Why CrossFit Athletes Should Wear Special Shoes When Trail Running

August 23, 2023 by
Photo Credit: Michael DeYoung, Getty Images
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As we learned during the 2023 CrossFit Games, the 5K run has been the most-programmed workout of the day on CrossFit mainsite, appearing more than 100 times. 

But trail running, specifically, has only ever been made an appearance twice:

But while trail running only makes the occasional appearance on mainsite, it’s become a staple in the competitor tracks of training programs like PRVN, HWPO, TTT, and MisFit Athletics. 

Why? Simply, because off-road running has made a regular appearance in The CrossFit Games since the event’s inception. 

So, while the 2023 No Bull CrossFit Games may mark the firsts for a lot of things — first time seeing pull-overs in competition, for example — it’s not the first time we’re seeing a timed, off-road. 

Still, there was something about the Cross-Country 5K that has inspired many functional fitness fans to try their hand (er, feet) at uneven terrain. 

The Quick and Dirty Benefits of Running on Dirt

Running on any surface — track, tread, Trueform—offers up a slew of health and fitness benefits like increased cardiovascular capacity, improved endurance, stronger legs, and better overall general preparedness, says Keith Stern, Director of Product, Running Footwear at Reebok.

Trail surfaces, broadly speaking, are less predictable, stable, and sturdy than any other running surface. 

No doubt, the instabilities and inconsistencies make trail running harder than running on other surfaces — but they also tack on additional benefits to the monostructural modality. 

  • “The uneven surfaces of trail running can demand a lot of different muscles than a treadmill or road run, in particular when running an incline or decline,” says Stern. 

Different Floor, Different Flesh

Typically, climbing uphills increase the demand put on the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, calves), he says. Though, if the trail is steep, you’ll need to lean forward to counteract the incline which will call on your quads, he says. 

  • “The downhill portions primarily tax your quads through eccentric loading as you apply braking forces to control your downhill speed,” says Stern. “The stability demands of uneven terrain will also help to build up smaller stabilizer muscles in your feet and ankles that aid in balance.” 

Trail running also works your hip flexors, arms, and midline more than running on a straight-and-narrow, explains Fritz Nugent, coach and manager at Invictus Fitness in San Diego, CA. 

  • “Your hips have to rotate and shift with the demands of the trail,” he says. “And your arms will pump differently to help you maintain balance while you’re running down a trail built for mountain bikes as fast as you possibly can, teetering on the edge of losing control, hitting the berms full speed, jumping over the table tops, and landing on the downslope.” 

Muscle strengthening aside, trail running also offers up additional health and wellness benefits associated with being outdoors, such as reduced stress, improved alertness, improved mental well-being, and more energy, says Nugent. 

Footwear Matters

Even if your CrossFit shoe collection is bigger than Tola Morakinyo’s CrossFit Total, you probably need to invest in a new pair of shoes for trail running. 

Trail runners—well, good trail runners—have an outsole that provides more traction than traditional running shoes, explains Stern. That’s because they usually sport small points of raised rubber (called lugs) that line the toe to heel. 

  • “Depending on the type of trails you will run, you may not need large lugs, but the extra grip they provide will be helpful,” he says. 

Trail runners are also typically made of a more-durable upper that helps ensure longevity of the shoe, even as you scrape against rocks and roots, he says. 

Many trail runners also hug your ankle more tightly than other training or running shoes, which keeps them safe when you’re lunging over rocks, roots, and rubble. This feature works double-duty helping keep dirt from getting into your sock. 

Different Feet, Different Footwear Needs 

As for which trail runner is best? Well, that will depend on a variety of factors such as the shape of your unique foot, your general footwear preferences (cushioned vs. minimalist, for example), the terrain you plan to be scaling, the weather conditions you’re running in, and your budget. 

To get your trail runner shopping spree started, here are our picks in key categories: 

Best budget trail runner:Merrell Moab Flight, $79.99

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