How To Choose A Trail Shoe
The world of trail running is warm and inviting. It is also wet, muddy, rocky, soft and overgrown. It is equal parts a joyride to fly down the mountainside, and a mental Dante’s Inferno to climb back up it. And that’s part of the appeal: it’s different to road running in a myriad of ways. From the training involved to the gear required, there is a veritable gap between the two. In no small way, as this blog will tell you, this gap also includes the shoes you use. To illustrate this in greater detail, I will first go through what type of shoe a trail shoe actually is - this is not necessarily relevant to the actual decision-making process, but qualifies the blog by providing some useful information about trail shoes and why they are important. Next, I will go through a couple of prominent and relevant features many trail shoes feature in some capacity, before concluding with a very basic guide for what combination of these features should help guide your choice.
The Type Of Shoe You Will Need
When it comes to road shoes, the primary thing you need to work out first is whether you are a neutral runner or a stability runner. Getting a gait analysis is the sure fire way to determine this. If you need a neutral shoe, then you typically don’t need any corrective or arch support, whereas if you need a stability shoe, then you do. There is no “correct” way to run: it is simply a matter of determining what kind of shoe to put you in. This is an important factor to take into account when looking for shoes for road running.
You don’t need to make this equation for trail shoes. By design, all trail shoes are neutral. Even if you need more stability for the roads, you would go straight into neutral in trail shoes. There is a good reason for this. The roads are, in a word, predictable, spanning the not-so-wide range of “up,” “down” and - famously - “flat.” The closest thing to irregularity in the surface of the road might be a pothole. With this being the case, the flat surface of the road will exaggerate the case for stability, as this kind of support is trying to stop for your foot from overpornating, or rolling in, so it has to help guide your foot in another direction.
This is not the case on the trails. On any given day in Wicklow you could be faced with wind and hail, sunshine and rain, a rocky slope or a grassy plateau: in other words, trail running is anything but predictable. For this reason, trail shoes are neutral: your feet will need to be constantly moving in varying and different ways in order to adapt and react to the ever-changing ground below it. The last thing you need is a shoe trying to force your foot in one direction when the surface is a slippery rock jutting out of the ground at 45 degrees.
Features Of A Trail Shoe
Now that we have established precisely what kind of shoes are used for trail running, and that no matter one’s gait one will always go straight into a neutral shoe, it’s time to get into what kind of features a trail shoe might play host to. By no means will every trail shoe have each and every one of these all at once: not only would that play havoc with your foot, but certain trail shoes are better suited to wet and mucky terrain than ones that may be targeted at rocky and dry trails. This passage is not intended to present this shoe or that shoe as the unequivocal “best” - instead, you might think of it as a useful guide for knowing what exactly you might be looking for when shopping for trail shoes.
Understanding that trail shoes are not designed for the road is an important distinction to make early on. This largely comes down to the raised treads on the outsole, otherwise known as lugs. These typically make up the outsole of a trail shoe, and are raised to allow for greater traction than one would expect from a road shoe. Different trail shoes will play host to different lugs, so here are a couple of typical variations you might expect to see:
Pressed close together: if the lugs are numerous and pressed close together, they will often be less aggressive and better suited to flatter and firmer terrain, such as dry track or hard-packed trails. The next section on ATR will go into this in greater detail.
Spread far apart: the greater the gaps between lugs, typically the more aggressive a trail shoe will be. These are designed for digging in, making them more capable on soft, wet and alpine terrain.
Shape and Depth: While the space between lugs will determine to which terrain a shoe is best suited, shape and depth can determine versatility and aggression. For instance, a trail shoe with uniform lugs will be slightly less versatile than one with lugs of varying and intricate shapes. Meanwhile, the deeper a lug is, the more adept the shoe will be at digging into softer and grittier surfaces.
ATR - Alternating Terrain And Road
Following on from lugs, while trail shoes are primarily designed for natural terrain, there are some that seek to find a balance between road and trail. These shoes are referred to as ATR, or Alternating Terrain and Road. In shoes like these, one will commonly find a combination of shallow, uniform lugs that are pressed close together. This will ensure that they retain adequate grip for greater traction on the softer and more unpredictable trails, without being so aggressive that they won’t offer the requisite cushioning, support and smooth transitions one expects from a road shoe. For people who regularly go between the two terrains, or go walking a lot, these shoes are a super option - they can also double up as casual hiking shoes.
Ballistic Rock Shields
It should come as no surprise that the trails can also be a lot rougher than the roads: after all, one should expect to encounter a contorted Picasso of branches and vines in the undergrowth of a forest, or a sporadic collection of pretty but exceptionally sharp and hard rocks coating the mountainside. These are all a part of the attraction of the trails, but our feet have spent their lives in socks and shoes - in other words, they are soft and vulnerable to these surfaces.
The right combination of cushioning and structure can certainly aid this, but quite a few trail shoes also feature a Ballistic Rock Shield. This is essentially a firmer material residing within the midsole of the shoe to shield the foot from the harsher surfaces below, while retaining enough flexibility to work with the shape and movement of your foot in motion. These shields can change from shoe to shoe, and brand to brand, but their primary purpose is simple: to protect the foot.
Protection Against The Elements
The vast majority of trail shoes will have a reinforced, but still flexible toe-cap that wraps around the toe box of the shoe to protect the foot when coming down: this is to avoid the toes slamming into the ground if the terrain suddenly changes or our foot misses its proper landing. Along the side of these toe-caps, many shoes will also have a series of little slits (quite noticeable to the naked eye) with a lighter fabric behind them in order to encourage a draining of excess water so that it does not build up in the shoe.
All trail shoes are also water-resistant, although this certainly varies from trail shoe to trail shoe. Some shoes, for example, will have a quick-drying upper mesh replacing the softer fabric you might expect from a road shoe, while others play host to GTX (Gortex), which makes the shoe waterproof. Other shoes that are waterproof but don’t play host to this specific technology will be labelled as such. Gortex is often a little warmer too, so a welcome addition in the cold and wet winter months.
This section can be considered a bit miscellaneous, but given that differences between trail shoes and road shoes are in no short supply, it’s still worth addressing the importance of cushioning in trail shoes. Just like in road shoes, there is no one kind of cushioning nor anything remotely resembling the “best” trail shoe. Typically trail shoe cushioning will be a little more rigid and secure than that of their tarmac-driver counterparts in order to provide a little more stability on uneven terrain, but, like road shoes, some trail shoes will offer quite a lot of cushioning while others remain very much stripped back. The choice between these and everything in between is ultimately a personal preference.
So - What Kind Of Trail Shoe Is For Me?
All trail shoes will feature some of the aforementioned characteristics, the combination of which will differ between shoes. So here’s a brief guide for what you want to look out for in a shoe according to two things: terrain and distance.
Rocky, harsh terrain: you will want lugs that aren’t too widely spaced, feature a stiffer outsole and have a reinforced upper and rock plate for protection.
Soft, muddy terrain: shoes with wider spaced and deeper lugs would be better suited to softer terrain so you can dig in and sustain grip and traction - for the same reason, a secure, locked-in upper would hold the foot in place over unstable terrain.
A variety of terrain: there are quite a few trail shoes that are versatile enough that they can tackle a wide range of kinds of trail - you don’t necessarily need to get a different shoe for every mountain and forest. Meanwhile, as detailed above, there is also a category of shoe that features ATR to allow for a nice mix between both road and trail.
Short distance (<10km): Shoes that are lighter and more stripped back will serve this distance well, particularly any that offer a little bit more responsivity and bounce in their take off.
Middle distance (15-42km): Most shoes will suit this category nicely - the majority of shoes out there would be considered all-rounders and can suit both your shorter runs as well as your longer ones.
Long distance (>42km): Extra cushioning and support often prove to be a very important requirement for those braving the ultra-marathon distances in order to protect the foot under increased stress and energy expenditure, while retaining enough cushioning that the longer distances don’t take as much of a toll on your feet.
Like road shoes, trail shoes are complex and wide-ranging, but that is as much a reflection of the sport itself as it is of anything else. Roads remain consistent and predictable and one will need a gait analysis to determine what kind of shoes they should wear: the determining factor is thus your natural biomechanics. Trails, on the other hand, are wild (pun intended) and ever-changing: a sunny day on Djouce in the middle of summer is, I assure you, a very different kind of day to its midwinter counterpart. So in this case, the determining factor is the terrain itself and your engagement with it. Variety to meet variety. Knowing what kind of shoes you need is therefore incredibly important - but it is also a lot of fun. Knowing your gait does not determine your shoe means there is a lot of room for experimentation and playfulness with these shoes. So, when we reopen after Level 5, we cannot wait to bring you back into the store and try on a few - trust us, the trails won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.