There are many things that actually affect your performance and ability to run well and injury free. Conditioning, training and flexibility are important but there is one external factor that plays a big role and that is shoe selection. If your body was an automobile your shoes would be your tires, shock absorbers, suspension, brakes and traction control system. They are your connection to the trails and roads. They provide critical feedback that impacts your stride, balance and pace.
Running shoes can be broken down into many categories including road, trail running, track, cross country, racing and minimalist. Runners are heading from the roads to the trails and it is important to understand how these shoes differ. Road running shoes are designed for speed over relatively smooth conditions. They feature smooth bottoms, cushioning to absorb and reduce shock transmitted from road running surfaces and light-weight materials. Trail running shoes are designed for many different off road environments and have design elements based on these environments. It is important to pick the right shoes for the conditions you will be running in. The conditions you encounter may include smooth paths, fire roads, rocky and technical trails, wet areas with stream crossings, and both warm and cold weather. Good news! There is a shoe for virtually any condition. In fact, many trail runners have several pairs to choose from.
Let's start with the primary off road conditions you will encounter and select a shoe that is suited to these conditions. I am going to focus on three general running trail shoe categories to get started.
The most common and popular style trail running shoes were designed for use on fire roads and grass fields in moderate weather conditions. Many models feel and ride like a motion control or stability road shoe, but they include key features that will benefit you on the trails. These include stiffer, durable outsoles with better traction and foot protection, increased support for lateral stability over varying terrain and reinforced uppers with abrasion resistant materials. Many runners also wear this type of shoe on the road during inclement weather and wintry conditions as they have better traction and stability than road shoes. These make a great first pair for newcomers to the trails.
Light Weight and Breathable
Many runners find themselves out on hot days and wear light weight technical clothing to keep cool. There are running shoes to help keep you cool and dry as well. Runners in warmer climates and runners who will get their feet wet due to weather conditions and stream crossings benefit from lighter weight, more breathable uppers in their shoes. Manufacturers have designed shoes with breathable air mesh uppers that shed water and dry fast to keep you running comfortably in these conditions. The tradeoff from general purpose shoes to reduce shoe weight is typically less protection and stability. Light trail running shoes can be a good option for off road races on relatively smooth surfaces. Add them for your hotter and wetter runs.
If your runs include technical trails, rocky areas, steep hills, snow and icy conditions there are shoes up to the task. Technical trail shoes feature more aggressive outsoles for better traction, enhanced foot protection, additional support to counter rocks and hills and a more protection in the uppers. Some uppers are made of Gore-Tex and other weather resistant materials to keep feet dry when conditions get wet. Technical shoes are heavier because of the added protection, but worth it when conditions are tough.
Think about your trail running and get the shoes that will help you the most.