How to Buy Trail Shoes: A Beginner’s Guide

Looking to make the jump from the road to the trail? Make the transition as seamless as possible with a shoe built for the rigors of off-road running.

Historically, top running brands have always focused on creating the best gear to achieve your fitness, distance and time goals. Until relatively recently however, that focus has been squarely on road running. Now, as runners push the envelope farther and farther afield, brands are taking note and renewing their focus on designing shoes that stand up to the special challenges presented by trails.

Today, there’s a shoe for every kind of trail run, from the mild rolling hills to the highly technical off-road excursion. It doesn’t matter what kind of runner you are — old or young, fast or slow, competitive or casual — if you measure your personal bests in terms of running, you can take your road show off the beaten path. And when you do, you’ll have your choice of the right kind of gear.

WHY TRAIL RUNNING?

For some, like avid runner Stacy Kopchak, who has 21 marathons, several 50Ks, and many 50- and 100-mile courses to her credit, the reason to run trails is simple.

“It’s nice to get off the roads and into the peaceful woods and beautiful scenery,” she says, “Running just seems to go by faster and is more interesting. When you run trails, it’s easy to get into the ‘zone’ when traversing over varied terrain.”

But for all that tranquility, trail running also creates its own set of challenges that are wholly different from regular road running. Paradoxically, this is the reason that many people get into the sport and also the reason people hesitate to take to the trails. But if you plan your entry into the sport and choose the right gear, trail running could be your go-to form of exercise.

To some extent, you can expect benefits similar to that of regular road runs. It’s a great cardio workout, but it’s not a speed workout or track workout. Depending on the course, runners will have to run up and down hills, use rocky outcrops as steps out of a ravine and splash through creeks with muddy bottoms and gravel-like shorelines.

“Trail running is more challenging than running on pavement and roads,” Stacy says. “It really is a great full-body workout. It complements road running and helps to reduce overuse injuries since the surface is softer and different muscles are used.”

All of those obstacles also put different stresses on your body. Depending on the level of difficulty, you’ll work parts of your body from the soles of your feet up through your core that you didn’t even realize you had.

And supporting all that is your shoe.

WHY ARE TRAIL RUNNING SHOES IMPORTANT?  

First, keep your eye on the course and prepare to get dirty.

Depending on your course, you’ll probably encounter uneven surfaces, loose dirt, mud, roots, rocks and the occasional fallen tree and creek crossing. In short, if it can occur in nature you may eventually run into it (or on it), and the best way to get around any obstacle is to keep your feet moving.

“Traction is key when running over various trail surfaces,” Stacy says. “The treads or lugs on the bottom of the shoe really help grip different surfaces and are made to prevent slipping.”

Trail shoes also help protect you in less-than-obvious ways. Compared to their road brethren, trail shoes are made of more durable (and often waterproof) materials and fabrics designed to prevent fraying and ripping on sharp rocks and other abrasive surfaces.

“Toe bumpers — rubber at the tip of the shoe to help protect the toes from injury from roots and rocks — are also great [features],” Stacy says.

But the potential pitfalls on a trail mean that you have to be more aware at all times. On a track, suburban sidewalk or even a rails-to-trails, it’s practically expected for a runner to zone out, listen to some tunes and just run for it. On a true trail, however, diligence is the name of the game. And that game starts with the trail shoe.

CHOOSING A PAIR OF TRAIL SHOES

You’ll also want to match your shoe to the particular course. For a simple example, think of the differences between running through loose sand and loose snow. There are dozens of trail conditions: wet or dry, hard packed or soft, rocky or clear, etc. There are shoes specialized to the conditions you’ll likely be encountering.

“Look at the treads or lugs bottom of the shoe. If you are running on dirt or gravel roads you might not need a shoe with a lot of traction versus a hard, rocky trail,” Stacy says.

Stacy’s best advice when it comes to finding the pair of trail shoes that’s right for you? Do what you’re already doing: research.

“Collect all the information you can before going to the store,” she says. “Research different brands online to educate yourself; ask friends about what shoes they wear and what they like and dislike about them, and get a gait analysis at the store from a professional trained on shoes.”

Nothing trumps comfort. If the shoe isn’t comfortable, you won’t wear it. If you don’t wear it, you won’t go running. If you’re in the store, try them on. Use them on the treadmill. Jog in them. Try them on with trail socks.

And last, but not least, all that remains to be said is: Happy trails to you.