Trail-running shoes vs. road shoes

Instead of choosing a trail shoe based on your foot type as you would with regular running shoes, look at the type of trails you frequent. If you attack rough, rocky terrain, you'll want a heavier, rugged trail shoe with deep, beefy soles and lugs. However, if smooth, groomed paths are more your speed, lighter shoes with less traction and more cushioning should be your choice. Finally, if you plan to run on both roads and trails, crossover trail shoes have the most cushioning and can easily transition between the two surfaces.

Don't think of trail-running shoes as just earth-toned cousins of your pavement pounders. They typically provide more protection than regular running shoes, with thicker soles to shield feet from rocks and debris, plus extra protection over the toebox. For traction on varied terrain, rubber lugs on the outsole are usually deep and beefy, often with a multidirectional design for climbing steep slopes without slipping. Very deep lugs grip rough trails but make for less stability on packed-dirt trails or pavement. Softer lugs are grippier, but wear faster than harder soles.

Trail running shoes usually have a wide and low profile so the foot is closer to the ground for more stability on irregular surfaces. Shoes designed exclusively for the trail have less cushioning so you can get the feel of the trail. Some trail shoes go too far in this direction, and reviewers often complain that you can feel sharp rocks or twigs underfoot.

Experts agree that most trail running shoes provide enough stability for runners with mild overpronation, but severe overpronators may need additional motion control. Motion-control trail shoes provide firmer support for those who need extra help correcting their gait. Most runners with a neutral gait or mild pronation can run in just about any trail running shoe.

Picking the right shoe is one of the most important decisions runners make, and experts recommend considering the following when evaluating trail running shoes:

  • Decide whether you want a shoe just for trails, or a hybrid for trail and road runs. Generally, the shoes with the deepest, beefiest lugs on the outsole are those that don't do as well on roads as on trails.
  • Have your gait analyzed at a running store. Even if the store doesn't carry trail shoes, the expert staff at a running store can advise you on whether you need extra motion control.
  • Shop in late afternoon and wear typical socks. Feet can swell at least a half size during the day, so experts recommend trying on shoes in the late afternoon or evening. Socks also affect fit, so wear the socks you intend to wear with the shoes. Experts generally recommend starting with shoes a half-size larger than your street-shoe size.
  • Feel the comfort straight out of the box. Shoes should fit well right away. Experts say shoes should feel comfortable right out of the box, and recommend trying them on a carpeted surface -- in a long hall, for example -- where you can walk quickly or jog in them to check their comfort.
  • Examine the size and shape of the lugs. Most trail running shoes have widely spaced or specially shaped lugs that provide good traction but don't hold onto mud. Reviews say this is important, because a lightweight shoe can become a monster if weighed down with mud.
  • Look for snug lacing. This is mostly a matter of individual preference. Some shoes have Boa dial-in lacing, others alternate lacing for a snug fit. Traditional laces are easiest to replace if they fray or break.
  • Determine that the uppers will keep out debris. Trails are loaded with loose dirt, sand, twigs and other debris, so the best trail running shoes are carefully designed to keep this stuff out yet provide ventilation to keep feet from getting hot. Dirt and dust can get into trail shoes with mesh uppers if the mesh isn't tight enough.
  • Know that waterproofing can increase foot temperature. Although manufacturers have improved the breathability of waterproof trail running shoes, they do tend to hold in heat more than nonwaterproof shoes. EVent is considered one of the most breathable waterproofing membranes. For trail-running in hot weather, reviews recommend a nonwaterproof mesh that's still tight enough to keep out debris.
  • Take your orthotics with you while shopping. You'll want to make sure the shoe is sufficiently roomy. Most trail running shoes have removable insoles you can replace with custom orthotics, but roomier shoes let you place orthotics under the cushioning of the shoe's own insole, which may be more comfortable.
  • Replace trail running shoes every 300 miles. Experts say EVA midsoles will have worn out by this time.
  • Buy two pairs to prolong wearability. Alternating pairs so each has time to dry out completely between wearings can make both pairs last longer.

Trail Running Shoes Runners Up:

Brooks Cascadia 6 *Est. $110

6 picks including: Runner's World, REI.com…

The North Face Single-Track *Est. $100

5 picks including: Backcountry.com, Runner's World…

La Sportiva Raptor *Est. $110

4 picks including: Runner's World, National Geographic Adventure…

New Balance Minimus Trail *Est. $100

4 picks by top review sites.

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Brooks Men's Cascadia 6 Running Shoe
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $110.00   
Average Customer Review:  
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La Sportiva Raptor Trail Running Shoes - Men's
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $119.95   
Average Customer Review:  

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