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Trail Running Shoes Guide | Trail Vs Road, Benefits, Sizing, and More

Trail running is an activity that combines running, hiking, and navigating various trails on unpaved surfaces. If you’re new to trail running, then you’re likely starting to look for a good pair of trail running shoes. Much like road running, the type of trail running shoes you use can be a huge deal for assisting your performance.

Since trail running includes so many different surfaces, it’s a really good idea to spend a little time researching which trail running shoes are best for your needs. It’s also a good idea to equip yourself with basic trail running shoe knowledge to better understand this type of footwear and the intent behind using them.

In this trail running shoe guide, I’m going to discuss a variety of key topics that you should know when looking into trail running shoes.

What Are Trail Running Shoes?

Trail running shoes, in their most simplistic definition, are any running shoes that you run on trails with. Every type of shoe or brand of shoe can technically be a trail shoe. But that does not mean that all trail running shoes are created equal. As well, that does not mean all shoes are marketed as trail running shoes, and this is for good reason.

what are trail running shoes

Trail running shoes have their design and make-up to handle running on trails specifically. These shoes are not designed to be top performers when in the gym, cross-training, road running, or any other activity. Their construction and intent will help you excel when trail running and this is why it’s incredibly important to get the right type of trail running shoes for your needs.

Trail Running Shoes Vs Road Running Shoes

There are handfuls of differences between trail running and road running shoes. Some of the core differences can be found in the construction of each type of shoe, and therefore, the performance of each type of shoe. Here are a few differences and key details to look into if you’re looking at trail running shoes.

1. Different Upper Constructions

For trail running shoes, the upper of the shoe should be durable enough to handle whatever the trail throws your way. Each trail will have its list of specific obstacles and terrain. This is why there are a plethora of different types of trail running shoes with different upper constructions.

A trail run that is mostly flat with minimal technical terrain will not require the runner to have a highly abrasion-resistant shoe. But a trail that requires running over a lot of technical sharp rock will require the runner to use high-abrasive trail running shoes. You want to find a shoe that you have full confidence in its ability to handle the terrain.

trail running shoes vs road running shoes

You will always be out in the elements when running on the trail. Some shoes have a more breathable upper construction while others have less breathability.

You may be asking yourself why a shoe would need less breathability and that is a valid inquiry. It is not so much as to why the shoe would need less breathability but more so it is an unfortunate side effect of certain materials.

If you wanted to, you could wrap a thick piece of plastic around your shoe when it was raining and keep most of the water out pretty easily. But this trash bag technique would leave your foot feeling sweaty and likely retain more moisture than it was keeping out.

Gore-Tex and other similar technologies allow a high degree of waterproofing while also staying fairly breathable, hence why Gore-Tex is a better material than plastic for a trail running shoe’s upper construction.

trail running shoes vs road running shoes upper

As technology advances, we are seeing shoes that pretty much have it all when it comes to performance in multiple types of weather and temperatures.

Heading out for a trail run on a clear sunny day at 100 degrees Fahrenheit will likely leave your foot feeling pretty warm. On the flip side, going for a trail run in the rain or snow can leave your feet feeling wet and cold.

For this example, the hot run will be better suited for a mesh upper that is highly breathable, this will keep the foot cool and let heat escape. While the cold and wet trail run will be better with a Gore-Tex waterproof upper or other water-resistant material.

2. Different Outsole and Tread Patterns

When selecting a trail running shoe, you will see many different tread types. The tread is usually designed to handle surfaces that are rougher than those encountered off the trail. A good pair of trail running shoes should have some degree of grip for the flat, uphill, and downhill sections.

Flat and easy terrain will not require the same tread as shoes designed for snow or technical terrain. Companies will use different technologies in the make-up of their tread material and most of them are designed for grip and durability. Another feature of the tread that contributes to its grip is the lug.

Lugs are the protrusions on the bottom of the tread that contribute, alongside tread material, to a trail running shoe’s grip. Think of a regular more flat outsole shoe, such as a pair of old-school Vans. This shoe is completely fine for walking around on flat concrete and even does good on uphill or downhill smooth concrete.

trail running shoes vs road running shoes outsole

Now let’s take that pair of Vans on a steep gravel hill or through a downhill mud section. How well do you think that shoe will perform? The obvious answer would be not very well at all. One of the reasons for the Vans not performing well in loose or wet conditions is its lacking of a solid lug.

Lugs allow you to grip not only across surfaces but also into surfaces, almost like a pair of microspikes. When you are encountering loose gravel, snow, or muddy conditions, you need to get a pair of shoes with appreciable lugs.

By no means do you have to wear different shoes for different terrain, but like any other piece of gear, using a trail running shoe that is intended for its purpose will make for a better user experience. I have used my Nike road running shoes on many trail runs and even a few smaller peak summits.

Did I make it to the top? Yes. Was it the smoothest ride of my life? No. I was sliding all over the place and even tore holes in my shoe’s sidewall. Find a trail, do a bit of research on the terrain/distance, select a proper shoe, and have fun trail running.

Trail Running Shoe Benefits

Outside of more durable upper construction and better outsole tread patterns, there are a bunch of other benefits that come along with trail running shoes. Some of these benefits include specific lacing systems, tongue closures, rock plates, inner materials, and much more. Depending on your trail and goal, you will be looking for different characteristics for your shoe.

beginning trail running tips

Lacing can vary from the regular hoop and loop laces to tightening systems such as the BOA. I think this benefit is the dealer’s choice. As long as you are achieving a secure fit, the lacing system has done its job. There may be situations where one lacing setup is more efficient than another.

For example, some non-lace-based tightening systems can be a little easier to use with gloves in cold weather. I enjoy lacing systems that provide even pressure to the foot when tightening them down. You tend to avoid having all the pressure on the top of the foot where the traditional hoop and loop tighten down. With that said, most of my shoes have regular laces and this suits me just fine.

Close to the lacing system is the tongue of the shoe. Shoes will likely either have a normal moving open tongue or more of a fixed closed wrapping tongue. Having a more fixed wrapping tongue gives the inner shoe protection from the unwanted outside elements.

trail running tips for beginners

Normal tongues leave an overabundance of space for debris to enter the shoe. While closed tongues fit tighter to the ankle and leave less open space on the top of the shoe. The only time I prefer a shoe that varies from an open tongue is when I encounter loose rock or wet/muddy conditions. Otherwise, a traditional trail running shoe tongue does just fine for most trail runs.

Rock plates are another trail running shoe benefit found under the sole on the midfoot. Their purpose is to protect the foot from sharp rocks or forceful contacts running over rock. This will typically increase the stiffness of the shoe, which can be an unwanted side effect for some trail runs.

Lastly, inner materials in trail running shoes tend to have high levels of breathability. Allowing the foot to breathe, whether the temperature is cold or hot.

How Should Trail Running Shoes Fit

Trail running shoes should fit like any other shoe with a few small differences. Like any other shoe, you do not want an excessive amount of room for your foot to move around. I generally recommend having between .2-.6″ of room in the toe box.

Excessive room can cause rubbing which will lead to blisters and potential damage to your toes as they slam into the front of the shoe. You also do not want your toes to be crammed into the toe box. This will be very uncomfortable over time. If you have ever put on a climbing shoe for the first time, you know how that can feel. It is as though your feet are being squeezed into something that does not fit your foot.

how should trail running shoes fit

This is not how it should feel when putting on your trail running shoes. With all of that stated, I do sometimes go for a slightly smaller shoe if I need my trail running shoe to perform some rock climbing on a shorter trail. For example and context, I have a pair of Salewa shoes that I sized down a half size for to give me better purchase on rock when the terrain gets highly technical.

This specific shoe has a distinct purpose for me and rock climbing is one of those. But I never wear these for a long trail run, I always wear comfortable fitting shoes that give me a smooth ride and let my toes splay in the toe box.

Discussing the topic of fit, I am going to briefly cover foot width. This is something you should consider when purchasing shoes in general. But in particular when buying trail running shoes for performance. Most shoes will list whether it has a narrow or wide fit.

best tips for beginner trail runners

If you choose a trail running shoe that does not fit the width of your foot, then you will encounter similar issues to an improper fitting length. If you are unsure if you have a narrow or wide foot, try a pair of narrow trail running shoes on and assess how they feel.

Give your foot a bit of time in that shoe and It should be obvious after wearing the shoe for a while if your foot is uncomfortable or not. When in doubt, head into your local running shoe shop, get measurements, and have them assess if you have a narrow, neutral, and wide foot.

How to Clean Trail Running Shoes

Cleaning your trail running shoes is something you should do fairly often. I tend to clean my shoes every few runs even if the terrain is dry. Trying to keep dirt and grime off of your shoes is never a bad idea. If there was mud or snow on the trail, I will usually wash them after each use.

Now, when I say that I am cleaning my trail running shoes, that does not mean each cleaning involves soap and thorough scrubbing. Scrubbing a shoe with soap may be necessary for an extra dirty trail running shoe. But most of the time all you need to do is place your trail shoe under the tap and do some spot cleaning. I think it goes without saying, but please let your shoes air dry, do not put them in the dryer.

All trail shoes are not created equal. Some shoes may be sensitive to certain chemicals, including abrasive soaps. Materials, such as leather, can require more intensive care compared to others.

In my experience, I have never had a trail running shoe deteriorate because of a cleaning agent. But you can buy specific cleaning agents for your trail shoe. Care instructions are most always outlined by the company if this is a concern of yours.

How to NOT clean training shoes

The last component I enjoy about cleaning your shoes often is the fact that you are inspecting your gear after use. Think about how many times you put your shoes on, run and then take them off to toss in the corner. Do you ever really look at your shoes other than to maybe tie them?

If you make it a habit to rinse your shoes after each usage, then you can see possible faults or blemishes on the shoes. Nothing is worse than first discovering a fault in your gear while in the backcountry. Inspect your trail running shoes, clean them and fix any issues before they arise

How to Break In Trail Running Shoes

Breaking in your trail running shoes is not a complex science. To break your shoes in you need to wear them and use them. Wearing it is the easy part (fit dependent), but using it can sometimes leave the fool hearty in a world of trouble. Make sure you use your trail running shoes on an easy trail for the first time.

strike mvmnt vimana hybrid runner trail run

Trying your shoes on in the shop or your house for 10 minutes is one thing. But going out on an actual run will put the fit of the shoe to the test.

Selecting a shorter trail run for your shoe’s first usage gives you the ability to bail if the shoe does not perform or fit how you like it. Getting a heel blister or discovering the shoe’s grip performance is subpar is not something you want to do 10 miles into a trail run.

How Long Should Trail Running Shoes Last?

Trail running shoes are not designed to last forever and their life will be dependent on their usage. If I had to give an approximate time frame on how long your trail running shoes should last, I would say ballpark 1 to 3 years. In my opinion, three things determine the life of your shoes. Care, training volume, and terrain the shoe is used on.

Take care of your trail running shoes and this will help to elongate their life. Cleaning and fixing blemishes are two ways that you can care for your shoes. Training volume is determined by how much running you will be doing. If you run more, then this will wear the shoe tread and cushion more over time.

best trail running tips for beginners

Running more will place stress along with each system of the shoe. If it is a well-designed and quality trail running shoe, it will likely be able to handle hundreds and hundreds of miles. Lastly, the terrain will be a big determining factor in how long your shoe should last.

Expect the lifespan of your shoe to decrease if you are running highly technical terrain where the likely hood of abrasion and puncturing is high. Again, if the shoe is designed for harsh terrain it will be able to handle abrasion and punctures. But over time, the shoe will start to break down, it is a part of the gear lifecycle. Nothing lasts forever, unfortunately.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Is it OK to run on the road in trail shoes?

Yes, but you may find that your trail running shoes are not comfortable for longer duration road running. Plus, the thicker lugs on trail running shoes may wear down faster when running on pavement, so you'll get more out of your trail running shoes if you save them for trail running specifically.

Is it bad to use trail running shoes on pavement?

Not necessarily and you can certainly use your trail running shoes for running on pavement. However, depending on the shoe you're using you may find that your trail running shoes are uncomfortable or lack adequate support and cushion for running on pavement.

Are trail running shoes worth it?

Trail running shoes are absolutely worth it if you plan to tackle trail runs with various forms of terrain. This type of shoe is designed to have increased durability and will provide better traction and grip on loose surfaces.

Takeaway Thoughts

Trail running shoes can be an incredibly important piece of training gear for anyone tackling runs on unpaved surfaces. Like with any piece of gear, it’s a good idea to get some specific for your trail running wants and needs.

If you have any additional questions on trail running shoes or which pair you should go with for your needs, drop a comment below!

Will Quillman

Will Quillman

Will Quillman is a Strength and Conditioning Coach at The United States Air Force Academy. He works with the NCAA Division I FCS football program and teaches physical education courses, including basic cadet physical development and rock climbing. He holds a Masters Degree in Sports Medicine with an Emphasis in Strength and Conditioning from The University of Colorado Springs (UCCS). He loves outdoor gear and apparel. Training outdoors is one of Will's many passions and devotes hours every single day training for the activities he loves. Will knows that in the backcountry, gear and apparel can make or break a great experience.

2 thoughts on “Trail Running Shoes Guide | Trail Vs Road, Benefits, Sizing, and More”

  1. Hi! I am going back to running, but as a 57 years old man, I just want to run on grass and dirt.. I live in Florida, close to a glof course and can run around it , so mostly wet grass ,some dirt and tree roots but mostly wet grass and flat terrain. My regular running shoes are getting destroyed by the wet grass , soles and sides coming unglued cause I run early morning ( dew time). Will a trail shoe resolve this issue ? And if yes, what do you recommend for mostly wet grass flat terrain? Ideally a 4mm drop but could go up to 8mm ( but would prefer lower, but minimum 4 mm), and would love to stay somewhat nimble.

    Thank you. JL.

    1. They should. Generally, trail shoe uppers will be built to be more resilient to this type of environment. I’d look into shoes like the Nike Peg Trail 4 Gore-Tex or the GORUCK Runner. I’d also suggest hitting up REI or your local running store and picking their brain on which models they have in-store that would work. That way you can try them on, too, and sure ensure you’re getting a model that aligns well with your needs!

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