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Footwear varies enormously, but in the simplest terms, it provides the user (wearer) with one basic benefit. Protection for the foot.
Once people begin to explore and attempt to move at speed, there’s the issue of traction. People need grip when moving and changing direction at speed. Not to mention, while ascending or descending. And on slippery surfaces, such as gravel, wet grass and mud, people handle the job a little better when their feet don’t slide out from underneath them with every step.
Also, when trying to push your foot against the ground and move forwards, it’s frustrating and exhausting to have your shoe slip out behind you before you’ve gained some purchase. So for the ideal amount of traction against these surfaces – there’s an ever increasing variety in tread design. And for some it can be a little confusing….
So here’s a quick rundown of the basics. Tread designs that (on the whole) provide a reasonable balance between fitness for purpose and value for money*.
1) Off-Road Shoes (AKA Off Trail). As the name suggests, off-road shoes are expected to be used by people who avoid too much tarmac. The main aim is to enjoy a run in a more scenic environment, but with the relative safety of a marked path, track, trail or route in general. The surface might be wet at times and therefore a little slippery, but not so messy or uneven as to cause injury through difficult footing. There are of course exceptions here or there, but if you intend to perform 80% or more of your running on this kind of stuff, you’d do well to choose an Off-Road Shoe. You’ll find some designs have multi-directional lugs, which means the studs point in different directions and stop your feet sliding sideways as well as backwards. They’ll also help you control your feet on downhills, where your feet will be used as brakes!
*While a pointed stud will grab soft ground and sink into the mud or gravel, on harder baked surfaces or road sections, the rubber will wear fairly quickly, due to its soft sticky nature (which makes it better for gripping wet rock in particular). Some off-road shoes will offer a slightly firmer, less sticky, more ‘endurance’ rubber compound, for longer life – but at the expense of this stickiness.
2) ‘Fell’ Shoes. The word ‘Fell’ is old fashioned for ‘Hill’ and as such implies that the intended activity will be a little more adventurous. Open country, away from paths and often far from civilisation. Steeper ground is likely to be tackled and almost certainly wet or uneven here or there. The tread will be as aggressive as possible, as your feet will be required to fix to whatever comes along at random. Though perfectly suited to muddy conditions, or slippery wet grass – the odd patch of exposed rock will also be encountered. So featuring long studs, often still made of a sticky rubber, but spread out across the outsole (underside of the shoe), so to avoid the ground being packed into the gaps between the lugs and lifting with your foot. Nobody needs that in the fells, as it could mean the difference between a safe foot placement at speed and a sudden tumble down a craggy valley side, far from help and often out of phone reception.
3) ‘Trail’ Shoes. These are like road shoes, but possessing studs for traction – dedicated trail specific stuff. Really very simple. The majority focus on comfort for long scenic runs, perhaps a little aggression now and then, but most models are geared toward the everyday runner who prefers the local reservoir to the roadside. As long as they’ll stop you sliding into the canal for example, what’s vital is that the flat studs cope with a mixture of tarmac (even if it’s just between the car/house & trail) and dirt. It’s common for these shoes to have a slightly tougher outsole, harder wearing against the road and rocks**.
**While they’ll still look good in hundreds of miles, don’t ignore that fact that the poor midsole (sock absorbing layer) will still have been beaten into submission by this point. Tread should always outlive the midsole and is no indication of a shoe’s remaining life expectancy.
4) Door-to-Trail Shoes. These are quite niche, and as the name suggests, take the above concept and increase the potential for running on road & trail in equal measure. Whether branded as ‘City Trail’ or similar, the idea is for one shoe to do the work of two, though they won’t be as suited in any particular environment as would be the ideal shoes for the job. They provide versatility and cost effectiveness to a point, but be careful when taking such a shoe into extremes – such long road runs, or outright bog trotting – as they’ll likely let you down in one way or another. For ‘urban exploring’, around your neighbourhood in search of hidden trails and park areas, they can still be a treat for your feet.
5) Road Shoes. Most people will have a pair of road shoes if anything. They’ll be almost, if not completely featureless underneath. Expected to perform on tarmac paths, road surfaces and concrete – they act in the same way as a Motorcycle Tyre. Friction is the priority. As much contact as can be afforded, but only where the foot is definitely going to connect with the ground. Some will therefore have an even distribution of hard wearing rubber (appearing bald), where others (in the name of being as lightweight as possible) will only have strategically positioned pads under certain parts of the shoe, so there isn’t unused rubber holding you back/slowing you down.
Some will still have a reasonable amount of texture, appealing to casual runners who venture along wooded paths and park areas, etc. But the more dedicated racing style footwear will be delicate, super lightweight and so low profile that after half the miles you’d expect from regular shoes – they’ll be done for. That said, the more sophisticated road racing shoes (and Track Specific Athletics Shoes) will (should) only be used sparingly on race days and for drills/practice sessions. So best for the runner (and most appropriate) to use racing shoes, or ‘flats’ in rotation with a much more resilient and more frequently used training shoe (or ‘trainer’).
And a quick word about spikes: In either case, track or cross country – a pair of running spikes (as they’re generally known) will be of minimal structure (although sprint spikes will be stiff as a board for a powerful push off) and have screw in spikes across the underside. 6mm for track (legal maximum) and up to 15mm for cross country (hardly used due to the potential dangers and likelihood of momentary road crossings, bending the longer spikes accidentally. So a little like lightweight football boots with deadly studs.
PLUS! Orienteers will often employ a comfortable Trail Shoe, that has metal studs built into the outsole, allowing secure footing in areas of ice and snow, as well as when clambering across mossy obstacles and the age old nemesis of runners everywhere…….tree limbs/roots. So if you hear someone tap dancing behind you, it’s an Orienteer! – Thanks to Trevor Watson, who pointed out the omission.
That’s it. Simple. But as you’ll have noticed, every manufacturer has its own idea of what works, or what to call it. Many will attempt to bend the rules or disguise one things as another for a while, until the end user (you) gets wise and returns to what works best and offers the most reward for the amount spent.
At Accelerate we pride ourselves on recognising the differences and the potential in all of the above, while matching footwear to runners – according to what suits their physical characteristics and intended use. If you want to ‘Get a Grip’. We can certainly help.