Skirack's Brendan trail running along Camel's Hump peak. Photo Credit: Liam John.
Skirack's Brendan running along Camel's Hump peak. Photo Credit: Liam John.
When selecting road shoes, it's important to assess foot type and alignment.
Top: When selecting road shoes, it's important to assess foot type and alignment. Bottom: A Brannock Device is used to evaluate your foot size, arch, ankle, and lower extremity biomechanics.

One of the most common questions I get as a shoe sales associate is what are the differences between road shoes and trail shoes? The subsequent question is usually: how do I decide which trail running shoe works best for me? Here is a general guide for how to navigate those questions and the sometimes - overwhelming selections on a shoe wall.

Road Shoe Design Features

Road running shoes are often constructed with lightweight materials with a design prioritization of speed, cushion, responsiveness, and breathability.

In a road shoe the outsole of the shoe is often constructed with a higher concentration of Blown Rubber- this is a type of rubber that is injected with air to make the shoe lighter, softer, and more flexible than traditional rubber.

When fitting road shoes there is a high level of importance on matching the level of support with one’s gait. Road shoes are often separated into neutral, guidance, support, or motion control with increasing levels of support, respectively. With increasing levels of support a shoe company will often add some combination of a Medial Post, a Thermoplastic Unit, or Dual/ Multi-Density Material to help correct over-pronation.

For most of the neutral based shoes the medial midsole will maintain the constant flow of the compression-molded EVA, polyurethane, or other various cushioning devices utilized throughout the shoe to maximize the cushion effect of a shoe.

It is important to have someone that is trained in gait-analysis, and the utilization of a Brannock Device to evaluate your foot size, arch, ankle, and lower extremity biomechanics before recommending any of these shoes. Matching the appropriate level of support with one’s gait, foot length, foot width, and arch height is an excellent way to prevent injury and improve the comfort of the shoe. It is also important to try multiple brands when testing a shoe, because the "last" or the shape of the shoe (straight, semi-curved or curved) may better fit the overall shape of your foot depending on the brand.

Running Shoe Anatomy
Running Shoe Anatomy. Featured shoe: Hoka One One Speedgoat 4.


Trail Shoe Design Features

A trail shoe is a shoe that is designed to handle the rugged terrain of rocks, roots, and mud that is commonly found in a trail system. Its construction focus is on protection, safety, and durability. Let's look at the four key features that make up a trail shoe: outsoles, structure, drop and water resistance.

1. Outsoles

Trail shoe outsoles are often reinforced with higher amounts of carbon rubber on the toe cap to add durability and protection for toe stubbing. Many trail shoes will have a rock plate or nylon shank built into the midsole of a shoe, allowing for additional protection for the bottom of one’s foot. Furthermore, the cushion systems of trail shoes tend to have slightly more polyurethane in them, thus making the shoe slightly firmer and more resilient than their road shoe counter parts. These features often add weight to the shoe; therefore, it is helpful to consider what type of trails one will be running on.

  • If you are running on extremely rocky terrain, running longer distances, using the shoe for both road and trail, or sometimes struggling with impact related injuries then a higher cushion shoe may be the appropriate option.

  • If you are using the shoe more as a hiking shoe and prioritize the durability and protection qualities of a shoe. Then a firmer, heavier shoe with a rock plate may be helpful.


The structure of trail shoes
Featured shoe with a medial post support: Salomon Sense Ride 3.

2. Structure

Another difference in trail shoes is that their structure usually provides a neutral platform. This means that there are not many trail shoes that will provide medial posting to help with overpronation. The thought process here is that a medial post may push one’s foot strike to weight-bear more laterally, thus making someone more susceptible to rolling / spraining their ankle. This is an area where it is helpful to weigh the pros and cons of your gait to determine the tradeoff of a more supportive shoe vs increasing the risk of rolling an ankle.

  • If you are someone that needs medial arch support then the Saucony Guide 13 TR, Salomon Sense Ride 3, and the Hoka Speedgoat 4 are some good potential options. The Hoka Speedgoat 4 and the Salomon Sense Ride 3 have a deep heel cup allowing for a decent amount of rearfoot stability while not pushing the ankle into a position that may make it more susceptible to rolling.

A drop comparison (see first image). Higher drop (top image): Arc’Teryx Norvan LD 2. Lower Drop (bottom image): Arc’Teryx Norvan SL.
A drop comparison (see first image). Higher drop (top image): Arc’Teryx Norvan LD 2. Lower Drop (bottom image): Arc’Teryx Norvan SL.

3. Drop

An additional difference in trail shoes is the drop of the shoe. The drop of the shoe is the height of the heel cushion compared to the height of the forefoot cushion. The drop of the shoe could also be explained as the slope of the shoe. Trail shoes tend to have a slightly lower drop, with the thought process that while running in a trail system people tend to have a slightly higher cadence (steps per minute), shortened stride, and more midfoot/ forefoot strike as one cautiously avoids rocks / roots.

  • This is another area where it is helpful to consider the terrain in which one is running / hiking. Someone that is on hillier terrain may benefit from a higher drop shoe. A higher drop shoe (8mm - 12mm) would decrease the strain on the calves and achilles felt on an uphill, because the heel will have to travel a shorter distance prior to push off. On the other hand, a lower drop shoe (0mm - 4mm) promotes more of the midfoot / forefoot strike and can provide a slightly more responsive ride.


A shoe that is waterproof will be lined with GORE-TEX and will not allow water in or out of the shoe. Featured shoe: Hoka Speedgoat Mid 2 GTX.
A shoe that is waterproof will be lined with GORE-TEX and will not allow water in or out of the shoe. Featured shoe: Hoka Speedgoat Mid 2 GTX.

4. Water Resistance

The last differentiating factor for trail shoes is water resistance. Many trail shoes will have some aspect of built in water resistance or water repelling. However, only a small percentage of trail running shoes are completely waterproof. A shoe that is waterproof will be lined with GORE-TEX and will not allow water in or out of the shoe. A water resistant or water repellent shoe is either sprayed with some sort of water repellent coating or have materials that have a less porous upper material to them.

  • There are both pros and cons to completely waterproof shoes. Although they will keep your feet dry if interacting with small puddles, rain, etc., once completely submerged water cannot disperse from the shoe, thus making you more susceptible to blisters and other moisture related ailments. They are also incredibly warm, due to their insulating properties. Therefore 100% waterproof shoes seem to make the most sense to be used in the colder months; whereas, non-waterproof, water resistant, or water resilient trail shoes seem to make more sense to be utilized in the warmer months or if there is potential for one’s foot to be submerged over the ankle.

I hope this guide is helpful and see you on the trails!

- Brendan,
Skirack Run Specialist


Resources:

1. Winn, Y., 2015. Five Things To Look For When Purchasing Trail-Running Shoes. [online] REI. [Accessed 25 August 2020].

2. Learning Center: Deconstructing Shoes. [online] Runningwarehouse.com [Accessed 25 August 2020].

3. Pasteris, J., 2019. Should I Get Waterproof Trail-Running Shoes?. [online] REI. [Accessed 25 August 2020].

Header image Photo Credit: Liam John. Runner: Brendan Copley

Foot / Shoe Type Graphic: retrieved from: runnersconnect.net/footwear-and-foot-type