Most runners start their running careers on pavement, using standard road-running shoes. However, once they have ventured out on the trails a couple of times – and realize how much fun it is! – they find themselves faced with selecting their first pair of trail running shoes.
Pavement is pavement: the only significant difference you come across is whether it is wet or dry. You can get by with one or two pairs of road runners. But the terrain that makes up trails can be so varied – firm and stable hard-packed dirt, soft sand, steep slopes with loose gravel, irregular surface with obstacles such as roots and rocks, sticky or slippery mud… and more! There is no one trail-running shoe that is the ideal shoe for all these types of terrain.
If you are new to the trails, you will want to start with one shoe that will work as an all-round shoe for the trail conditions (and weather conditions) that you will most often encounter. The most important criterion should be how the shoes fit! We are all individuals, with unique foot shapes: so the shoe that your hard-core trail-running friend recommends, or that you read a glowing review about, might not be the appropriate shoe for you. Go to a reputable running or outdoors store, and take your time trying shoes on before you make your purchase.
Once you start spending more time on the trails, you will probably find that your one pair of shoes just does not cut it in certain conditions or on certain routes. You need more! I am not about to admit publicly how many pairs of trail runners I own – but I will give you the low-down on why I have them!
The ol’ standard: This is the all-round shoe that I wear on most runs, my “regular” trail running shoe. For me, this is the Mizuno Wave Ascend, which I find to be a really good general trail-running shoe. It is a fine compromise between cushioning, stability and lightness, and it has a deep, aggressive tread.
Lately, I have been running a lot in Salomon XA Pro 3D Ultras, too. Their tread is not as aggressive as the Mizunos, so I don’t like them so much on the loose downhills, but they have better toe protection (and I love the Salomon quick-lace system).
The size up: I always have two pairs of my favorite shoe on hand: one in my regular size, and one a half-size larger. The large size is useful for very long runs, because your feet swell, and that may cause blistering or toenail damage. Larger shoes are also nice if you want to wear thicker socks or toe socks, or if you sometimes wear more supportive insoles (e.g. during periods of heavy training, or during times of injury). I have large sizes of both shoes listed above, and I wear them often.
The aggressive tread: I was so happy when Salomon came out with their Speedcross 3 trail runners. These shoes have the super-aggressive tread that I had been looking for for years. Putting these shoes on is like putting snow-tires on your car: suddenly you can confidently get places that were difficult to move in before. The lugs on the tread are deep, and they are spaced widely, so mud does not become packed between them. These shoes are great for loose gravelly descents, or for running through mud. They are not the best choice for smooth trails or routes that include stretches of pavement, because they do not offer much foot support, but they have quickly become my favorite shoe for tougher trails. (Which means I also have them in two sizes).
The water-proof shoe: Obviously, water-proof running shoes do not help if you will be running through puddles that are more than ankle-deep. But they sure are nice for those wet days, when you know you “should” go for a run, but you are just not in the mood for getting your feet wet. The ones I have are Montrail – so old that I don’t even know the model number. They are difficult to put on, because the tongue-flap is connected to the body of the shoe so that water cannot seep in behind the tongue. But they work – no more excuses on rainy days. Most running shoe manufacturers make a water-proof model, some using Gore-Tex and other using their own proprietary technology.
The barefoot shoe: I am very new to barefoot running, so I am still experimenting. Over the past year, I have been working on adjusting my running gait, to forefoot-strike rather than heel-strike, but mostly I have been doing that wearing my regular trail runners. I have been experimenting cautiously with barefoot trail runners- so far, never more than 10 minutes at a time. The ones that I have are the New Balance Minimus, and I am really enjoying them for their light weight, comfy fit, and grippy Vibram soles.
The old shoe: Well, one reason I own so many shoes is that I don’t throw any of them out. As my trail runners become old and wear out, they get down-graded to become hiking shoes, and then to be my gardening shoes. My old Salomons get a new life as my air-travel shoes: their quick-lace system is great for passing through airport security! Then, when I travel to Central or South America, I take my old shoes with me and give them away. (It is amazing how appreciated even the most decrepit shoes are in less affluent countries).
I feel that, by switching my shoes around, I am keeping my feet stronger: they don’t end up relying on any one shoe model for support. Although it may seem difficult, budget-wise, to justify owning multiple pairs of trail-running shoes, my justification is that I use all of my shoes. If a pair of shoes is going to wear out after six months of hard running anyway, then I would rather have six pairs of trail-running shoes that will last me three years – and then be able to choose the best shoe for each run.