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Are Trail Shoes Any Better Than Normal Running Shoes?

They might feel like a gimmick, but they can go a long way in preventing injuries

Because it’s winter in Chicago and I’m in desperate need of things to look forward to next summer, I’ve spent a lot of time planning various runs around the greener areas of the city — from the trails along Lake Michigan to the winding paths of Humboldt Park. While doing so, however, I couldn’t help but wonder: Should I buy trail shoes to better handle all of the lush flora and fauna I’ll be running through come June?

But before I made another haphazard quarantine purchase, I decided to ask Paul Ronto, director of digital content at running shoe review site RunRepeat, if trail shoes are any better than my normal running shoes. “The basic answer is yes, your road shoes will work on any surface — roads, dirt, grass, mud, trails and so on,” Ronto says. “But trail shoes for sure have their place.” 

That place, to be sure, is on trail-trails. “Trail running out in the woods or in the mountains is very different from ‘trail running’ on the crushed gravel paths you see in city parks or next to cement running paths,” Ronto says, his air quotes burning a hole in my summer fantasies. “For that kind of ‘trail,’ you don’t need trail shoes, your road shoes are just fine.” 

That said, if you’re running on uneven surfaces for the majority of your run — think muddy, untamed forest preserves, or up and around rocky hills — you should consider trail shoes. “They’re designed to grip rocks, roots, dirt and variable terrain much better thanks to their deep-lugged outsoles,” Ronto explains. “That grip is more important because while trail running, you’re cutting and pivoting much more than you are on paved paths.” 

Even on straight trails, he adds, “if the terrain underfoot isn’t flat, you’re cutting and pivoting every step, so the added grip is crucial.” Ronto likens the difference to not wearing cleats during a softball game. “You need cleats when playing sports on grass because the extra grip allows you to cut left and right, and stop fast. Road shoes don’t give you that ability to pivot confidently.”

Which is also why Ronto suggests I reconsider my attempts at running through snow in regular running shoes. “Just a little added grip on that hard-packed snow can keep you from a disastrous fall,” he tells me. “Plus, some trail shoes have weather-resistant features to keep debris and moisture out, which is important for running in cold weather, too.” 

Looking at how my shoes handle the snow, maybe I could use some more traction and insulation.

But when the snow melts and concrete is once again solidly underfoot, Ronto advises changing back to road shoes. Trail shoes technically work for road running, but “their outsole tends to be softer rubber, so running them on the roads will wear them down much faster than running on the roads with dedicated road shoes,” he tells me. 

As for me, while I may not need trail shoes for the manicured gravel paths of Chicago’s parks, I might as well buy a pair anyway, if for no other reason than to better handle my current snowy conditions. After all, at least in our current deep freeze, summer feels a million miles away.