The Hyperspecialization of Trail Running Gear

Running brands are exploring just how targeted they can get with their gear—and it’s more than just a marketing ploy

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Trail running was once a niche offshoot of the running community, a small sub-category of adventurous spirits who eschewed pavement in favor of more nuanced terrain. But trail running has become more than just a supporting actor. It’s taken on main character status in the sporting world, complete with derivatives of its own. Ultrarunning, skyrunning, peakbagging, fastpacking, stage racing, relay racing, singletrack, doubletrack, road-to-trail, FKTs, VKs, OCR… the options are endless. 

Such fragmentation of trail running is ultimately good for the community. The more options to choose from, the easier it is for individuals to find their own niche within the sport. Take a fourteener-chaser who might not have identified as a trail runner before discovering fastpacking and can now expand their circle that much further—and share their own unique angle on running with others as well. We all grow as a result. 

Some may argue that all these new categories overcomplicate a sport that “should” be as simple as one foot in front of the other. With every subdivision, after all, comes the extra gear to go with it. Brands have certainly jumped on the chance to expand their lines of equipment by targeting the unique demands involved in each form of trail running. 

But in the end, the hyperspecialization of running gear isn’t just another marketing ploy. This trend that’s emerging in the running industry is more a matter of increased performance, enhanced safety, and greater sustainability than sales. Yes, those who dabble in more than one style of trail running may choose to add a few more pairs of shoes to their quiver, or rack up an assortment of different jackets for different occasions. It may seem like a waste of money, space, and resources at first. 

Consider, however, how often each piece of specialized gear actually gets used. That pair of alpine-specific shoes that only apply to certain runs on your schedule will last significantly longer than an all-in-one daily trainer. “Rotating through multiple pairs will help extend the overall lifespan of each model in the rotation,” confirms Mark Mathews, vice president of sales at SCARPA. It’s important to note as well that using gear outside of its scope could cause it to break down faster. “Each product performs best in its intended environment,” says Michael Genauer, product director for La Sportiva. “If you use a long-distance shoe for really aggressive trails, for example, we may see the lugs start to wear down prematurely. We can extend the life of our products if we use them for their intended purposes.”

Specialization also keeps runners safe. Just as rotating through various shoes extends their lifespans, the habit protects our own running lifespans too. A study on the relationship between running shoe variety and injury risk shows that runners who wear multiple pairs of shoes throughout the training week experience a 39 percent reduction in injury compared to those who rely on a single pair. 

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“I usually recommend runners to rotate between at least two different pairs of shoes if possible,” suggests Katie Pajerowski, a Laurel, Maryland-based physical therapist. “The decreased injury risk associated with the parallel use of different shoes is primarily attributed to more variability in forces, which can reduce the risk of overload at one specific area.” In layman’s terms: different shoes impart different forces on the soft tissues involved in running and diversify stress on the body. 

Besides, certain aspects of trail running pose inherent threats to runners. Navigating tenuous alpine ridges, finding your footing on crumbling descents, hopping along slickrock, postholing through snow, and negotiating with ice all require plenty of terrain-specific skill—but also the right gear to match. Technology fit for the terrain at hand translates to fewer accidents, thanks to better traction on the ground and appropriate protection from the elements. 

For these reasons, top trail running brands are exploring just how targeted they can get with their gear. Take a look at where the industry is headed with hyper-specialized designs created with performance, sustainability, and safety in mind as runners expand the limits of our sport. 

Winter-Ready Shoes

Gore-Tex has historically been a shoe’s best defense against the elements when it comes to outfitting runners for winter miles. But that’s no better than slapping a band-aid on an open wound and calling it healed. Arc’Teryx set out to design a shoe truly fit for winter conditions—not just a “winterized” version of what already existed. The upcoming Norvan Nivalis features a rugged Vibram megagrip sole with six millimeter lugs for traction on unstable ground, a lofty 23 milimeter stack height underfoot for clearing deep snow, a pull-string fastener for ease of use while wearing thick gloves and long pants, and a stretchy water-repellent gaiter, all zipped up under a protective outer layer complete with a trusty Gore-Tex membrane. This is no four-season running shoe; the Norvan Nivalis is made for winter and winter only. But for those of us who are tired of slipping, sliding, and shivering our way through one snowy slog after another, this shoe might mean the difference between surviving and thriving in the winter. 

Surface-Specific Shoes

There’s a big difference in impact between running on squishy dirt versus unforgiving rock. So why wear the same shoes for both? SCARPA plans to divide their three lines of trail running shoes into HT (hard terrain) and ST (soft terrain) designations. That starts with the Spin ST and the Kalibra HT. The newest addition to the Spin family is designed to suit soft terrain like dirt, mud and sand. Seven millimeter lugs keep the shoe from displacing the malleable ground around it and increase traction on surfaces prone to sliding. The midsole aids with responsiveness, which often suffers on soft surfaces as the foot sinks down. A snug collar around the ankle and new lace tensioning system holds the shoe in place no matter how much the ground may move underfoot.

The Kalibra HT takes the opposite approach. This shoe aims to ameliorate the effects of running on hard surfaces like slickrock or rocky ridgelines. The incessant pounding gets old fast—for your muscles and your mind. That being said, the Kalibra absorbs and disperses the impact while minimizing bulk so you can stay light on your feet over technical terrain. Heel stabilization, low stack height, and a micro-adjustable BOA closure system give the Kalibra some serious second-skin vibes. The goal is to allow the foot to move as fluidly and land as precisely as it could bare—but better, with the help of abrasion-resistance in the sole and small yet springy lugs for low-profile protection. 

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High-Capacity Storage

For those who prefer taking the scenic route, though, minimalism doesn’t necessarily offer the same appeal. As of this spring, Black Diamond has expanded their line of Distance vests to include an option for the biggest days on a runner’s horizon. The Distance 22 fills the awkward gap between your traditionally spartan vest and a full-on pack. It wears the same as the former, but carries as much as the latter. The real MVP here is perhaps the most subtle component of the piece: stitchless tape that eliminates chafing—which becomes even more of a concern the heavier your load. It’s the little things that often make big differences. 

Convenience for the Distance

Anyone who’s ever run an ultra knows how hard the fatigue hits at a certain point in the race. There comes a time when the smallest of nuisances becomes cause for a complete emotional breakdown. The further you go, the more difficult it gets to make simple decisions or employ fine motor skills. 

That’s where the new Black Diamond Distance Headlamp comes in. Not only does it provide 1500 lumens of light encased in glass patterned in such a way to increase clarity and depth perception, this headlamp also takes the hassle out of battery changes. An external magnetic attachment system makes it possible to swap out a dead battery pack for a fresh one in seconds without removing the headlamp at all. That level of convenience makes a huge difference in terms of both time and energy management over the course of long distances. 

On a similar note, the upcoming Xodus Vest and Vesta from Ultimate Direction also prioritizes ease of use for ultrarunners. This cutting-edge vest eschews the classic front closure method and opts for a zipper up the side. That way, all the valuable real estate up front can be used for storage instead. Those of us with T-Rex arms have always struggled to access the side pockets on vests, which rendered them pretty much useless—especially as fatigue escalated. The eight pockets smack-dab in the center of the torso on the Xodus will leave us screeching like Will Ferrell: “So much room for activities!”

Female-Specific Fit

Running shoe brands have been good about creating female-specific versions of their classic designs for a while now. But for once, women get a shoe that’s entirely their own. No boys allowed in the La Sportiva Levante. One day, we might not view a women’s shoe as an example of hyperspecialization. While the age of “shrink it and pink it” still reigns, though, it remains a novelty. The Levante was designed in conjunction with La Sportiva’s top female trail running athletes including Clare Gallagher and Silke Koester. Think of it as a Frankenstein shoe combining and refining elements of its predecessors (like the Kaptiva’s tongue and the Jackal’s mesh). With no male version of the Levante on the horizon, female physiology can finally take priority.

The hyperspecialization of running gear is more than just a temporary marketing trend. It gives runners of all fortes the chance to explore their unique interests more fully. In the name of performance, safety, and longevity—for runners and their gear alike—let’s hope hyperspecialization is here to stay.

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