The main quality to look for in a trail shoe is the level of grip the shoe offers. This will differ from shoe to shoe and depend on the type of off road running the shoe is designed for, for example hard pack, soft pack, fell, mix of both etc. and will be reflected in the aggressiveness of the outsole. The outsole of a trail shoe will have deeper tread to provide traction and stability on slippery and uneven surfaces. |
The second aspect is the uppers. Trail shoes are generally harder wearing, with more durable uppers. They generally offer more protection for the foot. I.e. a stone shield in the forefoot of the shoe to prevent sharp objects puncturing through. The uppers can either be water resistant/ waterproof (ie. GORE-TEX) to prevent your feet getting wet in damp conditions but if you plan on running through water you might be better off choosing a shoe that allows the water to escape when it gets in.
Trail shoes also tend to have a lower profile for stability as it helps the wearer to respond quicker to the changing terrain.
Most trail shoes have a neutral level of support due to the nature of running off road, (the foot is more mobile over uneven ground), although some shoes do have support similar to that of their road cousins. However, as with all running shoes it depends on the individual and the type of trail running / racing that you are doing. A lightweight, neutral trail shoe like an Adidas Kanadia may be great for a short, quick event, but not that suitable for an off road Marathon for example. It's about finding the right balance between traction, responsiveness, weight and cushioning.
Bear in mind also that most off road shoes are stiffer and require a longer breaking in period than road shoes , so be wary of this when buying for a race. It's also worth bearing in mind that most trail shoes offer less cushioning than their road counterparts, so should not be used for long distances on road.
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