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Guide to choosing the right trail running footwear

Written by Fiona

April 21 2020

If you are keen to try trail running, as opposed to running on tarmac or pavements, you will need one important item of kit: Trail running shoes. This article offers a guide to choosing and buying the right trail running footwear.

I enjoy trail running in the country park, hills and forests near my home in Scotland.
A dry (sometimes) forest trail.

What is trail running?

Trail running – or off-road running – is best defined as taking place on routes that are not made of tarmac or concrete. Trails include a range of terrain and paths. Some may have been man-made, such as those that criss-cross parks, and these may have gravel or harder-packed surfaces.

Other paths, such as those in the hills or mountains, will more likely have been created simply by use. They will be a mix of mud, stones and rocks. Further still, trails could be forest tracks, grassy slopes, mountain scree, through heather, graff tussocks etc.

Choose footwear for fit – not looks or brand

The first thing to state is that the shoe must fit well. Don’t be swayed by what friends wear, or the elite athletes, because if the shoe doesn’t fit your foot at the heel and forefoot, in particular, it will end up causing rubs and blisters.

Some brands are known for making wider fit or narrower fit shoes. Some brands make different widths in some of the trail running shoes. But it’s also common for brands to change their design and fit over the years, or from season to season.

For example, inov-8 used to be a perfect fit for my long and narrow foot and now they are not (sadly).

It doesn’t even necessarily correlate that a road running shoe brand that you wear with comfort will have a trail running shoe in the same fit. Some brands might but some won’t.

My tip is to go to your local sports or running shop and try on a range of different trail running shoes. You will quickly work out which ones feel good and those that do not.

If you find one that fits well, buy several pairs and keep a stock of them.

Trail running footwear

Trail running shoes have soles that are designed to offer greater grip on a variety of different terrain and in different conditions, such as wet rock or mud. The soles will vary according to the type of terrain but you will expect to see a sole designed with lugs (like studs) to give better traction.

Trail running shoes will usually have more robust uppers, so as to offer durability when running over off-road terrain. The uppers need to be able to cope with the abrasion of rocks, stones, heather, tree roots etc.

Some trail running shoes also have a waterproof liner, such as Gore-Tex, to offer better protection when running in wet conditions or through puddles and mud.

Trails shoes, like road running shoes, sit in two ranges, those with greater cushioning and those with less cushioning.

HOKA ONE ONE Speedgoat 4
Walsh PB shoe.

Cushioning versus ‘natural feel’

Some runners prefer a more “natural feel” to the sole and they will choose to buy trail running shoes with less cushioning, both in the footbed (the part inside the shoe) and the heel and forefoot of the sole of the shoe. Less cushioning means you can “feel” the terrain beneath your feet and this can aid traction and knowledge of the ground.

The lower levels of cushioning do not mean that the ground will hurt the skin of your feet (well, not normally!), rather it gives the feel that you are running barefoot style.

The flex of the soles will usually be greater, too, and most shoes with reduced cushioning have a lower heel-to-toe drop, although not all. (See below for information about “drop”.)

Vivobarefoot Primus Trail shoe.

Some shoes, such as those made by brands like Vivobarefoot or Vibram Five Fingers are designed to have a minimalist sole that acts more like a cover of the sole of your foot.

Meanwhile, other runners prefer a more cushioned sole. It’s argued that more cushioning reduces the impact of the “bounce” and “jolting” of running on your joints. Some cushioned soles also include design features to offer propulsion or momentum, or to change the way your foot strikes the ground. Cushioned soles also come in a range of drop depths.

In general, the greater the cushioning, the less you will be able to “feel” the ground beneath your feet, however the choice is personal and the world’s best runners wear a variety of trail running footwear, from Hoka to Walsh.

It might be that you choose a trail running shoe with more cushioning for terrain such as hard-packed forest trails and a different pair of shoes with lower levels of cushioning for terrain that is generally softer underfoot, such as muddy hill paths and grass.

Salomon Speedcross 4

What is a shoe’s drop?

The drop specification of a running shoes is the difference between the height that your heel and forefoot sit while in the shoe. A flat foot will be a zero drop. From here, the drop depth can rise to 10mm or more. It doesn’t follow that a deeper and more cushioned sole will have a reduced drop.

You might see this spec, for example, inov-8 Roclite 275:

  • Drop: 8mm
  • Heel 16mm / Forefoot 8mm
  • Footbed: 6mm

Saucony Peregrine ISO:

  • Offset: 4mm (drop in other words)
  • Heel Stack Height: 22.5mm
  • Forefoot Stack Height: 18.5mm

inov-8 Mudclaw G 260:

  • Drop: 4mm (8.5mm heel to 4.5mm forefoot)
  • Footbed: 6mm

Hoka One One Speedgoat 2:

  • Sole offset: 5mm
  • Heel: 32mm
  • Forefoot: 27mm

Salomon Speedcross 4:

  • Heel Stack Height: 30mm
  • Heel-to-toe Drop: 10mm

Vivobarefoot Primus Trail shoes:

  • Stack: 3mm
  • Drop: 0mm.

Again, what you choose will be personal to your running style and how you want to feel the ground as you run. Many trail runners prefer a more natural, zero to 6mm drop, shoe especially on hill and mountain terrain and with a thinner overall sole.

They report that it allows better engagement of the full sole on the ground and also the soles tend to have more flexibility for improved traction.

On harder packed trails, more similar to road running, you might prefer to have your heel raised a little higher. It will depend on what you are already used to when road running.

Tip: If you want to start wearing a reduced drop shoe it is important to build up the time on your feet slowly. The foot and calf muscles will need time to adapt to a flatter foot style of running.

Also think about your own running style. In general, I run on my forefoot more on tarmac and hard-packed trails but when I am on hill and mountain paths with a greater variety of gradients and different terrain, I am on my forefoot for shorter durations. I prefer a lesser drop shoe because I like to feel the terrain along the length of my foot.

inov-8 Mudclaw sole
inov-8 Roclite sole
inov-8 Road Claw
On Cloudventure sole
Saucony Peregrine sole

Soles of trail running shoes

Take a look at your road running shoes and you’ll see that the design is relatively smooth. There will be some ridges to give grip on, for example, wet tarmac, but these shoes do not need to cope with many changes in terrain.

A trail running shoe, on the other hand, will require more grip so as to offer traction on, for example, muddy paths, grass, rocks and steeper inclines and declines.

The sole is the biggest difference between a road running shoe and a trail running shoe. In a collection of trail running shoes, even in one brand, there will be a variety of soles.

Look at this blog that compares the soles of inov-8 running footwear.

Trail running shoes are designed to be suitable for different terrains, from harder, stoney tracks to wet mud, to rock. The lugs (studs) will be of different depths and many brands have a pattern or design that they believe offers the optimum traction.

Every brand has its own claims about greater traction and the benefits of their trail running shoe soles.

For example, inov-8 has launched a sole made with “graphene”. They claim this offers the best traction of all trail running shoes and that the soles have more durability. I like the graphene soles for some terrain, such as muddy hill paths, grass and rocks but they they are not always grippy on wet rocks and they are not a comfortable shoe to wear when running on harder-packed trails. (Remember that many trail routes have a variety of terrain so it’s worth thinking about what the majority of the route will be like when choosing the right shoe.)

On harder-packed terrain I prefer Salomon Speedcross footwear, especially Salomon Speedcross 3. The lugs are not as deep or grippy as inov-8 footwear but the cushioning and fit of the footwear suits me better.

Another brand, On Running, has developed its own design of soles for different trails and terrain. I give this example because they are different from other brands and I have written this guide to On Running footwear.

Inov-8 trail running shoes.
Saucony Peregrine 7.
Columbia Montrail men’s Columbia Trans Alps F.K.T II UTMB shoe
Salomon trail shoes with Gore-tex.

The uppers: Trail running footwear

Trail running shoes will be made of more robust materials. You’ll see that many have a rand, which joins the sole to the upper and this often made of a material that can cope with the abrasion of natural trail running obstacles, such as stones, rocks and heather.

Look for extra fabric or rubbery materials on the toe and heel, too.

Each brand has designed uppers to be more or less robust according to their use and design of materials. It is important to check how the flexibility, or not, of the upper feels when you run in the shoe. I like a more flexible upper because stiff upper fabrics irritate the skin on the top of my feet.

Look for Gore-Tex lining if you want a waterproof shoes. (Personally I don’t see the point of waterproofing in a trail shoe because wet and rain comes in around the ankle anyway.) However, Gore-Tex lining can offer greater warmth in the winter.

Some uppers, such as those made by inov-8, have uppers that allow water in but also claim that the water has an easy exit through the fabric, too. This is useful if you are running on particularly wet and boggy terrain. No one wants to have permanently wet feet.

Some brands will claim greater breathability. This could mean thinner fabrics or fabrics with more air holes.

Also, I would not recommend that you buy white or light coloured uppers. They always end up grey and mucky looking, so a darker colour looks better for longer.

Weight of the shoe

Most runners prefer a lighter weight shoe. Why carry extra weight on the end of your legs if you don’t need to. At the same time, lighter will usually mean that fabrics have been reduced or materials compromised.

I tend to reserve my lightest trail shoes for shorter training runs and for racing. My mid weight trail shoes I use the most often because they tend to last longer.

I like Salomon Speedcross 3 trail shoes, although the laces do loosen when I run.

A word about laces

Laces can make or break a shoe for me. I don’t want to be forever retying or tightening the laces of my trail shoes. Remember that your feet will move about more as they adapt and cope with the different terrain and this means you need laces that stay tied.

Laces that are too smooth untie too easily unless you can secure them very tightly at the start of the run. I like laces with a little bit of a ripple or a roughness to them because they seem to stay tied for longer.

Salomon have a lacing system that is secured with a small toggle. I find this works well to start with but as the shoes age, the toggle system starts to loosen and fail. However, you can get a nice even fit along the top of the foot with the toggle lacing system.

What trail shoe is right for me?

  • Start with fit. Try on a number of different brands. Try a range of shoes made by the same brand because they can differ enormously.
  • Think about how the heel feels. Does it fit neatly but not too tightly? Does the upper irritate your ankle bone?
  • Think about how the forefoot feels. A bit of extra width and length at the toe is useful because your feet will swell with heat or the wet. Also, the further you run the greater the chances your feet will swell so you should have a bit of wiggle room.
  • It is a good idea to buy a shoe that is half a size or a full size larger than normal because when you run downhill you need extra space to accommodate your toes because of the push forwards.
  • But also think about whether the lacing system will keep you feet in place. Push your feet forwards in the shoe and see how secure it feels.
  • Look for male and female-specific fit. I have a long foot, like an average man, but I have a narrow heel and forefoot. Men’s and unisex running shoes do not fit me so I always buy female fit.
  • Next consider the sole and where you will be running. You might well need a couple of pairs of shoes to suit different running routes. (Think a bout this as you might a choice of bike, mountain bike versus cyclocross, for example).
  • If it’s a route with a lot of wet, bog, mud and slippery rock, pick a shoe with deeper lugs and a pattern of closer-together lugs for maximum traction. It’s personal preference whether you go for greater or lesser traction.
  • If you will be running on harder-packed surfaces, or a mix of path and track, you might prefer more cushioning and you will require a less aggressive traction.
  • If you shoes show signs of wear after only a few months of running, take them back to the store, or look up the brand’s policy on longevity and durability. many brands will guarantee a certain length of wear and I have found they will send out a new pair on occasions.
  • Do a search on this website for different brands. I have reviewed many different trail runing shoes,

My running shoe choice: I have a collection of about five different types of trail running shoes to suit different terrain. For mountains and hills with mud, I like the inov-8 trail shoes with graphene soles. For forest tracks and drier trails, I prefer Salomon Speedcross 3. For road running, I wear On Running footwear.

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