These shoes are your all-rounders: capable of handling smooth, rocky, wet, and dry terrain – this category is always a great place to start.
That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re pairing things down for you. Within this category there are various outliers such as maximal and minimalist shoes, as well as varying heel drops (more on this later).
The important thing to remember about these shoes is that many models have been on the market for many years in different iterations, confirming their popularity among seasoned trail runners.
This is a type of trail shoe designed to be worn almost exclusively on dry, hard packed, and rocky terrain.
Think of the arid southwest of the United States, southern France and Spain, Australia, and other climates which may tend toward the drier side.
While not to say that these shoes couldn’t work well in other conditions, they tend to be minimally lugged and would not be recommended for muddy conditions.
This speciality type trail shoe started its own niche several years ago pioneered by European brands such as Salomon and Inov8.
These shoes are typically heavily lugged with minimal uppers designed to shed mud and water as much as possible.
Again, just because a shoe is advertised as such doesn’t mean that trail runners won’t use soft ground shoes in dry conditions as many prefer the extra traction offered by these rugged outsoles.
This is a category that applies to many runners who run on a variety of terrain and want to get by with one pair of shoes.
These shoes also work well if you’re running on roads to access trails and they typically have outsoles more consistent with road shoes which offer little traction on loose terrain or steep ups or downhills.
Trail running has grown exponentially over the past several years resulting in record setting participation at trail events and sold out races around the country.
These new participants consist of road runners gravitating towards a more forgiving surface and the relaxed atmospheres of trail races, as well as crossover and new athletes recognizing the appeal of hitting the single track for solitude and a mental reset.
With this increase in interest and participation shoe companies have responded by designing and releasing more trail running shoes than ever. Some of these models are tried and true generalists which are adequate for all types of trails, whereas other models are highly specialized for the terrain and distance.
There are several other things to consider whenever transitioning into a trail running shoe.
Heel drop can be a major consideration given that many road runners are transitioning from traditional road running shoes with a 10-12mm heel drop.
Heel drop is the differential between the heel and toe of the shoe which is measured in millimeters. This is important because many trail running shoes have lower heel drops which help condition a runner to a forefoot strike and provide better stability on technical trails. Road runners used to a higher heel drop may have difficulty with calve tightness and even achilles tendon issues if they transition too quickly.
Another consideration which many trail runners find to be an issue is forefoot width.
While road shoes feel more standardized, many trail running shoes have varying forefoot widths. While some shoes are more geared towards a tight fit for racing short distances and feeling secure on technical terrain, other long distance trail shoes accommodate for foot swelling that happens in the ultra distances.
Most trail running shoes, outside of those aimed at minimalist design, feature rock plates which are typically between the squishy midsole and the hard outsole of a trail shoe.
The purpose of the rock plate is to protect the foot from sharp rocks and stone bruises. While these can make trail shoes stiffer than road running shoes the added protection becomes key, especially after long distances on technical trails.
Trail running shoes also usually have a protective toe bumper which is usually made of welded on rubber overlays that protect the toes when hitting rocks on the front of the shoe.
Other welded on and sewn on overlays are usually more substantial than in road shoes for increased durability and stability in the shoe on terrain that requires frequent turns and steep downhills.
Some companies, especially Salomon and La Sportiva, have unique lacing designs made of kevlar that allow for quick and easy lacing and adjustments of the shoes.
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