Recently I started running off-road more. In a bid to get closer to nature and away from the urban sprawl, I switched out some of my road runs for exciting – and muddier – coastal and bush trails. At times, it's been a hellish, slip 'n slide ride because I'm still running in my road shoes. So, what does a newbie trail runner like me need to know when buying trail shoes?
Ultra-trail runner Andrew Lee runs between 60 and 75 kilometres a week on trails through NSW's Blue Mountains. He says that for most trails it's essential to wear trail shoes.
"Trail shoes are custom made to handle the rigours that running on uneven, rocky and sometimes slippery surfaces bring," says Lee. "They are essential if you want to be sure underfoot, run in relative comfort and not be sore the next day."
High tech advancements
One look at a road versus trail shoes reveals some pretty obvious differences. Lee says that trail running shoes generally feature more grip, are stronger and have greater durability compared to road running shoes.
"In the last few years, manufacturers have come a long way in trail running shoe design and technology...while still maintaining the key traits required for a great trail shoe," says Lee.
He says runners should consider the following factors when searching for the perfect trail shoe.
Trail shoes are designed with lugs or tread (the bottom part of the shoe) to help feet grip the trails across different terrain. Some are made of a soft rubber to provide stickier traction on wet rock, tree roots and other slick surfaces. Others are made of hard, solid rubber to give great durability on rubble, scree and stones.
Terrain and protection
Consider the type of trail you'll (generally) be running on. If it's a groomed fire trail, foot protection won't need to be as high (less cushioning could work) and lugs can be longer and less aggressive. For more rugged terrain with mud and rocks, a more protective shoe with greater cushioning and more aggressive lugs is preferred.
"Runners should also consider how much they want to feel the trail under foot as this will help to decide whether they go for a more minimal or maximalist style," says Lee.
The foot should feel stable and locked in place to avoid movement within the shoe on varied terrain.
With trail running often leading to longer distances, the footwear upper should be breathable as feet will heat up quickly.
Size and fit
Lee recommends going up half or a full size as feet swell over longer distances. "Downhill trails have greater impact on the toes so there should be space at the end of the toe box to accommodate for this, otherwise losing toenails is high likely," says Lee.
However, like road shoes, fit is personal. Lee says he prefers a snug fit that doesn't allow for too much movement. "Typically, trail shoes will feel more robust as they have a stronger toe box, can be slightly heavier (depending on the make and model) and feature a lot more grip that a road shoe."
Just as with your running apparel, you want your footwear to be lightweight and comfortable. Sponsored by The North Face, Lee favours their : "These tick all the boxes as far durability, cushioning and comfort are concerned. They perform well on groomed trails through to the rugged and gnarly trails I regularly run in the Grose Valley in Blackheath, and earlier this year, after heavy rain I ran a 30km Sydney Trail Series race that was extremely wet under foot (some parts knee deep) and they handled these soggy conditions extremely well," says Lee.
A gusseted tongue can help keep trail debris out of your footwear, making for a more comfortable ride.
Stack height, also known as heel drop refers to the material between your foot - especially the heel end - and the ground. Lee says this should be considered depending on the runner's foot strength. For example, if you run on long, steep, hilly and undulating trail, that also incorporates a lot of stairs, you should look for a shoe that features an adequate a relatively high heel drop and ample cushioning. However, if running shorter distances on relatively flat trails then consider a more minimalist shoe with less cushioning and a lower heel drop.
Finally, if you're wondering if you need different trails shoes for different seasons, Lee says forget about it.
"Seasonally different shoes are not needed for 99 per cent of Australian running conditions. The only time this is different is if you're running in alpine areas where there's snow and snow melt, which you'd have to run through for long periods of time. For such conditions, look at getting a pair of trail shoes that don't retain water at all and feature a more aggressive cleat or lug like grip."
The goal of one day completing an ultra-marathon inspires running fanatic Laura Hill to clock up the kilometres each week. With a day job in the corporate world, Laura loves nothing more than lacing up her runners and hitting the pavement to clear her mind and challenge her body.
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Check out the gallery above to see five of the best trail-worthy runners.