Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Trail Shoes – Who Needs Them?

This is the first of a two-part look at Trail Running shoes.  The second part will deal with the science that goes into developing these products.
By Alex Kurt
Trail running is growing. Races as famous as the Leadville 100 and as local as the Superior 25K filled in record time this year. Why? Part of the reason is the growth in popularity of ultra-distance races, many of which are run on trails. Though often synonymous, ultrarunning and trail running are not one in the same! 

Ultra runs are often just longer road races, trail running takes participants on journeys over seldom run terrain.  The category of trail shoes has grown along with the sport. Like spikes or racing flats, trail shoes are designed and made to help the trail racer go faster on rugged terrain--rocks, tree roots, mud, and streams. 

What they do
First, no two trail shoes are alike, as no two trails are exactly the same (nor are any two athletes). Shoes like the Salomon Speedcross ( are aggressively lugged for rugged, technical, and/or slippery terrain; they work very well but in a more limited number of scenarios. Meanwhile the Brooks Cascadia (,default,pd.html#start=4) has a more subtle outsole that allows a broader range of use – from fairly rugged to very runnable terrain, and even pavement – but won’t perform as well at either extreme.

Some trail shoes come from brands familiar to road runners (New Balance, Mizuno, Nike, Brooks) and will feel similar to road shoes; products from other brands (Salomon, Pearl Izumi) reflect little to no preexisting bias for how a “running shoe” should look or feel, often with great, innovative results.

Like road shoes, some are more highly structured while some reflect minimalist principles; some are more stable and some are more neutral; some are more protective and some are lighter. Some are waterproof. The point is that, as with road shoes, there is no “best” trail shoe, only different shoes that work to different degrees for different athletes on different terrain.

That said, there are three primary features in most trail shoes:
1      Increased outsole traction. In other words, cleats. They provide more traction on soft ground, especially climbing and descending. Outsole lugs range from being very aggressive for technical and soft terrain to being more subdued for those runners who don’t live at the trailhead and have to cover a mile or three on pavement to even get to the trail.

2      Increased underfoot protection. This can be a fiberglass rock plate under the ball of the foot, more built-up rubber on the outsole, and/or a hard bumper to protect the toes; whatever form it takes, it is meant to prevent sharp rocks from coming through the bottom of your shoe and rocks of all forms from making direct contact with your foot. The Born to Run crowd might disagree here, but I consider direct foot-to-rock contact a real bummer on any run.

3      Lower profile/decreased stack height. This is not a universal feature 
), but many trail shoes allow your feet to sit lower to the ground – regardless of their heel-to-toe differential – so you can better dance over the myriad rocks and roots you’ll encounter off-road. Running on higher platforms offers less lateral control, which can be problematic on the trails, where there’s simply more stuff to avoid.

Who needs them?
Does anyone who ever runs off-road need trail shoes? No. The truth is that most of the trails in the Twin Cities are quite runnable. (The very technical Superior Hiking Trail, near and north of Duluth, is the one trail I can think of in Minnesota that comes close to requiring trail shoes under any circumstances.) If you have only one pair of running shoes at a time and run on a combination of trails and roads each week, the downsides of using a road shoe on dirt will probably be more bearable than the pains of wearing a trail shoe on the roads.

That said, provided you have the down payment for a second (or third or fourth) pair of shoes, having a few different shoes in your quiver can be very beneficial – and not just because both pairs will last a bit longer. Having a pair of shoes designated and designed specifically for your days off-road will simply help you run better on trails; it can also make the experience more enjoyable.

Some other considerations for whether a trail shoe is worth the investment include:
-Are you training for a race that is on trails? If racing well is your priority, consider which shoes will be best for your goal race and train in those. If your aim is to run the Superior 50k and run it fast, you’ll want to grow accustomed to a fairly protective trail shoe by training in them.

-Do you run on the roads in the winter? I work at TC Running Company, and most of the trail shoes we sell between November and March are for road runners who want more traction on snowy and icy sidewalks. Even running around the lakes and along the river in Minneapolis, I’ve found my less-aggressive trail shoes a great fit for the layer of snow that’s become well-packed down by the plows.

-Do you run more than half of your runs on trails? Even if you only have one pair of shoes, the downsides of a road shoe on trails might outweigh the cons of a trail shoe on roads if more than half your miles are on trails.

Ultimately, the shoes you wear are a matter of personal preference. Take Rob Krar, a North Face-sponsored runner who last year took the ultra world by storm, winning two of the year’s most competitive races and placing second at the Western States 100; he was recently named the 2013 Male Ultrarunner of the Year by Ultrarunning Magazine. And he ran every mile, from the fire roads of northern California to mountain passes in Colorado, in Nike road racing flats. Could anyone cover the UROC 100k course in Nike Lunar Racers comfortably? No. But he could, so he did.

Happy trails.

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