Importance of Choosing the Right Trail Running Shoes

    Buying Guide

    When choosing a trail running shoe, you'll want to consider stability, traction, and breathability, as well as a comfortable fit. Here's how to do it.

    Last updated: September 29, 2021
    7 min read
    Importance of Choosing the Right Trail Running Shoes

    Nothing beats the exhilaration and freedom you experience when you hit the trails for a run. Trail running challenges you physically and mentally, but it also offers a unique sensory adventure that forces you to take your running game to the next level. You look, listen to, and feel changes in your surroundings that require you to respond quickly and adapt.

    But these challenges also increase your risk of injury. So, it's important to train smart and equip yourself with essential trail running gear and footwear for your off-road adventures. Get a head start by choosing a pair of trail running shoes with stability in mind.

    Why Hit the Trails?

    Trail running can help improve your overall running performance. In fact, running in a constantly changing and unfamiliar environment can force you to adapt your posture, gait, and leg stiffness. These biomechanical adaptations help you become a more responsive and efficient runner on the road and on the trails.

    But the benefits don't end there. When you run off-road, your maximal speed generally decreases while your effort increases. Research published in the Journal of Experimental Biology established that running on rough trails requires 5% greater metabolic energy expenditure than running on smooth, hard surfaces. Part of this workload is because your step pattern has to change constantly. Step length variability and step width variability both increase significantly. Researchers theorize that at least half of the increased workload is due to the mechanical work to go up and over challenging surfaces.

    There are also mental benefits. Study after study has linked running on trails with improved mental well-being. In fact, a 2019 research review suggested off-road running as an effective strategy for managing the pressures of urban life. And a study published in Extreme Physiology and Medicine found that trail runners are likely to experience less stress, reduced mental fatigue, improved mood, and better self-esteem. The trail runners were also more likely to view their workout as play with lower levels of perceived exertion and increased enjoyment.

    Risks and Dangers of Running on Trails

    There are risks to consider as well. The unstable surfaces that provide a challenge also increase your chance of injury. One 2021 study found that a quarter of all trail runners reported at least one running-related injury in the 12 months leading up to a popular trail running race. The injuries primarily affected the lower limbs, specifically the knee, ankle and foot. Injuries sustained might be minor such as blisters or scrapes, but they can be significant enough to sideline your running game. Strains, sprains and more serious injuries are not uncommon.

    So how do you gain the benefits of trail running without falling victim to the additional stress and risk? Researchers have observed that running shoe choice can play a role in running economy and biomechanical stability. One of the smartest investments may be a trail running shoe with some stability features.

    How to Choose a Trail Running Shoe for Stability

    Some runners wear their regular road shoes when they head for the trails. But trail running involves requires more stability than pavement. Unsteady surfaces, such as mud, rocks and brush keep your brain and body busy during the workout and also put your ankles, knees and feet at risk.

    So how can a shoe make a difference?

    There are several features that a well-designed trail running shoe can provide to encourage enhanced stability and better lower body mechanics.

    First, a quality shoe should offer rugged traction to help you master rocky surfaces, slick mud, or any terrain challenge that you encounter.

    Next, it needs to provide durable protection from debris to keep your feet and toes protected from unexpected changes in the weather, rougher landscapes, and other elements like twigs or stones.

    Lastly, the best trail running shoe should be stiff but cushioned so that your foot stays secure in the shoe and your ankle stays in alignment. It is not uncommon for trail runners to experience ankle sprains and strains due to slippery or uneven surfaces.

    Keep in mind that shopping for a stability trail running shoe is different than shopping for a stability road shoe.

    Stability road shoes are designed for those who overpronate. They support the foot's arch and provide greater support through the midsole that may also extend into the heel. If you run in a stability shoe on the road, you'll still look for stability features in a trail shoe.

    But even those who run in neutral shoes on the road will want to consider a stability shoe for the trails. Trail running stability shoes help prevent your foot and ankle from rolling when you run on uneven surfaces. They also provide other safety and technical features to help you tackle the terrain.

    Traction Control

    When shopping for a good trail running shoe, you'll want to flip the shoe over and inspect the outsole. You should see something that mimics the look of a mountain biking tire. For instance, look for multidirectional traction lugs made from high-abrasion rubber. These sticky nubs can help provide an enhanced grip on descents and ascents.

    The soles should also be tough enough to protect your feet from jagged rocks or tree stumps. However, you don't want a shoe with a sole that is too heavy to be versatile. Instead, try to find a shoe that will provide a lightweight grip for a smooth ride between trails and the road.

    Breathable Protection

    You want your shoe to protect your feet from low-lying branches, rocks and other debris. Look for features like a gaiter collar around the ankle to hug your foot and keep dirt and debris out. Extra skin around the toe can also deliver foot protection by preventing stubbing or injury. And a segmented rock plate provides durability as well.

    But you also want breathability. Your shoes shouldn't feel like a hiking boot. Mesh in key areas on the shoe upper will provide ventilation and make the shoe breathable.

    Secure Fit

    A trail shoe often has a more snug fit than a road shoe. You don't want the shoe so tight that the foot feels compressed, but with all of the extra multidirectional movement during a trail run, you want to minimize rubbing in the shoe to prevent slippage and blisters. There are a few technical features that can help.

    For instance, a heel cup or extra cushioning in the heel can help keep your foot secure. A dynamic band system around the midfoot can also provide stability as you tackle uneven paths. And foam from heel to toe can provide responsive and stable cushioning for comfort and smooth transitions on rocky terrain.

    Keep in mind that the sock you wear will also make a difference in the shoe's fit. Many trail runners wear thicker socks than they would wear for a run on the road. Often made from wool-blend fabric, a good sock should be woven to provide grip within the shoe to keep your foot in place, but it should also offer breathability and allow for moisture drainage. The best trail running socks cover the ankles and at least part of the calf to minimize scrapes and abrasions. And a compression sock gives you the bonus of long-lasting comfort for those endurance runs. Whichever sock you choose, be sure to wear it when you try on different trail running shoes. Again, the sock can change the fit of the shoe.

    Importance of Choosing the Right Trail Running Shoes

    Designed with insight from trail runners around the world, the Nike Trail Socks deliver durable grip underfoot. A supportive design helps you stay running comfortably when your off-road miles become wet and rocky.

    Comparable Offset

    Your shoe's offset is the difference between the base height at the heel and the base height at the toe or forefoot. It is often related to the amount of cushioning in the shoe. Shoes with more cushioning usually have a greater offset or heel-to-toe drop.

    The offset of your trail running shoe should be similar to the offset of your road running shoe. Why does this matter? Some trail running enthusiasts prefer a low or very low drop to feel closer to the earth. These minimalist shoes usually have an offset of less than 4 millimeters, and they encourage you to strike the ground at the midfoot or forefoot.

    On the other hand, many road shoes have a moderate or maximal drop and encourage you to strike the pavement at the heel. One type of shoe is not necessarily better than the other, but quickly switching from one to the other can cause abrupt biomechanical changes that can lead to pain or injury.

    Sustainable Materials

    Finally, if you run on the trails, you might want to look for a shoe designed with sustainability in mind. For instance, clothing and footwear made from recycled plastic bottles not only reduces waste, it also cuts carbon emissions and helps to protect the environment where you run and play.

    You might also seek out products made from cotton or other materials that are grown without fossil fuel-derived pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. All of us can find ways to lower our global carbon footprint. And doing so ensures that the trails are there for us and for generations to come. Learn more about sustainability efforts at Nike.

    Originally published: August 27, 2021

    Related Stories

    The Best Nike Running Shoes for Cross Country

    Buying Guide

    Shop These Nike Running Shoes for Cross Country

    How Should Running Shoes Fit?

    Buying Guide

    Running Shoe Fit Guide: What to Look for When You Shop

    What Shoes Are Best for Overpronation?

    Buying Guide

    What Shoes Are Best for Overpronation?

    How to Select the Right Weight for Running Shoes

    Buying Guide

    How to Select the Right Weight for Running Shoes

    Trail Running Shoes vs. Running Shoes: What’s the Difference?

    Buying Guide

    What Makes Trail Running Shoes Different from Running Shoes?