May 9, 2017

Selecting Trail-Running Footwear No Shoo-in

By John Rezell

You’ve decided to head off the beaten path for a run on the trail, and your first step is picking the shoe that’s right for you. Where do you start?

“For one, you have to decide where you are going to do the bulk of your trail running,” said Scott McCoubrey, Footwear Manager, Run/Outdoor USA at Scott-Sports. “Is it going to be Discovery Park, Lower Woodland Park, or from your house on the road to a singletrack trail and back, or all on singletrack technical terrain?”

As with all specialized shoes, the options can be overwhelming.

Compared with road-running shoes, trail-running shoes typically have more tread on the bottom to improve traction, some support or protection beneath the ball of the foot to soften impact with rocks, and a strong upper design to withstand trail wear and tear.

“Traditional running shoes are geared for absorbing shock, protecting the foot, cushioning blow and guiding the foot on a more repetitive foot strike,” McCoubrey said. “When you get on a trail, the terrain beneath you starts to zig, zag, weave and the variation of foot strike changes. The support from a trail shoe as terrain gets more technical is going to be different.”

While the level of traction on the soles and protection vary, personal preference plays a key role, says Will Galvin, Regional Manager and Buyer for Seattle and Portland New Balance stores.

“The level of the runner, the aggressiveness of terrain and the mileage all comes into play,” Galvin said. “Personal preference is also important, whether they want something light and agile — something minimal — or something a little beefier and more protected.”

Changing Demands

Any shoe could work for a trail run, but the challenges feet endure on the trail vary, so a shoe to match will work best.

“As you move from more repetitive terrain to more technical terrain with more variation, you need more support under your foot to keep your foot centered in the shoe,”

McCoubrey said. “You might need more protection for the bone structure of your foot. You might need much better traction, as well as the support for foot and ankles, and you will also look at something more durable for abrasion resistance for the upper on the shoe.”

Adjusting to the Terrain

If your running will be on primarily light to moderate, smoother terrain, look for something that isn’t too different from a road-running shoe.

“You can go to a shoe with more cushioning and more multidirectional traction so it doesn’t slip and slide,” McCoubrey said. “You have a little more surface area on the traction so the shoe rolls more smoothly, like a road shoe. Look for something with a carbon rubber outsole so it’s not slippery on rocks and wet wood.”

As the terrain increases in intensity, your shoe demands increase, too.

“If it is moderate to mild terrain and more repetitive in your foot strike — not super steep and super technical — you look at increased traction over your road shoe and more protection under your foot,” McCoubrey said. “Usually, just moving from a regular foam rubber outsole to carbon rubber with multidirectional traction is good enough protection against the obstacles in more moderate terrain.”

Traction and protection are crucial on more demanding terrain. One special feature that many trail-running shoes offer that conventional running shoes don’t is extra-density reinforcement — sometimes a plastic molded piece — underneath the ball of the foot to help guard against bruising.

“Our technology is called the rock stop,” Galvin, of New Balance, said. “It’s a thin plate underneath the outsole, between the tread and the foam midsole, so you’re getting a little extra reinforcement. You don’t want to add weight to the shoe — you don’t put a metal shank in, like a boot. You don’t want to cut down all the flexibility of the shoe, but you want some protection.”

One debatable aspect of trail-running shoes is waterproofing, which comes down to personal preference.

“Waterproof shoes are most helpful in cold weather, wet climates or when running on snow,” said Yitka Winn, OutdoorsNW’s “On The Run” columnist. “In most other situations, they can be overkill. Waterproof membranes, even if labeled ‘breathable,’ never breathe as well as a non-waterproof shoe.

“Keep in mind that if water or snow enters the top of a waterproof shoe, it can get trapped inside the membrane. Consider instead a quick-draining, non-waterproof shoe, or pair your waterproof shoe with a trail-running gaiter that prevents water or snow from seeping in at the collar.”

Knowing the basics for trail-running shoes can get you started, but matching your specific challenges with the right shoe is key.

“People looking for running shoes these days are educated,” Galvin said. “They have access to information and reviews, but actually coming in and trying shoes on the feet to feel the differences is what you need to do.”

John “Raz” Rezell is editor of OutdoorsNW.