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Trail Running Shoes: What They Are And Why You Need Them

Not long ago there were just “trail running shoes” and now we’ve got max cushion, technical, “troad,” and even carbon-fiber trail running shoes! How do you make sense of it all? You came to the right place. Lace up your brain and let's go!

What are trail running shoes? What’s the difference between trail and road running shoes? 

Trail running shoes are a relatively new part of the sport. Before trail running shoes, people ran on trails in anything or nothing. Since trail running shoes have come out, however, more and more people are falling in love with trail running. And with more trail runners than ever before, the shoe game has become a little complicated. 

Simply put, trail running shoes are built to help you run safely on trails–and have fun! Trail running involves running in all conditions, so a trail running shoe should have at least two special features.

The 2 Main Features of Trail Running Shoes

1. Grippy Outsole/Tread Pattern 

The most easily identified difference between a road shoe and a trail shoe is the outsole. Turn any shoe upside-down and you should be able to tell if it’s a road running shoe or a trail running shoe. What’s the difference? Tread! Trail running shoes have deeper lugs and more space between those lugs. This depth and space lets them bite into the earth and shed mud when it’s too messy. 

2. Durable Upper Materials

Besides the outsole, a trail-running shoe will usually have more tough materials around your foot. The “upper” is basically everything above the cushion. As with road shoes, breathability remains important but there are rocks, roots, and wildlife to consider, too. You’ll probably see a plasticky material wrap around the base of the foot, above the cushioning. This is a mudguard and is your friend, it keeps moisture from making its way into the shoe too easily. Hello, mudguard, thanks for doing the work. 

These durable upper materials in trail running shoes also help you run more confidently on unpredictable trails. As you last-second jump over that root that might have been a snake and land awkwardly off the trail, you shouldn’t worry too much about rolling off the sole or sliding around. 

Laces are another trail shoe deviation from the road running norm. While most trail running shoes have normal-looking laces, some have extra grippy or durable fibers added in. You might also see some speed laces, which are kind of a bungee cord attached to a pinch lock. 

Something road shoes have been stealing from the trail running category, though, is the idea of a lace garage. Trail shoes have been doing this for a while, putting a stretchy piece of material or a pouch on the tongue to keep your residual laces post-knot from throwing off your groove. It’s all in the details.

How do you pick a trail running shoe?

If you’ve never ran on trails before, it’ll be easy. Just come into RunnersWorld Tulsa and we’ll help you get something that’ll work. We know all the trails around here and what works for most people (and why). Plus, we’ll do an in-depth analysis on your running and might even send you home with some helpful homework to get better at running!

If you’ve run on trails but never had trail shoes, it’s still going to be easy.

No matter your history–or lack thereof–with trail running, we’ll probably ask you a few questions...

What do you LOVE about trail running?

Your answer to this question will tell us so much about the right shoe for you! It’s also just a fun thing to talk about. Let’s pretend you’re in the store right now, and one of the next headlines is your answer.

“I love being in nature and running for hours without a care.”

First and foremost, have you heard of ultramarathons? 

If your answer is something like this, we’ll recommend some shoes that prioritize comfort and durability. For example, you might see us carrying out a stack of shoes including the On Cloudultsa 2, Altra Olympus 5, Topo Ultraventure 3, or Brooks Caldera 7 (to name a few). 

These kinds of shoes do a fantastic job of protecting your feet from potential danger on the trail. They’ve got loads of cushion and sometimes a rock plate, too. The tread is more than ample, but a little less noticeable on flatter sections of the trail. The goal with these trail running shoes is to keep you going, and going, and going–and not worrying about anything.

“I love going fast and playing on the rocks and hills!” 

If this is you, please make your presence known before you fly by–and look out for cyclists! 

I’m speaking to myself here, because this is my answer! There’s nothing like the feeling of dancing downhill and almost face planting in the rocks. It’s the stuff of life. If you’re like me, you might end up trying on the Altra Superior 6, Hoka Torrent 3, Saucony Peregrine 14, or On Cloudvista. 

These trail shoes can be called “technical” trail runners. Trail running shoes in the technical trail running category generally have a bit more aggressive tread, are lighter-weight, put your foot closer to the ground, and have some level of ground feel.

“Ground feel” is a bit of a contentious topic. Some people can feel the ground in any shoe, and others would have to be barefoot to know the difference between road and trail. Because every runner is different, your level of preferred ground feel might not line up exactly with a trail running shoe’s description.

Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to tell just by jogging around the store whether or not there’s enough or too much under your foot. If you still have questions, though, we’ll dish out the details and provide examples of common experiences by runners like you.

Two New(er) Categories of Trail Running Shoes

1. Carbon Fiber Trail Running Shoes

It was only a matter of time before carbon fiber plates made the crossover from road to trail running. A little surprise though, trail running shoes were plated before road running shoes! The plate was/is a protective rock plate, and was NOT intended to decrease your time by any percentage. 

Running on uneven terrain in a shoe that has a stiff piece of metal in it doesn’t really sound like a great idea…does it? As if it wasn’t already all too easy to roll our ankles.

Thankfully, shoe manufacturers are a little smarter than we give them credit for--sometimes. Carbon fiber trail running shoes don’t have the same carbon fiber plate as road running carbon fiber shoes (how many times can I write “carbon fiber” in one blog?). The trail running carbon fiber (one more!) shoes use plates that are either fingered at the toe section or split into two parallel plates. This prevents the metal plate from being too rigid and helps us roll over roots and rocks. 

Carbon-fiber trail shoes are primarily recommended for racing right now. That may change, as more plated trail shoes enter the market and more tests are performed. But for now, consider sticking with your usual trail shoe for most of your trail runs.

2. Troad, or Hybrid, Trail Running Shoes

A combination of the words “trail” and “road,” troad shoes are a sort of hybrid running shoe. Generally speaking, they have a more durable upper than most road running shoes, but not as aggressive outsoles as some trail running shoes. 

A couple notable troad shoes are the On Cloudsurfer Trail (in-store SOON!) and the Altra Outroad 2. They’ve struck a balance of having a grippy outsole tread that’s stable on trails and smooth on the road. The midsole/cushioning material is soft enough for the pavement but not too soft to handle Turkey Mountain rocks.

This kind of shoe is great for any trail runner, because most troad shoes are simply good trail running shoes. The best fit for these hybrid trail runners, though, someone who does trail running but wants to wear the same shoe for road running. They’re also a good option if you aren’t certain that you’ll like trail running, but you want to give it a good try. 

As for us, we think you’ll be hooked! So go run!

Every Trail Runner is Different and Might Not Fit in a Box

You might have read that last section and thought to yourself, “I don’t really fit in any category” or “My answer is the first one, but I wear a shoe in the technical trail running category!” 

Don’t worry, this is not a crisis. This is the nature of trail running–in fact, it’s the nature of all running! Many runners don’t fit into the category of trail running shoes marketed to them based on their Google account. If only it were that easy… But that’s where we, your local running store, can save the day! 

On the other hand, you might fit perfectly in a category but try on a shoe and find that it isn’t very comfortable at all. We’ll have been watching you run and can offer an alternative that may cooperate better with your stride.

Or we’ll give you tips on improving your stride so you can have more footwear options.

Trail Run Story Time

Here’s a story to prove my point that you can’t expect every trail runner to fit into a category.

I moved here from the Devner, CO area a few summers ago. We were there for around 5 years, and I loved running in the foothills. One of my favorite trails to run was Barr Trail in Colorado Springs, via the famously infamous Manitou Incline. The Incline gives you 2,000 feet of vertical gain in about 1 mile. After the Incline you can ride down the rocky, switchback-y goodness of Barr Trail and do it all over again! 

Even in winter, when the gaps between the Incline steps can be filled in by ice and snow, people would be clambering for a parking spot at the trailhead. I saw people going up and down the Incline in so many different kinds of shoes! Some were wearing trail running shoes, some weren’t. I even heard of someone doing the Incline barefoot year-round.

The Incline is unique because it’s mostly wooden steps until you get to the top. The legendary nature of the Manitou Incline has made it popular with those who don’t already trail run. So people in all kinds of footwear would make it to the top with smiles on their faces (or at least without having seriously injured themselves). Footwear didn’t really seem to make a difference until you got to the top, when you’d either rest, keep going up on the way to Pikes Peak, or fly down Barr Trail. 

This is when you’d see the difference that trail-running footwear makes. Most people not wearing trail running shoes (or hiking boots, but that’s a different story) would not be continuing their route up or down Barr Trail. 

You could see why, as you ran down the trail. Imagine you’re there now!

The sticky, grippy outsole of a pair of trail running shoes helps you stay stable while cornering down switchbacks in loose dirt or bounding for joy off of boulders. The deeper traction bites into the ground to help you slow down to avoid running into people or descending faster than you want. The tough upper materials keep your foot safe from sharp rock edges and roots that would otherwise tear through your shoes and nibble on your feet as you quickstep down the more rocky sections of the trail. You get to the bottom after almost tripping too many times to take in the view and you don’t even think about your shoes, because they did their job.

Well, that was fun!

All that said, there was no type or category of trail running shoe worn exclusively on any trail. Runners would go up and down in everything from beefy Hokas to nimble Topos. It could go without saying, of course, that this isn’t just the case at the Manitou Incline! I see people out on the trails around Tulsa wearing all types of trail running shoes.

Trail Running Shoes Are For Everyone! 

While not everyone fits perfectly into a little box that tells them what trail running shoe to get, a pair of trail running shoes will make your trail running more fun and safe. So come on in the store sometime! Hang out with us and try on a bunch of shoes. Let’s talk about your running goals and experiences and find the best trail running shoes for you.

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