So, due to cold weather and some social commitments last weekend, I bumped my usual weekend long run to Friday. I was running my usual 7km loop in Huron Natural Area, and was feeling pretty good about things. My legs were a little tired from a difficult treadmill workout the night before, and the temperature was dropping, but I was moving well.
As I went out for my second lap, I noticed that I had torn a hole in the upper of the shoes that I was running in. This was not ideal: I still had 14km to go. And there was some fresh snow on the ground. Luckily for me, the snow was packed enough that the snow didn’t make it’s way into my shoe, and I was able to finish the run.
All this is to say, I’m going to be rotating in a new pair of trail shoes in the near future. I’ve also been thinking about a “how to trail run” series of posts. Perhaps the first thing to post about is a “what do you need to run on trails” and the answer is really, not all the much more than you need to run regularly.
If you have shoes that you run in and clothing you’re comfortable moving and sweating in, you can find a short trail and get started. For example, I once went on a run in Algonquin Park with lots of exposed rock wearing an old trucker style hat, a pair of Mizuno road shoes, and a comfortable t-shirt/shorts combination.
This worked fine - it was a short trail (6km), and we moved carefully. And it was much trickier than 90% of what people do when they think of trail running. I’ve also seen people completing mountain races in beat up pairs of Brooks trainers. Heck, you could go all the way and run completely barefoot. Just be sure to wear enough clothing that you don’t violate any public nudity laws.
So, at it’s most basic: if you already have things to run in, you already have what you need to get into trail running.
You’ll often see people recommending vests, hydration systems, emergency gear. These can be helpful - but they’re not a priority for getting out there. As you go further you’ll want to worry about this stuff, but for now, you can get a lot done without much gear. Knowing your route, and what you’ll do in case of potential emergencies is the really important part of getting started. Picking a short, familiar or local trail and running with a partner or group goes a long way to minimizing risk.
On that run I quickly noticed that I felt every root and rock under foot. I also encountered lost and slippery surfaces, where I started to want more traction underfoot. Most of these things can be helped by adding a decent pair of trail shoes to your quiver.
Trail shoes are designed to provide solutions to some of the problems that trail runners face. While the upper is destroyed in my shoes, they’re as good as place as any to start with. As a helpful point of comparison, we can compare my destroyed trail shoe (New Balance’s Vazee Summit V2) to a road shoe that uses the same last (New Balance’s RC1400).
Shoes have a number of parts we’re all familiar with such as tongues, laces, insoles, etc. When talking about running shoes, people frequently talk talk about: the upper, the fabric that wraps around the foot; the outsole, the outermost layer of material in the sole of the shoe; and the midsole, the layer of foam that provides cushioning. Running shoes are typically split into two categories, neutral and supportive shoes, based off of how they are designed to support a runners feet during transition. Typically, neutral shoes encourage motion through the foot, while a stability shoe provides support to curb excessive side to side motion while you run (pronation).
For trail shoes, the uppers usually have more durable construction, and will have unique features to protect the foot from accidental impacts, such as toe caps which provide rigid protection around the toes. The midsoles occasionally offer unique protection features, like rock plates which are plates of plastic or carbon fiber. And, on the bottom, the outsole is frequently fully covered in treaded rubber. Sometimes, they use different compounds to ensure more grip in wet conditions, and most trail shoes will feature lugs and tread patterns designed to dig in and grip on loose surfaces.
Both the 1400 and the Vazee Summit V2s are neutral racing shoes. This means that they prioritize having a low weight, and offer a firm and snappy platform without a lot of cushioning. They share the same 10mm drop. The Summit’s however, feature a less breathable upper with a “burrito” style tongue that wraps around the midfoot. and a rigid toe cap. The Summit features a partial rock-plate in the front three quarters of the shoe, that isn’t visible in the photos.
The outsoles differ greatly: if you look at the 1400, you’ll notice that there are patches of exposed foam, and grooves cut in to allow for more articluation of the foot. On the Summit V2s, the outsole covers the entire bottom of the shoe, and features 4mm lugs in a very effective pattern over the forefoot and midfoot.
In my experience, I’ve found that the Vazee Summit V2s and there predecessors are versatile and capable trail shoes. While the lack of cushioning could be a problem for some runners, I’ve run as far as 50km in a pair of these shoes. They offer a substantial upgrade in grip over a pair of road shoes, and the protection from the rock plate really helps when things get tricky. As a tradeoff, they are noticeably more firm and stable than the road version. The lack of a plastic plate makes the forefoot noticeably more flexible in the 1400s.
These are two shoes that are very similar in construction, but there are trail shoes covering a wide variety of use cases. Perhaps the most common segment in the market is equivalent to the neutral daily trainer. These will offer more cushioning than the Vazee Summits, but offer similar grip and protection, at the cost of heavier weight. Almost every manufacturer offers a shoe in this class. One thing that is kind of lacking is something like a motion-control trail shoe. I’ve kind of wondered about this, since I know people who would like a trail shoe with more medial support. There are a few shoes and manufactures that include some stability features, but I think the nature of trail shoes and trail running makes stability features less of a priority.
So to summarize, I think there are some good reasons for reaching for trail specific shoes over road running shoes: protection and traction. On a really wet day, or a rough, rocky, root-covered trail, I’ll be thankful for having trail shoes.
The thing is, literally 90% of the time I’m running on dirt and gravel trails, I’m doing so in conservation areas and parks where things are relatively well maintained. If I know that I’m going to run a couple of kilometers on asphalt or sidewalks, then I’m probably going to be happier in a more flexible and comfortable shoe. The other 10% of the time I’m thankful for these features, but I don’t need them.
I think my favorite case is that of Bryon Powell, the editor in chief at IRunFar.com. Bryon has run his fair share of ultras, and ran the entire Hardrock 100 in New Balance 1400s. This is really unusual, a lot of folks have trouble running in 1400s for more than 10k. But I think the real lesson is that you should run in what works for you.
I once remember someone asking on a Facebook group if they needed to buy trail shoes for a 10k trail race they had signed up for, and I can understand the apprehension. This is a world where most people encounter trail running via the Barkley Marathons documentary on Netflix, or watching Killian Jornet dash across knife-edge ridges.
So really, the answer is no.
Trail shoes are a useful tool, but they are definitely not essential. What is essential is a runner. Get outside and enjoy running, maybe you’ll find that a trail shoe helps with that, or maybe you’ll be like Bryon and take a lightweight road racer on a 100 miler.