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Why do you need different shoes for trail running vs road running. Can’t one pair do both? The short answer is no, because there are big differences you need to think about. There are a lot of choices in trail running shoes, but before you buy it pays to work out what shoe – or shoes – will work best for you. The main differences between trail running shoes and road running shoes relate to the running surface itself. For trail running you need shoes with aggressive tread, enhanced foot protection, support, and stability. 

Tread 

Look for deeper lugs on the outsole for extra traction in muddy and sandy terrain. Shorter, more closely spaced lugs are OK for hard packed, dry trails. 


Foot Protection 

Trail shoes need to be tough to protect your feet from rocks, sticks, thorns, and sharp roots. Look for burly toe guards and reinforced uppers to prevent cuts and abrasions. 

Foot Support 

Your instep must be well supported to keep your foot firmly in place when running on rugged terrain or on rough, steep trails. 

Stability on Uneven Terrain 

Cushioning and support provided from a stiffer sole can help increase the level of stability a shoes provide. But unlike road shoes you don’t need so much pronation support on uneven surfaces because your foot is always adjusting to the surface.
 

Further Questions To Consider

So that’s a quick overview, but before you choose your shoes, you need to know the answers to these questions: 

  • What and surfaces and terrain will I be running on? 
  • What seasons will I be running in? 
  • What distances will I be running (per session and per week) 
  • What are my trail running goals? 

Surfaces  

On loose and muddy surfaces you need a very aggressive tread with deep and widely spaced lugs for extra grip and so mud doesn’t stick in the gaps. A well-supported instep will help you keep your balance on uneven surfaces. The NNormal Tomir by trail running superstar Kilian Jornet is a great option with tough construction and grip for days. NNormal shoes are for both men and women. 

By the way, if you’re new to trail running you’ll like our article How to train for trail running with Kilian Jornet.  

Rough, rocky terrain means requires a stiff outsole for stability. Reinforced uppers will help protect your foot. 

If your runs take you over variable terrain you’ll need a versatile shoe that’s grippy and strong, and you can afford to sacrifice a little protection for lightness and flexibility. The outsole lugs can be more closely spaced and less aggressive if you don’t have so much mud to deal with. 

These NNormal Kjerag trail running shoes offer supreme versatility in a super durable package. 

Distance 

For short distances, say under 15km, look for lightweight, responsive shoes.  

For middle distances (25 to 50 km) all-round shoes are the best choice. The new ON Cloud Monster shoes (available for men and women) are renowned for their cushy feel without sacrificing stability or durability.  

For more than 50km and over endurance running it’s wise to prioritise cushioning. Hoka shoes wrote the book on mega cushioned shoes that go the distance. Check out the Hoka Speedgoat for all trail capability. 

Your Body Size

If you’re light you can go towards the lighter and more responsive end of the spectrum. And if you’re a larger person it pays to look for extra cushioning and stability to protect your joints. 

Fit 

Your shoes must be right for your foot. If they don’t fit right from the start they won’t improve with use. You should also remember that your feet will swell up on a trail run, so you want about a 10mm gap between the end of your toes and the shoe. That’ll help prevent blisters and black toe nails. 

Summary 

When choosing your trail running shoes, you need to consider: 

  • The main types of trail you’ll be running on - unstable, rocky, muddy, sandy, or varied.  
  • Your goals and how often you plan to run 
  • The distance you run  
  • Your body size and weight 
  • Fit 

Get all those variables right and you’ll have a great time on the trail. But it is a lot to consider and it's best if you consult an expert before buying. At Outside Sports we sell more trail running shoes than anyone in New Zealand. Either drop into one of our stores at Queenstown, Wanaka, Te Anau or Tekapo and talk to someone who knows the local trails and what shoes will work best for you. 

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