With Spring upon us, the urge to hit the trails for our workouts increases as the days grow longer. Whether your trails bring you to bridle paths or mountain ranges, it’s important to consider your footwear.
Technical trails are fraught with obstacles and debris which can puncture the average pair of trainers. Shoes designed for road running provide less grip over slippery trail surfaces, and may not allow mud to flow out of the outsole quickly.
On the other hand, heavy-duty trail shoes may be overkill for runners seeking light trail workouts.
As with all running shoes, it’s important to know what your needs are, your anticipated workouts will be, and to find the best trail running shoe which fits the bill for your expeditions.
How Trail Running Shoes differ from Road Shoes
Running shoes designed for road workouts focus on speed, responsiveness, and lightweight design. These shoes are made for flat, even surfaces devoid of major obstacles like large rocks and sticks. As such, their outsoles are typically thinner, their midsoles less cushioned, and their uppers bereft of reinforced materials that would protect against debris which is encountered infrequently.
Trail running shoes, however, are sturdier and flatter—providing an optimal fit throughout runs in the woods where foot grip and protection are pivotal. Trail shoes seek to balance responsiveness with durability, featuring wider outsole platforms for better balance over uneven surfaces.
Traction is key with these models, as they often feature wider-spaced lugs (the elements at the forefoot of the shoe’s sole which provide traction, akin to a tire’s treads) to allow water and mud to move underfoot without getting stuck in the shoe.
Most models include a hard, plastic plate throughout the forefoot to prevent sharp objects from puncturing the shoe, which creates a more comfortable experience while on long runs in the woods.
The upper materials of these shoes also tend to include toe bumpers (to guard against stubbed toes on rocks and boulders) and additional ankle support (a key feature when running on unbalanced surfaces, as this helps prevent sprains).
With the difference between road and trail models coming down to a shoe’s design features, it’s important to assess your need and the types of trails you intend to tackle.
What’s the Right Trail Running Shoe for Me?
As trail running shoes come in an ever-growing array of styles, many feature differing levels of support tailored toward different runs.
Hybrid models provide the benefits of a road shoe with slight modifications to improve traction and stability, whereas other models are beefed-up shoes designed to help runners glide over obstacles and uneven terrain.
Knowing the type of trails you intend to run makes all the difference here, as veering in one direction or another comes with its own pitfalls: choosing a hybrid shoe for technical trails can make running more difficult, but a heavier trail shoe could be overkill on simpler paths.
Hybrid trail shoe models are geared toward bridle paths and gravel trails—surfaces which are typically flat, even, and free of large obstacles.
For these trails, a shoe with the benefits of a lightweight road trainer outweighs the need for toe reinforcements and bulky protective elements. These models feature wider-spaced treads, more rigid outsoles, and added support throughout the midfoot to brace against hard surfaces.
Runners looking to incorporate trail work into their training would do well to start off with a hybrid shoe, as they would likely start off on less-technical trails and would face less of a learning curve on a shoe similar to a road trainer.
Top Hybrid Models
New Balance MT1010 ($85): The MT1010 is the result of a three-year collaboration between New Balance, Anton Krupicka, and Erik Skaggs – elite ultramarathoners and trail runners. The resulting shoe a perfectly-designed trail racing and training shoe with minimal support and cushioning—well suited for experienced road runners beginning on easy trails or experienced trail runners on more complicated courses.
Brooks Pure Grit 2 ($11): Featuring the low heel-to-toe drop of the successful Kinvara series, the Peregrine is a go-to shoe for trail runners looking for a minimalist feel. The shoe is lightweight, but does not sacrifice substance and protection. The Peregrine feels minimal, light, and flexible, yet it is also protective and supportive enough to wear on gnarly trails for long trail runs.
Conventional models are designed to help runners trek up mountains and woods which are rife with boulders, rivers, and switchbacks. Trails like these make running in road shoes incredibly difficult, yielding better results and more comfortable rides to pure trail models. The rugged outsoles of these shoes protect against sharp intrusions, while the spacing of the lugs and treads help runners traverse mud and rivers without gumming up traction. What’s more, the sturdy uppers of conventional trail shoes protect against the elements better than the mostly-mesh construction of a road shoe—keeping feet dry against the elements.
Top Conventional Models
Inov-8 Roclite 285 ($120): The Roclite 285 is equipped for all kinds of off-road running, with an aggressive rubber outsole that is both durable and sticky. The Roclite 285 does well on rocky terrain and sheds mud well on sloppy terrain. With a 6mm heel drop, traditional trail shoe wearers may want to transition slowly into this shoe, but minimalists will find this to be a boon to the model.
Brooks Cascadia 8 ($110): This latest in the popular Cascadia line includes many of the form factors runners loved in previous versions, including a better-fitting upper and supportive features to keep runners comfortable on the trail. With the inclusion of a rock plate for foot protection, and pivot system for stabilization over uneven terrain, the Cascadia provides tremendous support and protection for off-road running.