When, If Ever, Should You Wear Trail Shoes?

Trail shoes are a waste and you shouldn’t wear them. That’s a wee dramatization of the comments some of Appalachia’s fine mountain men have left on iRunFar’s prior post on trail shoe diversity. Their comments and the discussion it has sparked are worthy of a separate post, so read on.

For this discussion, I choose to be part of the conversation rather than abstractly pontificating about the relative merits and demerits of wearing trail shoes ahead of time, so look for my thoughts in the comments. To get things started, here are some highlights of the conversation so far:

Trail shoes are kind of a joke. Do we really need all of that stuff on our feet in order to run trails? What about a nice pair of cushioned road shoes? All that other stuff on most trail shoes is just extra weight. Plus, the stiffness kills the motion of running. I do wear trail shoes at times, but I wear road shoes as often and wonder why I ever bother with the trail shoes. If you have decent trail running technique, you should give it a try. – wonderboy

Wonderboy, I sort of agree with you for running on terrain that is not rocky and rooty (like dirt roads / fire roads), but if you have ever kicked a rock while running or ran on a muddy slippery trail you will know why runners appreciate trail shoes. I run in a trail shoe that is a beefed up road shoe, but the extra traction and protection is worth the little extra weight. – aerojust

In any discussion of trail shoes, there are always those who say “but you don’t neeeeed them”. So what? Maybe you should strip your life of all things you don’t actually *need*, and then report back. ;) – sara

Please share your thoughts about wearing trail shoes.

  • When you leave pavement are your always running in trail shoes?
  • If you wear trail shoes for some but not all off-road running on what factors do you base your shoe decision?
  • If you’ve sworn off wearing trail shoes altogether, why have you done so?
  • In general, what are the best and worst general qualities of trail shoes?

Poll Results: When Do You Wear Trail Shoes?

Every time my tootsies toe the trail.
15 (37%)
Almost any time I get my shoes dirty.
7 (17%)
I go with the flow, man. I wear ’em, like, whenever I want to.
6 (15%)
Only when conditions (rocks, mud, snow) call for them.
9 (22%)
I only wear road shoes or racing flats.
2 (5%)
Shoes are for weenies – I run barefoot.
1 (2%)

There are 20 comments

  1. Travis

    1. Yes, if I run on a trail, I am wearing trail shoes. I get lazy after a while and can count on banging my toes.2. See above3. I haven't but am working on lighter more low profile trail shoes. ie. racebland, fireblade, highlander.4. a. best – traction and the wide array of tread patterns you can use based on trail conditions. Toe protection. Strike plate so that sharp objects don’t push through and help with foot fatigueb. worst – weight, too heavy. too clunky, too much height in the heel.The good thing is that it seems like shoe manufactures (Inov-8, LaFuma, LaSportiva, even TNF…) are trying to address this and start putting more thought into building efficient trail shoes instead of bulked up road shoes.

  2. Michael Valliant

    I get where wonderboy is coming from–don't get so caught up in having the correct gear that you lose sight of why you are out there–albeit I am not quite so much a luddite :) I tend to subscribe to the notion that running is a natural activity and that allowing your body its "natural" (whatever that means anymore) stride and foot strike is a positive thing.Having said that, running on pavement is not so natural. As an overpronator, I run roads in Brooks Adrenalines–they fit me well and give me about the least padding and support while still doing the job.I look for a trail shoe to be light, let me feel the trail, drain water well (our normal stomping grounds include creek crossings), provide some underfoot and toe protection from rocks and roots, and give some grip/traction. I appreciate a shoe that is light for singletrack when heavier/overbuilt shoes are overkill.I am too cheap to have many different trail shoes for different conditions though–I try to find one kind that can tackle a variety of terrain.Great post and discussion. Thanks for putting it out there! –Mike V.

  3. aerojust

    I think it comes down to experience and personal preference. I researched a lot into the "perfect shoe" and through trail and error and money wasted on shoes I do not like or do not work for me I have found out what does work for me today. Maybe next year I will change my mind. Just do not over think this. I spent a lot of time trying to convince myself that I needed one type of shoe when what I had was working perfectly well.

  4. MN Ultra Runner

    Bryon you hit the nail on the head when discussing the type of trail. For many people trail running means a perfect surface that happens to be dirt. No real need for different shoes. Anybody that has run on rock and root littered trails has kicked one or both. The most technically sound runner in the world can have slips after many hours on their feet. I've kicked roots in my trail shoes that hurt bad enough, it feels like it would have torn my toes clean off in my road shoes.I go with the trail version of my road shoe (Asics). The toe area is bolstered slightly, although not as much as I'd like. The midfoot is supposedly more rigid but I can't feel it. I sacrifice some of the beefier features that would be nice in exchange for a shoe that fits my foot exactly the same as my road shoe.

  5. Caren

    Great topic. I got torn a new one when I asked my coach which trail shoe I should wear. I agree with less is more, but…Yes I'm always in trail shoes when running on trails for various reasons: a) after a couple of hours I also get clumsy and will definitely kick some rocks, b) terrain – after a long run on rocks I'm really glad I'm not feeling too much in Hardrocks, and c) on trails, the dirtier, wetter and muddier my shoes get, the happier I am – I HATE getting my road shoes dirty.Risking flame here, but I'm a Montrail and Nike whore. For rocks, very tech terrain and mud I wear Hardrocks. I loved the Continental Divides but they hurt my heels. For easy trail it's Nike Air Peg trail version. They feel exactly the same as my road shoes (air pegs), but with toe protection.

  6. ultrastevep

    1. No.2. I wear my road shoes and my trail shoes on successive days just to wear something different to help prevent injury. If i feel I will be mostly on trail, the ASR's go on my feet, if mostly road, then it's the road shoes. I didn't wear trail shoes all winter because I had ot run on the roads every day.3.I haven't4. Don't really know. I guess the traction is better on my trail shoes and the protection from rocks seems to be better.FWIW: I wear Brooks ASR's on trails and Asics 2030's and Brooks Adrenaline's on the roads.

  7. Holly

    1. No. I do rotate wear my road shoes for variety in order to avoid injury, but only on runs where the trail section is short. BUT I will wear trail shoes all winter long, even on pavement, because the traction on snow is so much better.2. Weather is a huge decision maker – I would never run in the mud in road shoes. And if I am feeling fatigued I stick to my trail shoes because of the inevitable root/rock kicking.3. N/A4. Best – toe protection. Improved traction in loose conditions (if you find a tread that really works for you and the terrain you run on most). Trail specific materials that keep the grit away from your feet.Worst – extra weight and can be ridiculously rigid through the heel.

  8. Buzz

    Good discussion; thanks!Sometimes people ask me for advice on trail running; the first thing I do is look at their feet … if they are wearing road shoes, I tell them to first get something appropriate, then we'll talk about it.Roads and trails have different characteristics, and so rather obviously, the shoes used on them should also have different characteristics. This is less true of smooth trails, and more true for mountain running.The entire purpose of a road shoe is for shock absorption. Think about it … nothing else really matters, does it? (Unless you have structural problems). A good road shoe is essentially a great midsole with an outsole for durability and an upper to attach it to your foot. The other components can be seen as optional bells and whistles (again, unless you have issues).For mountain running however, many more factors come into play! The outsole needs to provide traction so you're not dissipating energy with each push off, or slipping and crashing. The upper needs to provide some protection from objects, and provide support for cutting turns, twisting, and the occasional jump. The midsole actually can be less thick, as the running surface itself has some cushion (unlike concrete), and it can't be too soft (or needs an insert) in order to protect from sharp rocks.Road shoes thus are fairly easy to construct and select! I look for the fattest, softest midsole I can find, with as little junk on the upper as possible (or I laboriously cut it all off myself). And those strangely complicated outsole patterns seem mainly intended to justify the high prices.Mountain/trail running shoes are much more complex. as they have to accomplish a lot more. IMHO, the road companies didn't the slightest idea how to do this, and so many people just stuck with their regular road shoes … why not? The trail-specific companies did have a clue, but they made shoes that were stiff, heavy, and with thick but hard midsoles. Yuk also. Many people didn't like these options, so stuck with their comfortable road shoes, which unfortunately don't work well on trails.The La Sportiva Fireblade was very well-accepted because it specifically combined the good qualities of a road shoe with a trail shoe – it is low to the ground and the upper grabs your foot, so it feels secure on technical terrain, while it is also lightweight with a good flex pattern, so you can get up on the ball of your foot and run and not just jog. The newer Crosslite does that as well, while extending the market trend toward lighter and more minimalistic mountainwear. Thanks to Scott's design input, I think the Brooks Cascade fit the bill too.There are many good options now. Wear a trail shoe while on the trail; I think you'll like it.

  9. Bedrock

    Goat,I have moved to more minimalist shoes over the last year despite a "not so minimalist" frame (6'2" and 180). I run local non technical trails in flats or cushioned road shoes because I do like the "feel" of the trail. My only concern with these shoes on rocky terrain is how they handle wet rocks. I simply feel like I am "out of control" when running on this terrain with road shoes.I have previously talked aboutnthe Streaks and for me, a shoe like this is a great compromise for trails. basically a road shoe but with a little more grip and protection. I suspect the Brooks shoes are similar.

  10. Anonymous

    Another great discussion. This comes up on Slowtwitch Forum too, usually in the context of Xterra triathlons. My response to those who insist that road flats are all you need is that I hope the next time we are racing on a muddy hilly course, you wear your road flats. They leave nice long streaks in the mud as you slide on every step :)Seriously, the main reason I prefer trail shoes is for the traction and energy savings and avoidance of unnecessary strain on muscles and connective tissue associated with slipping feet. BUT they should be as light as possible, also for energy savings, and be low to the ground for feel and stability. I hate big clunky tank-like shoes. Too much weight swinging around at the end of my legs and thick soles and heels interfere with agility and smooth mechanics.But I don't run ultras either, so YMMV.-dogrunner, aka anonymous today

  11. Grae Van Hooser

    As a runner who attends mostly races in NORCAL, I would say that that an overwealming majority of runners wear road shoes. I'd say about 80% (unscientific observation).Last years results at States saw 5 of the top 10 men in road shoes.I guess trail shoes are sold mostly in other parts of the U.S.?

  12. Meredith

    I wear my trail shoes on technical & single track trails, but if i am running grassy trails or gravel wide trails i may opt for road shoes. I actually liked my trail shoes better than my road shoes until the new Brooks Trance's came out last year. Most of our technical trails are rocky covered with wet leaves, that makes me prefer trail shoes! Also, as i said in the previous post, trail shoes don't allow as much dust and debris into the shoe thru the meshy part, thus protecting your little piggies on dusty and gritty trails, especailly over the course of 100 miles.

  13. worm

    in my personal experience there are only two words for the necessity of trail shoes: alaska trails. that's all I run so trail shoes are all I wear. in fact, apart from sports, I've only ever run trails and only raced trail races. I've never even owned road running shoes.

  14. worm

    like anywhere it depends on where you're running. I've only been a trail runner, since 2004 so I haven't had the opportunity to run in all the pretty places I see in magazines, but most of our trails that are worth running are epic and include a mix of rocks both sharp and loose, roots, mud, snow, river and stream crossings, dense brush, and other hazards. unfortunately we are at a loss for nice flowy or smooth singletrack and fire roads. most of the trails I run and train on are in the mountains so a road shoe just won't cut it. not enough support and also wouldn't hold up to the abuse. the manicured trails we do have tend to be double-track and boring. this is just personal opinion of course. I like a run to be a challenge, not monotonous. many of alaska's competitive runners just run on popular mountain/hiking trails and get looked at like they're crazy. I don't count myself in the competitive category, I run for fun.

  15. aerojust

    God did not make my feet for running trails. I cannot find the extra wide trail shoes needed to support my custom orthodics while maintaining the stability required to support my over pronation. Sorry for the long explanation… This all leads me to running the first 30+ miles of the Massanutten Course last weekend in a brand new pair of Brooks Adrenaline GTS 9s in extra (4E) wide. I need the wide width to eat up my orthodics and not cause blisters on my arches. The shoes did pretty well on this rocky course. The places they lacked were in lateral stability on the rocks and traction. Traction was the biggest issue. While on leaves sometimes I felt like I was on ice. I took a nasty fall on one steep section of trail where I ended up rolling down the trail. Luckily I was not injured, just bruised. Overall they worked well, but I will not be wearing them to race. I will just deal with the foot pain I may deal with.

  16. Anonymous

    I run trails in western and northern New Hampshire often. My description of today's trail: steep hills, worse going down than up, ice, water, mud, roots, rocks, flowing water under ice. I love it. My dog loves it. But I fall on a regular basis (not every run but regularly) and stub my toes or otherwise bang my foot on something hard at least 2-3 times a run. I wear street shoes on the street and trail shoes with the biggest front toe bumper I can find on the trails. In summer these trails are nicer but there are still roots, rocks, and water the entire way. Flat clear dirt path running just is not the same as trail running in this part of NH. I would end up with worse injuries and lose running time if I did not wear trail shoes.

  17. Mike

    I wear trail shoes because: – The trails I run have loose dirt and I got sick of slipping around on them, particularly when going uphill. – They "seem" to not fall apart as quickly as my road shoes. Maybe true, maybe not, but the placebo effect is good enough for me. Then again, I just read "Born to Run" and am now second guessing everything I ever thought I knew about running shoes (not a whole lot to begin with, so…meh). Also, a friend of mine that is a tremendous runner was once asked in an interview "What is your favorite running shoe" and his response was "Whatever's on sale" which made me decide that as long as the shoe is comfortable and doesn't tear my feet up (and I'm sure we've all tried a pair or two of those), they'll work.

  18. Nikolia

    I love the END Stumptown 10 oz and 12 oz. They are lighter than most road shoes, but have excellent tread. My toes are well (enough) protected, but I can still feel the trail. The upper has a streamlined construction that lets you forget you're wearing shoes. Before I discovered END (from irunfar, btw), I wore some Brooks road shoe (can't recall the name–very lightweight) and Asics Trabuco.

  19. Bryon Powell

    Nikolia,I'm glad you enjoy the END shoes. I so wish they would now have been shutdown. I liked some of their forthcoming models even more than the models already on the market.

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