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What's in a trail shoe?

Summer is a great time to try trail running. Many runners taper their racing schedules and take time out to enjoy intensified exposure to nature rather than stressing over road-race p.r.s. If you've thought about trail running, perhaps even researched some local trails, and then wondered how suited your road running shoes were to the task, the following may shed some light on your situation.

Most runners ask whether they really need trail running shoes at all. The fact is, while you can for a time get away with a running shoe in a trail environment, you are courting injury in the form of a twisted ankle or bruised toe, not to mention putting a real pounding to shoes that are not up to the task and will become useless soon, on roads or otherwise, anyway. Your best bet is to invest in one of the few pieces of equipment required for running trails, and be infinitely more comfortable and safer in the long haul.

Assuming your trail running is not the packed clay of city trails (for which a road shoe is perfectly acceptable), trail shoes offer variations based on terrain. Here we will explore foothill-type terrain, or mountainous trail running with rocks and roots, and not concern ourselves with the amphibious stream-crossing and the like that could require specialized rubber to grip wet, flat rocks.

The differences between trail and road shoes all stem from the fact that trail shoes are designed to protect you from elements that are less pervasive in road running. First, a trail show typically has a protective midsole. This is the horizontal middle layer of an athletic shoe, and in road shoes it most often offers shock-absorbent cushioning. In a trail shoe, you'll find protection in the form of a flexible plastic plate so, for example, a rock doesn't come up through the bottom of the shoe.

Second, a trail shoe almost always has a lower profile than a road shoe, meaning it is flatter to the ground and less built up on its sole. You're far less likely to twist an ankle--a real concern on the uneven surfaces associated with trails--if you're not elevated two inches off the ground on a cushion of rubber and air.

Most obviously, a trail shoe offers superior traction, in the form of "lugs" of hard, sticky rubber that protrude more than the traditional running shoe patterns. Sometimes, trail shoe manufacturers will borrow from their rock climbing shoe designs to engineer shoes of composite rubber formulas, meant to run over rock.

As for the fabric portion of the shoe (known as the upper), expect trail shoes to be more supportive and generally made from stiffer materials. Sometimes leather or waterproofed synthetics are used to construct the upper, which hold your foot in place better than the lightweight canvas or breathable mesh that a road shoe has. Trail shoes are designed to lessen or prevent side-to-side motion of the foot. You may find shoes with a fabric collar at the ankle to keep out sand and scree. You may want a shoe with a "lace garage" to keep laces from catching on twigs. The terrain determines the importance of such considerations.

Finally, because it is almost inevitable that your big toe will encounter a rock or boulder, trail shoes offer protection in the form of a thick, rubber toe bumper at the front. These differences in the aggregate make trail shoes a necessary purchase for safety and comfort on the trail. As with any running shoe, be sure your trail shoes have ample room in the toe box--a half-inch of space after your longest toe is appropriate to eliminate rubbing as the foot swells, or during downhill stretches. A trail shoe should feel right immediately; there is no "breaking in" period. Look for a last (the overall shape and width of the shoe) that matches your foot type. Shop at the end of the day or after running when feet are swollen, and always wear the exact socks you intend to wear on the trail. It's a good idea to bring your road shoes along with you, as a starting point for the sales rep at the shoe store. The longer you intend to be out on the trails for any given run, the sturdier the overall construction of the shoe should be.

Runner's World Complete Guide to Trail Running by Dagny Scott Barrios, 2003, Rodale Press, 228 pp.
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Publication:Running & FitNews
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2009
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