than a regular road shoe.
WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?
Road shoes are general made of lightweight materials that are meant to cushion, and encourage speed and responsiveness. The need for traction on the road is minimal so road shoes often have thin layers of rubber or even blends of foam and rubber.
Trail shoes on the other hand are often more robust in order to protect and endure the punishment of the trail. Trail shoes typically will have a full rubber outsole with deeper lugs for better traction along with a thin plastic film or plate called a rock plate. The rock plate is typically placed in the mid and forefoot of the shoe in order to blunt rocks or sharp objects that you may land on while running.
Common outsole for a road shoe
Common outsole for a regular or hybrid trail shoe
More aggressive outsole designed for maximum traction and rough terrain
The upper materials of a trail shoe are generally a more rugged material to prevent ripping, picking or tearing when coming in contact with rocks, sticks or other things on the trail. Trail shoes often have a dual mesh or materials that help prevent anything except the finest silt from getting into your shoes.
HOW DO YOU KNOW WHAT TRAIL SHOE TO GET?
Trail shoes come in a wide variety of styles in order to tackle different terrains and distances. Let's break it into 3 categories (Max Cushion, Traditional, Aggressive/Technical) and look at the pros, cons and uses of each type.
Max cushioned trail shoes are very common, especially for those going for longer distances such as ultra marathons. Let's look at the pros and cons of a max cushioned trail shoe.
Reduces pressure on feet over distance
You won't feel those rocks!
Decreased Proprioception (knowing where your foot is at)
Softer cushion may feel less stable
Traditional trail shoes are the most versatile of the trail shoes. They have good traction and support and work over the largest variety of terrain and distances. Let's look at the pros and cons of a traditional trail shoe.
Can be used on a variety of surfaces
Most have a dedicated rock plate to help protect against bruising from rocks
Good proprioception (knowing where your foot is in relation to the ground)
Not as much traction for very technical trails
Aggressive or Technical trail shoes are specialized trail shoes for specific terrain or conditions. They have large lugs for increased traction in muddy, snowy or very rocky conditions. Let's look at the pros and cons of an Aggressive/Technical trail shoe.
Great traction in technical conditions
Increased confidence on downhills
Deeper lugs are uncomfortable on harder, flatter surfaces
Less versatile/terrain specific
When deciding which shoe is right for you, it is important to look at what sort of trails you will be running as well as the distances you want to run. There is no one right answer, or one shoe that is absolutely better than another. It comes down to what fits your foot and stride the best and meets the requirements for your activity.