While you may want to take your road shoes on your trail runs, it’s important to know that trail shoes are vastly different. Running on the road is about speed, while running on the trail is all about protection. So, while road shoes are built to move fast, trail shoes have features like abrasion-resistant uppers, firm midsoles, rock plates, and knobby soles to provide protection, support, and grip on varied terrain.
ANATOMY OF A TRAIL SHOE
There are three main components to a trail running shoe: sole, midsole, and upper. Here, we outline common trail running shoe features and how they directly apply to trail running. Let’s work from the ground up.
The soles of trail running shoes use deeper lugs and sticky rubbers for greater traction on varied terrain, whereas road shoes are often made of flatter foam with shallow lugs for running on smooth blacktop.
- Tread and Lug Depth
Tread and lug depth enhance traction. Some trail running shoes feature big, knobby lugs for grip in loose, slick terrain, while others have smaller lugs that are closer together and are better suited for smooth dirt trails.
- Directional Pattern of Lugs
The directional pattern of a trail shoe enhances stability and grip underfoot. Trail conditions can impact the effectiveness of the directional pattern—so choose one that reflects the terrain you’re running on.
- Type of Rubber
Some trail shoes are equipped with grippy types of rubber to promote better traction for running on slick or rocky terrain.
Midsoles can vary in height, stiffness, and heel-to-toe drop. Trail running shoes typically have a firmer midsole for better footing on uneven ground and a rock plate for protection and trail feel.
The last refers to the shape and silhouette of the shoe. Most trail shoes will have a wider toe box for foot splay and a narrower heel cup than road shoes.
Types of midsole cushion range from barefoot to maximum. Cushion needs to absorb shock and provide energy rebound (but not bounce)—while maintaining agility and trail feel.
Trail running shoes utilize a foam midsole that promotes sure footedness on uneven terrain. The midsoles often found in road running shoes are more bouncy, making it hard to navigate changing ground conditions.
- Rock Plate or Guard
A rock plate or rock guard is located directly between the sole and midsole. It helps protect against sharp objects, making it best suited for technical, rocky trail runs. Rock plates and guards still permit dexterity underfoot.
Drop, or offset, is the midsole’s height difference between the heel and toe. Drop and midsole cushion vary from shoe to shoe and are relative to your personal preference. Some shoes are equipped with a zero-drop platform. Zero-drop shoes are different from barefoot or minimalist shoes, as they’re available in a variety of midsole cushions, ranging from minimalist to maximum.
- Post or Bar
Medial posts or torsion bars can be found in motion control or stability shoes. This feature offers lateral support to prevent accidental injury and maintain efficient form while running. These features are most often found in road running shoes.
Typical of hiking boots, some trail running shoes have a rigid shank that enhances the shoe’s overall stiffness. A shank impedes a shoe’s flexibility, differentiating it from a rock guard or plate, which is why it’s uncommon in trail running shoes.
Unlike road running uppers that lack protection, trail running shoes are built for protection. The uppers are durable, rigid, and abrasion-resistant while still being lightweight, breathable, and flexible.
- Upper Material
Synthetic-derived materials, like nylon mesh, are frequently used in a shoe’s construction. These man-made materials withstand gunk, grime, and abrasion—yet ensure breathability to prevent blisters, hot spots, and overheating.
Synthetic overlays reinforce a shoe’s tenacity, providing torsional rigidity and enhanced defense against trailside obstacles such as roots and rocks.
- Heel Cup
A snug fit in the heel helps keep your foot in place for running on varied terrain. Some heel cups have extra padding for added protection and support.
- Heel Counter
Considered an overlay, this feature is specifically designed to help lock the foot in place and anchor the shoe to the midsole, which is important when navigating changing terrain.
- Weatherproof Lining
Some trail running shoes are equipped with a waterproof or water-resistant lining. These shoes are best suited for those running in wet weather (be it seasonal or climate-specific), like the kind found in the Pacific Northwest or New England. Just remember, what goes in can’t come out—if your feet get wet, they stay that way.
- Lace Garage
A lace garage is a small pocket atop the tongue that provides housing for your laces. This small safety feature prevents your laces from getting caught on rocks or roots.
- Gaiter Attachment Point
If you want extra protection from dust, mud, or snow, gaiters can help. A fixed gaiter attachment point is located at the heel and/or near the laces to keep the gaiter secured to your shoe.
- Toe Bumper
A toe bumper is also known as a scree guard or toe cap. It protects your toes and helps prevent them from being stubbed, bruised, or broken by rocks or tree roots.
You want to give the trails everything you’ve got—whether that’s churning through miles after a tough day or an active way to enjoy your surroundings and friends. Going for a run in the right trail shoes is the best way to do just that.