Trail running is different from road running and takes a while to adjust to if you are coming from a road running back ground. I prefer to run trails, but don’t get to do it as often as I would like. I would run exclusively on trails if I could. I love the smell of the trees, the sound of the wind in the leaves, the rumbling of creeks and rivers. The variation in the trail provides constant entertainment and challenges. Being out in the woods with no one else around is totally freeing. I feel more alive out in the woods cursing along winding single track, jumping rocks, splashing through rivers with trees flying by than I do at any other time.
Yeah, we know trail running is amazing and it is different we get it, but do we really need trail shoes or are road shoes all right? It depends on the trail.
Trail shoes will protect your toes from damage when you do catch your toe on a rocks and roots jutting up. For a simple well-groomed trail, road shoes will suit you just fine, but if you are dealing with rocks, roots, rivers, mud, steep ascents and descents, or sand I highly recommend trail shoes over road shoes.
Trail shoes drain water faster and more efficiently after you splash through a river or creek than road shoes will. Their aggressive tread makes mud, ascents, and descents much easier to deal with. They are typically more flexible and have less cushion allowing your foot to mold to the surface more than in a stiff road shoe.
Shoes are not the only thing that is different with trail running gear. You should consider trekking poles, hydration packs, handhelds, and gaiters.
I have used trekking poles on a few races. They get in my way on descents and I don’t think they help enough on the ascents for me to be inconvenienced by them at the marathon distance. They do help maintain your form with long ascents in the later part of long mountainous race. They can be useful when the trail is slick with mud; preventing some of the backsliding. They may be more worth taking on an ultra-event with a lot of climbing, but make sure you are used to using them and can get a good rhythm going.
Hydration packs or handhelds are critical to have on trails. You never know what you’re going to run into out there, and often you are out there for longer than you expected. Take more water than you think you will need. Most ultra-aid stations are ten miles or more apart, which may not seem like very far, but if there is 2-3000 feet of elevation change during those ten miles, it becomes much farther. Water is worth the extra weight.
Gaiters will save your feet from sand, mud, sticks, thorns, and rocks. You can find gaiters that go up your calf or shorter ones that just cover your sock. Length of your gaiter is personal preference, the longer ones will protect your lower leg from scratches. You pull the gaiter on before your shoe. Once your shoe is on and tied, pull the gaiter down and attach it. Most use a strap of some type, which are replaceable, around the bottom of your shoe and then hook on to the laces at your toe. It’s good to carry extra straps that go under the shoe. I’ve used hair ties in a pinch. You can also just replace them straight away, with a thin metal cable with loops at each end.