The range of different types of trail running shoes is vast, reflecting the sport’s diverse demands. While the designs of most road shoes take into account distance, speed, and anatomy, they all rely on the expectation of a consistent ground surface; trail running shoes contend with the added variable of unpredictable terrain. ‘Trail’ is a pretty loose term, getting a lot of its meaning from what it is not: paved. In this sense, both a groomed gravel path and a non-maintained stretch of technical singletrack can fall under the same definition, but differ wildly in how they’re best approached. So, to provide for this varied fourth dimension, trail shoe types are commonly broken up into even more specialized groups than their road counterparts — which adds a whole lot of complexity when you’re trying to figure out which shoes are going to be best for how and where you run.
In our third installment in our Trail Running Glossary of Terms series, we’ve provided brief summaries of popular trail running shoe categories, along with outlining some of their advantages and limitations. We’ve also included examples of shoes from each classification to help illustrate their hallmark features. It’s important to note that many trail models straddle categories and have myriad uses, as well as different design features that make shoes within a general category differ significantly from each other. But this article should give you a broad idea of what to look for once you’ve settled on the type of shoe that best suits your needs.
We’ll be using a lot of common terms that define how shoes are made and classified, so for a general rundown on the construction elements of most trail running shoes, check out our Glossary of Terms for Shoe Anatomy.
(And if you’re having trouble deciphering a given brand’s shoe-tech jargon, be sure to check out our Running Shoe Brand Guides, where we go over every shoe in a brand’s lineup and discuss how each one differs.)