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Get a Grip: Understanding the Difference in Running Shoe Treads

by Jill Schuman | July 11, 2017 | 0 Comments


Fellrunners in England's Lake District, photo courtesy of Peer Lawther

Anyone who’s taken a pair of road shoes onto the trail knows the sudden, terrifying moment when you lose traction on a steep, gravelly downhill. There’s a real reason – beyond getting you to buy more shoes – that running companies develop so many different tread patterns for their shoes. From minimal grip to giant lugs, there’s a choice for every type of terrain. Here’s a quick look into the best tread for the job. 


Asics GT-2000 5 Road Running Shoes TreadA look at a classic road tread from ASICS GT-2000 5 Road-Running Shoes

The outsoles for a road shoe are specifically designed for hard surfaces such as pavement. You’ll find they have a fairly even, low-profile tread pattern. Just as you wouldn’t want to take a road shoe onto a technical trail, it would be a bad idea to wear a trail shoe on the road for long distances. It would be like using your snow tires year-round – you’ll quickly wear out that specialized tread on the pavement. Plus, many trail shoes have a stiffer flex and would be uncomfortable for long road distances.

Light Trail

Salomon Sense Pro 2 trail running shoe tread exampleThe tread of Salomon's Sense Pro 2 Trail Running Shoes

We’re talking hard packed tracks – whether in the mountains, desert, or forest. On these harder surfaces, you’ll want to find a tread pattern between a road and an intensely technical trail shoe. If this is your trail du jour, try something like Salomon’s Sense Pros or the Brooks Cascadia. Both of these are aggressive enough to tackle difficult terrain in a pinch, but will provide a certain level of comfort on hard surfaces. 

Technical Trail, Mud and Snow

Altra King MT trail running shoes aggressive treadAltra King MT Trail Running Shoes Tread

If mud, blood, and snow is your thing, you’ll want to find a trail runner with deep, aggressive lugs. The deeper the tread, the better it will perform in slippery conditions. A soft tread can perform better in thick mud, but will wear out a lot quicker than a harder rubber. Check out Salomon’s Speedcross 4 or the Altra King MT.

Of course, once you start shopping, you’ll find every shoe brand a myriad of tread options. Just keep in mind: The deeper the tread, the more technical the trail.

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