Road running shoes work just fine on smooth trails. But when the going gets rougher, your footwear should get tougher.
Written by: Bryon Powell
Considering venturing off the pavement and onto dirt? Know this: you don’t need a trail shoe to run on trails. There is absolutely no reason a road shoe cannot be worn off-road. In fact, many trail runners wear road shoes while competing in events as grueling as the Western States 100-mile run. That said, when you’re running off-road, trail shoes offer three primary advantages over road shoes: stability, traction, and protection.
The rocks, roots, and uneven surfaces encountered on trail runs require more stability than runs on pavement. While road shoes are available in “stability” models, trail shoes provide a different sort of stability. Like road shoes, trail shoes can deliver stability via heel counters, supportive uppers, and variable-density midsoles; however, trail shoes have a few more tricks for the trail.
For instance, trail shoes tend to have thinner, denser midsoles for a lower-to-the-ground feel. This reduces the chance of turning an ankle and provides better responsiveness. The occasional trail shoe also throws in an outrigger flap on the rear or outside of the shoe that creates a wider platform for additional stability.
Road shoes achieve most of their traction through a large contact area with the ground. A flat outsole pattern also works well for trail shoes when worn on slickrock like that in Moab. Rock grip is enhanced when the outsole’s rubber is softened, which makes it “sticky” like a climbing shoe.
Muddy or dusty trails require a completely different approach. If a trail’s surface is likely to shift, then deep, aggressive lugs keep a runner from skidding out of control when stopping or turning. Aggressive outsoles tend to be heavier, so remember: burlier isn’t always better.
The same roots and rocks that warrant more stability in a trail shoe also call for more protection. Typical trail shoes include a thin rock plate that provides push-through protection from rocks and other debris. Trail shoe manufacturers have come up with various rock plate patterns, ranging from Inov-8’s Terra Shank that mirrors the bones in your forefoot to The North Face’s Snake Plate that resembles trail switchbacks, that don’t significantly interfere with a shoe’s flexibility.
A trail shoe offers more than underfoot protection. Toe bumpers have turned countless would -be broken toes into mere awkward stumbles. While less frequently encountered, jutting rocks and roots can also tear at the instep and outside of the foot, which is where protective overlays work their magic.
Some trail shoes also feature a gusseted tongue or “scree guard” that prevents small debris from entering the shoe from around the tongue. Other shoes provide attachment points for gaiters – small fabric skirts that surround shoe uppers and extend over the ankle to prevent debris from entering through the ankle collar. These simple additions can be invaluable for preventing blisters that result from the increased friction of debris inside a shoe.
Choosing a Shoe for the Trail
When hitting the trails, match the shoe to the conditions at hand. Although a runner can sport any old shoe to hit the trail, wearing the right shoe can make for a much more enjoyable experience. Below are some general categories of shoes that work best for different trail runs.
The Roadie (e.g., Asics Gel-Kayano, Brooks Adrenaline)
Road shoes are a fine option on some trails, though they perform best on surfaces that resemble road. By all means, lace up your road shoes for trail runs with minimal hazards such as a crushed-stone bike path or the woodchip trail, but leave them at home when mud bogging or imitating a mountain goat on rocky crags.
The Tank (e.g., Montrail Hardrock, Salomon XA Pro 3D)
If the rocks on your local trail are leaving your feet bruised and battered, it might be time to pick up a pair of tanks. While trail shoes are trending away from light hikers, there are days when you’ll be thankful to have a wider platform, a thick rock plate, a big toe guard, and a protective upper. Note, however, that these stiffer shoes rarely have as smooth a running feel as road shoes.
The Generalist (e.g., La Sportiva Wildcat, Montrail Mountain Masochist)
Generalist trail shoes are the bread and butter of dedicated trail companies. Designed for everyday trail runs starting at the trailhead, the generalist features a decent rock plate, a moderate lug pattern, and enough upper protection to keep you running the trails day after day.
The Hybrid (e.g., Brooks Cascadia IV, Asics GT-2140 Trail)
The hybrid trail/road shoe is where it’s at for the many runners who need to hit the pavement for a few miles before reaching sweet single-track. These shoes run like road shoes, but include lightweight versions of the protective features found in other trail shoes. A hybrid shoe is a great choice for any non-technical, off-road surface. Both road shoe- and trail shoe-focused companies are making quality hybrid shoes these days.
The Claw/The Wing (e.g., Salomon SpeedCross 2, La Sportiva Skylite)
Two specialty trail shoes, one for muddy trails and one for maximum speed, are more related than they look. Shoes for both conditions often have uppers stripped to the essentials. For the claw this is to limit weight when wet, while the wing aims for the lightest possible weight all the time. Both shoes are likely to have a minimal rock plate for weight savings. The primary difference is that the claw comes with an uber-aggressive tread pattern while the wing may hardly have tread at all.
Bryan Powell is a competitive trail runner, coach and editor of iRunFar.