Ask the Gear Guy: Do I Need Specific Shoes for Trail Running?

Julian asks: Do I need trail shoes to run better on the trails?

“Need” is a strong word. It largely depends on trail conditions.

Really, any type of off-road running is trail running. That dirt road? Trail running. That path of crushed stone that weaves through a park? Trail running. For those trail conditions, the average running shoe often provides enough traction and impact protection.

When the path becomes more narrow (e.g. singletrack), steep (e.g. mountains), and technical (e.g. rocks and roots), a trail shoe offers some valuable features.

The material in the uppers of trail-running shoes typically is more robust and durable to withstand dirt and water. Additional material can be found, too, where the upper meets the midsole and also the toe for even more protection. To guard against grit invading the shoe altogether, trail shoes sometimes come with gusseted tongues, which are connected to the shoe with material on the sides. Some trail shoes–such as the Lone Peak and Superior styles from Altra–feature a Velcro attachment for a gaiter, which is a booty that attaches to the shoe to add another layer of protection against debris.

A trail shoe can also come with a rock plate or stone guard either between the insole and midsole, or within the midsole itself to protect the foot from roots and rocks. Not all trails are created equal. Even singletrack in the mountains varies between those clear and covered with pine needles for soft landings and those strewn with fist-sized rocks that make mere walking an exercise in patience and concentration.

The outsole in two ways is what most separates a trail-running shoe from a road-running shoe. First, a more durable compound of rubber–such as a brand from Continental tires on trail shoes from Adidas–can at times be found in trail shoes. Second, trail shoes offer much more in the way of traction, with sticky compounds meant to resist slip (in some styles) and aggressive tread designed to bite into dirt (in most styles).

Some trail-running shoes even come with a water-resistant component, such as the Vasque Pendulum II GTX, which uses a Gore-Tex liner.  (Find reviews of water-resistant shoes in the upcoming October issue of Runner’s World).

Weight and often price are the costs of these additional protective features, of course. More durable and supportive uppers, protection in the midsole, and better traction all add ounces to the weight of the shoes. However, many runners who spend enough time on trails that can be stony, slippery, or both, find trail shoes well worth the weight.

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