Have you ever landed on a sharp rock while running full-tilt along a trail? It can freakin’ hurt!
But exactly what is a rock plate in trail running shoes? Is it something necessary to have, or is it just a nice thing to have?
In this article, we’ll discuss what rock plates are, what they’re made of, and give you some pros and cons. So the next time you are in the market for a new pair of trail shoes, you can decide if it’s something to look for.
What is a Rock Plate?
A rock plate is a rigid plastic layer inside a trail running shoe. You won’t find them in road running shoes – they’re specifically designed for underfoot protection on rough terrain like trails.
As their name suggests, they’re a plate designed to prevent rocks from hurting or bruising your foot while you’re running.
They’re placed between the midsole and the outsole. That way, you still get all the cushioning and support of the midsole and the grip and traction of the outsole.
You just have an extra stiff, protective board between you and the possible hazards on the ground.
What are the Benefits of a Rock Plate?
The biggest benefit you’ll get from a rock plate is protection. Sharp, jutting rocks won’t be able to stab your feet painfully, as the plate stops them in their tracks.
A rock plate also provides some protection against sharp objects like nails, glass, or scrap metal. Although we hope to not come across these kinds of things on a trail run, you never quite know when you may encounter something hazardous.
In short, wearing a pair of shoes that include a rock plate allows you to run with more confidence over technical trails, or trails that are unknown to you. More confidence equals more speed, and ultimately, better performance.
If you’re a competitive trail runner, trail running shoes with a rock plate should definitely be a consideration. On the other hand, if performance isn’t really a consideration for you, a rock plate still increases your safety if you’re running on uneven or rough terrain.
What Are They Made Of and How Big Are They?
Rock plates are molded from rigid, tough material. Often, they’re made of hard plastic. Some shoe manufacturers choose to use carbon fiber instead, which also adds some bounce to the footwear and is more durable.
Depending on the manufacturer or even the model of shoe, the rock plate may run the full length of the shoe or may be split into separate sections in the heel and the forefoot.
Typically, a split rock plate offers a more flexible ride, while a single-piece is more rigid and more protective. It can feel quite different from one to the other, so it may be a good idea to try out a few different pairs of shoes before you buy!
Are Rock Plates Built Into All Trail Running Shoes?
No, not all trail running shoes automatically come with rock plates built-in. Minimalist or barefoot shoes, especially, won’t use a rock plate as it does interfere with the natural ground feeling under your foot.
Minimalist shoes or those that are designed to be as lightweight as possible will most likely forgo a rock plate in order to save weight.
Trail running shoes that are generously cushioned may also leave out a rock plate. If they already have sufficient cushioning and support in the shoe, a rock plate may not be necessary.
How Do I Know If a Shoe Has a Rock Plate?
A rock plate is an important design element of a shoe and is a definite selling point for trail running shoes. Most footwear that includes a rock plate will make a specific mention of it in the shoe’s description.
Often, they also give some visual indication on websites or even on their packaging. You may see a cross-section of a shoe showing the rock plate in the sole, or something similar.
If you really can’t figure out whether or not a shoe features a rock plate, chances are it doesn’t.
Pros of a Rock Plate
The whole reason rock plates exist is to protect the foot from … Well, rocks. Protection is a big pro of a rock plate in a shoe, as you can run over rocky, rough, bumpy, and even sharp terrain without worrying about injuring yourself.
Even if you’re walking through a hazardous area, rock plates can be invaluable when it comes to keeping your feet safe from external hazards that could cause injury.
Take note that having a rock plate in a shoe doesn’t mean that the midsole or outsole will last longer.
The midsole will flatten a little bit each time you wear the shoe, regardless of the plastic plate underneath it. In the same vein, the outsole will take the beating of whatever terrain it’s exposed to.
But having a rock plate in your shoe does mean that there’s far less chance of the shoes suffering punctures that could make them unwearable. Holes in the sole as a result of sharp rocks, sticks, or other hazards will be a thing of the past.
A rock plate is rigid and stiff. Shoes often sacrifice flexibility in order to have the benefit of a rock plate.
But less flexibility does mean more inherent stability. As long as the rest of the shoe supports the foot as well, your feet should be able to stay safe and sturdy on uneven terrain.
Cons of a Rock Plate
As we’ve mentioned, flexibility is not a strong point in shoes with rock plates. Although some manufacturers are working on carbon-plated shoes that serve a dual purpose as a rock plate and an energy-returner, the majority of rock-plated shoes are stiffer and less flexible than those without rock plates.
This can be uncomfortable for some and even lead to injury. The foot is unable to move through its full, natural range of motion, which means your foot may end up fighting against your shoe the whole time you’re wearing it!
On the other hand, this isn’t likely to be an issue for runners who need a stiffer, less flexible shoe. Some need the extra stability provided by the rock plate, so it’s a fairly personal thing when it comes down to it.
When it comes to moving freely and comfortably on a trail, most runners value a lighter shoe. Although rock plates are typically fairly thin pieces of material, they do add weight to a shoe.
When you’re zooming over uneven terrain, even the smallest increase in weight can make a difference to your performance. A shoe featuring a rock plate is likely to be heavier than a shoe without one.
When you’ve got a rock plate in your shoe, the foot sits slightly higher in the shoe than it would normally. This isn’t always a problem, especially if you’re used to shoes with a higher stack height.
But it may take a bit of getting used to. Even if the rock plate is just a millimeter or two in thickness, you’d be surprised how easy it is to feel that difference on your feet!
In the beginning, the extra height could make you feel a little unstable on your feet when wearing your shoes. But after just a short time of wearing them, you should settle right in comfortably.
Typically, rock-plated shoes are a little more expensive than those without the extra protection.
A rock plate is basically an extra piece of technology in a shoe, so you can expect to pay a little more for it.
What Kind of Runner Would Benefit from a Rock Plate?
Although a rock plate sounds super protective and useful, not every runner is going to benefit from having one in their shoes.
For example, even though you can often find dangerous debris in urban areas, if you primarily run on roads, a rock plate is probably not going to benefit you much.
Triathletes also aren’t likely to gain much in terms of performance from a rock-plated shoe.
If you’re a dedicated trail runner, though, a rock-plated shoe is well worth considering. It’s particularly recommended for trail runners who spend time on technical or mountainous terrain.