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Road vs Trail
Feb/March 2012

Trail vs road

running shoe features

As a retailer selling running shoes you have undoubtedly been asked by many customers why they would need specific running shoes for trail and road. Is this a marketing gimmick trying to sell a pair of shoes for each running category? Or are there key features in running shoes that will take the environment into consideration and benefit the runner, allowing them to transform themselves into a kamikaze trail junkie, a lightning fast road racer or even a nimble barefoot warrior? asks NELLE DU TOIT

“There is a definite difference between the key features needed for the road and trail. Trail shoes differ not only in the sole, but the upper and build of the entire shoe as well,” says Bennie Stander of the Tyger Runner.

There are, however, runners who prefer a hybrid trail/road shoe when they are combining both terrains in their training regimes. Unfortunately, there is no cookie-cutter recipe for recommending the right shoe for each type of runner. But there are key features that would benefit the individual, whether s/he is running in the bush, on tar or both. The trick here would be to match the needs of the runner to the capabilities of the shoe.

Just as there are many key differences between road and trail shoes, many experts would argue that the two categories are merging. “Especially when it comes to minimalistic shoe ranges, the differences between trail and road are becoming less severe as there is less interference with the foot’s natural movement,” says Lionel Toll of the Cape Runner. “For the customer who only wants one pair of shoes for both road and trail I’ll recommend a good hybrid shoe that is soft enough to be used on tar, and has enough grip to be taken on the trail.”

“A great number of runners have worn our road shoes on the trail and vice-versa, with great feedback. That’s why we try to stay clear of categorising our footwear too much into a strictly road or trail shoe,” says Alex Hawkins of Branded Footwear, SA distributors of Vibram Fivefingers.

Recommending a trail or road shoe

“My first question to any customer wanting to buy a shoe is where are you planning on running?” says Stander. “Is s/he training for a specific race, running on top of the mountain, sandy areas, road marathons, fun runs? Thereafter I would look at how they run and the way their foot lands on the ground. Then I do balancing tests and let them stretch their quadriceps so I can determine how strong their core is. I try to determine if they will benefit being in a more natural or cushioned shoe.”

Trail shoes should generally be a more snug fit, especially around the heel, ankle and bridge of the foot, to prevent the foot from moving around in the shoe when descending downhill or running on a cambered contour. There should, however, be space for the toes to move in the front area of a trail shoe as a too-snug fit in the toe area diminishes the act of a toe bumper.

Road shoes are designed to provide better comfort on the road. Lighter shoes make the runner much faster as they are carrying less weight for each foot-strike. When fitting a road runner think speed, when fitting a trail runner think stability.

“When fitting any shoe, the shoe should rather be longer in front, allowing the toes to stretch, than being too short and forcing the toes to crumple putting a lot of strain on the plantar fascitis which causes the calf muscles to start working too hard,” says Stander.

Short vs long distance

  • “As a rule of thumb shorter distances require lightweight shoes, whilst longer distances require more support from their shoes, true for both trail and road running,” says Collin Allin of Puma.

  • But support is not the only difference in long and short distance shoes. “Higher mileage shoes will have a straighter last whilst lighter or faster shoes will have a more curved last,” says Jan van Rooyen of Hi-Tec.

  • As the foot gets tired the shoe helps to do the work for you. “However, doing long distances in flexible, lower profile shoes will make you more aware of your foot placement and would make you race slower and more carefully,” says Stander.

  • Cushioning or low profile?

    Whether to advise the customer to go more minimalist, would depend on how conditioned the runner is, i.e. how strong their feet, ankles, calf and upper body are.

    “A runner that has strong and conditioned feet will need less support than a customer with weak metatarsals and ankles, etc.,” says Stander.

    Trail shoes, by design, have a lower profile. “One of the key features of a trail shoe is that you are slightly lower to the ground, a lower profile shoe offers more stability for the uneven terrain,” says John Andrews of New Balance. “With road shoes cushioning is more important because of the hard tar that feet are hitting against.”

    But, while cushioning could work for one customer, a lower profile could work better for another. “With traditional running shoes the cushioned and supportive shoe does all the work for the runner, not allowing the runner to feel and react to their surroundings through the information they receive from their feet,” says Hawkins.

    This does not mean that a minimalist shoe is necessarily ideal for every runner. “What is important to consider is that running barefoot or in minimalist shoes is a process, you won’t just put a runner in a minimalist shoe and expect him/her to be able to do the same mileage right away,” says Gustav Nefdt of Merrell.

    Many experts advise customers to start off in shoes with some support — if needed — and eventually, once the runner has developed stronger foot, ankle and calf muscles, they would advise them to try a shoe that allows more natural movement until eventually they can run in minimal shoes.

    “Running with a more natural foot stride strengthens the heel and ankle. Minimal and more natural shoes, however, do put a lot more strain on your body and if the runner cannot adapt to this style of running I would advise him/her to stay in supportive and cushioned shoes, as this is where s/he’ll be less likely to be injured,” says Stander.

    Features to look out for

    Toe box

  • Trail shoe toe boxes are often reinforced (aka toe bumpers), with either a harder leather or rubber, to prevent the toes and shoes from scuffing on rocks.

  • Road shoes’ toe boxes, would be as light and breathable as possible.

  • “The toe box will depend on the end use. “A faster racing shoe will have a standard size toe box and a higher mileage shoe will have a wider toe box,” says van Rooyen.
  • Even though trail shoes should have a narrower fit to hug the foot better, there should be space for movement in the toe area of the shoe. A wider shoe will offer a more stable platform when lifting the heel off the ground.

  • Some experts advise that a narrower toe box on a road shoe would facilitate running on the toes.

  • Heel and ankle area

  • Supportive trail shoes have a reinforced ankle and heel guard to help prevent the foot from rolling too much. “I would advise a customer who has weak ankles to rather opt for extra support,” says Stander. “A reinforced heel area aids in the stability of the shoe by ensuring that the heel position stays the same, making it predictable,” says Jackie Moore of Salomon. “We can therefore apply cushioning and protection to a specific area knowing that it will work. The heel area is also very vulnerable as this is the main strike zone and the reinforcement also acts as a protection shield against penetration.”

  • Traditional cushioned and supportive road running shoes have a decoupled heel cup — a segmented sole that helps lower pronation. “As the very act of running [in traditional shoes] makes the foot pronate, even if only slightly, the segmented sole helps lower pronation,” says Allin.

  • “When running barefoot, or with minimalist shoes, a runner tends to land front- or mid-foot first, which is a completely different biomechanical movement than when wearing cushioned shoes,” says Hawkins. “We believe in strengthening the runner and not the shoe and after a transitional period into minimalist shoes, over-pronation is usually not an issue.” It is, however, very important to assess the needs and expectations of the runner and match it with the shoe at the time of sale. A runner used to running 20-40km a week in cushioned shoes cannot realistically be expected to perform the same in minimal shoes without a period of adaptation to the new running style. Once the runner has adapted and their foot and calf muscles have strengthened, long distance running in minimal shoes can be managed by many.

  • It is especially important that trail shoes have a good grip around the heel and top of the foot (in the shoe laces/tongue area). “This is especially helpful when descending steeply, or on a cambered contour path to keep the foot in place,” says Donovan van Gelder, Inov-8 coach and former tri-athlete. Some brands even have an anti-slip technology in the heel and tongue area and an anti-friction lining to further help hug the shoe to the foot and prevent blisters.

  • Upper

  • Trail shoes usually have a better grip/hold around the lacing system and ankle, a water resistant or drainage system when running through mud and wet terrain, a gusseted tongue to keep debris out of the shoe and a toe bumper to protect from toes being stubbed on rocks. The fabric that the upper is made of is usually more durable to withstand rocks and sticks piercing the shoe. A tighter woven mesh on the upper helps keep sand out of the shoe.

  • “Road shoes would generally have wider mesh and less lateral support,” says van Rooyen. The road shoes’ upper is traditionally light, mesh, breathable, less dense and more elasticated to strip down the weight to the bare minimum to help make the runner faster.

  • Laces

  • “The way that laces act on the shoe are important, especially for trail shoes, as the shoes should be designed in a way that the laces don’t just act on the top part of the shoe, but rather that they bind the whole shoe around the foot,” says van Gelder. “This should be done in a way that is not restrictive to the natural way that a foot flexes while running,” he adds.

  • Insole

  • A good insole can mean the difference between an uncomfortable run and a dry and protected one. “Both trail and road shoes should have anti-microbial, sweat absorption and quick drying qualities,” reminds Phillip Venter of adidas.

  • Midsole

    As the distance increases, the foot needs more support — or so the thinking goes. Traditionally the role of the midsole is to provide a softer landing when running on the hard tar road and a extra stability on softer ground such as trails. Other than absorbing shock, the midsole also helps return energy at the toe off.

  • “On lighter, faster trail shoes the midsole densities are similar to road shoes (softer) and the trail shoes by design are built to keep you closer to the ground (by use of a lower profile),” says van Rooyen.

  • A denser midsole, especially seen in some of the long distance trail shoes, would provide a consistently stable and stiffer feel when striking the ground on a softer trail. It also greatly improves durability and provides a protective barrier between the foot and sharp objects. Generally, a less dense midsole will break down noticeably more quickly than shoes with very dense midsoles. By definition, a denser midsole has less inner space and so will keep its original cushion (or lack thereof) much longer.

  • Minimalist shoes, however, have no or a very slight midsole as by design they do away with cushioning and foot supportive structures — the strength of the runner’s foot, ankle and calf muscles here determines the running style and appropriate footwear.

  • Flexible soles are a must for all distances off-road. “It also allows for the lower limbs of the runner to react to different angles of the trail and the twists and turns as well as uneven surfaces,” says van Gelder.

  • Outsole

    One of the key differences between trail and road shoes is that trail shoes have a more aggressively lugged outsoles with better grip.

  • “On a road shoe you will see flatter, smoother lugs with softer blown rubber lugs (normal rubber that has been injected with air to create lighter materials) in the areas of propulsion and smooth carbon rubber lugs in landing areas,” says van Rooyen. Here you are looking for durability in the strike area and propulsion through softer materials in the forefoot. Lugs in the landing area will be smooth and placed more laterally.

  • On trail shoes, however, you will find more diagonal linear lugs on the medial and lateral sides for traction and edging on trails and horizontal lugs on the area of propulsion. Generally the deeper the lugs, the better traction it will provide in rough terrain. Lugs facing inward and outward will grip in every direction and slanted lugs will grip the ground better than the flat lugs so often found on road shoes.

  • “Trail shoes should have better grip on uneven surfaces and be able to release mud at transition,” says Venter. “Road has a relatively standard formation to adapt to more consistent surfaces.”

  • “Both road and trail shoes should offer flexibility and stability in the sole,” says Toll. “If a customer is going up the mountain where the terrain is more rocky I would suggest that s/he needs shoes that are more flexible, but would prevent his/her ankles from rolling — some runners would need a more rigid support.”

  • But these days people run through this type of terrain without any support wearing minimal shoes. If a runner runs on the mountain barefoot s/he knows exactly where to step as s/he is watching his/her step really carefully.

  • In South Africa the trails generally have lots of sharp rocks that can penetrate the sole of the shoe. “Most trail shoes have something called a rock-stop plate in the outsole which helps stop rocks from piercing through the bottom of the shoe,” says Andrews.


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