Most of us are familiar with running on the streets where we live, but if you get the chance, you should try running along a forest trail or path in the countryside.
Trail running on natural surfaces is far more forgiving on your feet, and the scenery will lift your spirits. The varied terrain develops your cardiovascular strength, balance and strengthens your joints and ligaments. But did you know that trail running shoes are different from street running shoes? Find out why and discover how to choose the best trail running shoes for you.
What is Trail Running?
So what is trail running? Loosely defined it is any run on a path that is not on road or pavements. Common trail paths are the paths you tend to see around parks and national footpaths you find on places like the Ridgeway, the North Downs and on coastal paths. There is also off-trail running and fell running. This is running away from any clearly defined path, so think cross country here. This tends to be a bit more difficult so starting out on national paths is a better way to begin.
Trail running has traditionally been avoided by beginner and sometimes even intermediate runners due to its perceived difficulties and injury potentials. However, the benefits of trail running for beginners and experts alike far exceed the negatives. In fact the negatives can easily be spun into positives if done safely. An example of this is ankle instability, it sounds negative but if you start out on a nice hard packed trail path like a towpath or around a park then strengthen the ankles can benefit all aspects of your running and everyday like.
The key thing with trail running as opposed to treadmills or road running is the additional amount of foot and ankle flexibility we will need. Our feet will have to curve and wrap around rocks and negotiate much tighter turns as opposed to the linear running nature on the roads. Balance and strength also needs to be greater on the trails, simply running on the trails would naturally develop these but any additional core exercise and squatting and lunge exercises as a precursor would be very beneficial. Another big difference between road and trail running is the amount of impact you would typical experience in your joints with every step. The road is very unforgiving and if this causes you issues then a switch to the trails can be just the answer for some lower impact running.
Choosing the right trail running shoes
Trail running shoes are different to your typical road shoes. The most obvious difference is the sole of the shoe and the grip. A trail running shoe will have a harder compound on the bottom and it will look almost tooth like with pointy bits sticking out. This is done so they can grip into soft trail/muddy surfaces and give you some stability, in this situation a road shoe would just slip. It’s also important to note that the harder trail compound can feel quite unstable on road surfaces and can slip on wet road so if you buy a trail running shoe then keep it for the trails only!
When the trail path is really hard or dry then sometimes a road shoe can cope with it as you will not be slipping around and the extra cushioning in the sole of a road shoe can feel great. However, a trail running shoe has some other key benefits even in dry conditions. They tend to have reinforcements as the front of the shoe and in the toebox which is gives the toes more protection from rocks and stones.
Some trail running shoes will also have something called a rockplate, this is designed to protect the bottom of the foot from sharp objects.
Winter Trail Running Shoes
The three final things to consider when picking the right trail shoes for you are:
Waterproof trail running shoes, surprisingly, are few and far between. As bizarre as that sounds the reasoning is sound, a waterproof shoe is just that and if water gets in over the top of the shoe and/or your feet sweat then that moisture will be trapped inside the shoe. Over the course of a run this moisture will add significant weight to the shoe and it will soften the skin of the foot which can lead to blistering.
If you are doing some really horrible, wet and muddy winter runs then a good alternative to waterproof trail shoes are running gaiters which attach to the shoe and go around your ankle. They will keep you dryer and warmer.
Trail Running Shoe Sizes
The size of your shoes might be a little different to the size of your everyday shoes. Typically our everyday shoes are smaller than our actual foot size. We do this as we have our toes close to the end of the shoes in order to keep it a nice snug fit. Running footwear is already designed to be snug and stay on your foot so the key here is ensuring your toes have enough room that they don’t jam into the front of the shoe particularly when running downhill. When you put your running shoes on and stand up, you should have a finger widths room between the end of your longest toe and the front of the shoe.
Trail Running Shoe Support and Custom Insoles
Finally, support of the shoe. Trail running shoes can be a little less supportive in the arch as your feet needs to have more freedom to move. If you are accustomed to very supportive shoes when running on the roads and you feel comfortable then trail shoes are available with big arch supports. The better way to do things however is to reduce the support slightly and make your first few runs easy before increasing the distance and speed after a few weeks.
Another option is to look at soft custom insoles. By incorporating these you can ensure your feet have the right support whilst ensuring the shoe stays a little bit flexible for the trails. A custom insole also has the added benefit of increasing proprioception and balance which is ideal for trail running!
Looking after your Trail Running Shoes
With trail running our shoes are bound to get really dirty, if you prefer to clean yours then try to avoid the washing machine as the temperature and constant bashing around the drum will add significant life to your shoes and will need replacing much sooner. Get yourself a Boot Buddy to easily scrub off the mud and crud.
You can buy trainer bags that attach to the inside of the drum and prevent this bashing and you can wash at 30degrees which will not be as damaging but hosing or showering the shoes down would be a better option. (always remember to remove any insoles from the shoe before washing!)
A final note on looking after your trail running shoes is knowing when to replace them. A hole in the shoe is not usually the first sign. The midsole, the part between the bottom of the shoe and your foot (usually made of EVA) can be the first to go. This part of the shoe provides the support and cushioning we feel in a new shoe. Once this is old they will not feel as protective or as soft. It s a good idea to get familiar with this midsole so with a new shoe give the midsole a squeeze and feel its stiffness, if you do this once a month you’ll start to feel the changes. Once you can squeeze the midsole with your fingers down to a thin strip then just imagine what your bodyweight could do to it! It’s time to replace.
A top end shoe would usually last 500 miles approx. Cheaper shoes will typically use less durable and softer materials so the mileage falls to 200-300.
Good places to go Trail Running
So if you feel inspired to get into trail running and are not sure where to start then we really recommend starting with national trail paths and heading out to places like the South Downs, Pembrokeshire coast or the thames towpath. If you’re feeling more adventurous then you really can’t beat the Lake District or Brecon Beacons for sheer volume of different paths and routes for all abilities.
Then if you’re going one step further and into Europe then the most obvious choice is around Chamonix (France) or Courmayeur (Italy) for Alps and the Mont Blanc trail paths. Having said this, the Pyrenees is a personal favourite particularly around Ordino in Andorra or Font Romeu in France.
The US has some of the longest and most amazing trails in the world. The wilderness holds some breathtaking views that make trail running worth every step.
All the above areas have great networks of trail paths for all abilities and they have races on them all year round ranging between 1mile and 100+miles for the really crazy ones. Over in the UK, the ParkRun series is a fantastic free weekly trail run series over 5km. Endurance life have a great series of races too that range between 10km and Ultra Marathons.
Other Trail Running Gear
Finally, a quick note on other gear and safety on the trails. If you are running locally then it is not as big of a concern but if you are running in areas that you are not familiar with then it is worth investing in a good running pack and putting some safety items in.
Trail running backpacks and hydration packs are designed to fit comfortably and provide you with water on the go. You can drink the water by the tube directly or take it out easily whenever you need without taking your hydration pack off or having to stop running. You can carry everything you need with a trail running backpack. Choose one with the pocket design so that your water bottle, phone, keys and food can easily be stored in the front pack pockets and water bladder or other items in the back one.
A map of the local area and the phone numbers of the local trail authorities stored in your phone are an absolute must. It is worth packing some lightweight waterproofs as trail running, particularly in the mountains can throw up very extreme weather changes even in the summer.
If you’re are in really remote areas then a survival blanket and whistle should be considered too. Finally a headtorch can be useful- if you run through forest areas they can catch you by surprise with how quickly they become dark in the evening. Safety should always be a priority on the trails!
Where to Buy Trail Running Shoes
You can now buy mens trail running shoes and trail running shoes for women in most sports stores and online. If you love your feet and want the perfect fit, the Profeet store on the Fulham Road in London has a running shoe fitting service where experts will assess the comfort and suitability of new trail running shoes in store.
Profeet staff will review how your foot, ankle, legs and body are moving using dynamic foot scanning and video gait analysis. They can recommend and fit the best trail running shoes for you and make appropriate custom insoles – and all covered by a Comfort Guarantee. This is recommended for anyone looking to increase comfort and performance and reduce injury, whether you enjoy ultra-marathon, marathon, triathlon, or running recreationally for fitness.
So now you know what to look for when buying your next pair of sports shoes or trail running shoes.