I am writing this article for the many people who contact me to ask about what trail running footwear to buy. The answer is it depends on many factors. Here are my tips for buying the right trail running shoes.
One shoe doesn’t suit all
Just because your friend swears by inov-8, it doesn’t mean this will be the ideal brand for you. Likewise, just because I love Hoka One One Torrent II it doesn’t mean another Hoka model of trail running shoe will be for me, too.
The key to buying the right pair of trail running shoes is fit. You need to try on different trail running footwear. You will instantly know if it feels comfortable or not. If you have a nagging doubt, that doubt is likely to enlarge when out on the trails so try another shoe.
When you do put on a trail running shoe and it feels comfortable, you then need to hope that when you go for a run that they still feel great.
A lot of getting it right, is in trial and error. But once you find the right shoe… see tip below. A lot of getting it right, is in trial and error. But once you find the right shoe… see tip below.
If you find the right shoe, buy more pairs
This might sound like an expensive thing to do and, at the outset, it is. But if you are hoping to be a keen runner, you’ll need to replace your trail running footwear when it wears out so having your own stock of shoes is a good idea.
The reason why I would encourage you to buy more pairs once you find the pair that fits is that brands have an annoying habit of making changes to their footwear. Even a small update or tweak can totally change the fit for you.
As an example, I used to always wear inov-8 running shoes. When I first discovered the brand, the shoes were a great fit for my narrow foot. Now, I find they are too wide and they have done something at the ankle cuff area that I find irritating. This is not to say that I can’t wear some inov-8 models, but on the whole the brand doesn’t fit me so well.
The same happened with Salomon Speedcross shoes. From one model to the next, it might have been version 2 to 3, or 3 to 4, something changed and while the shoes are still okay they are not my favourite fit.
My current go-to trail running shoe just now is the Hoka One One Torrent II. However, until I found the Torrent I wasn’t a huge fan of Hoka. It’s the Torrent II that fits me really well. I have several spare new pairs in my cupboard.
Top tip: Look for discounts sales of your favourite shoes. Set up a Google alert and keep an eye on these. I recently bought the last pair of Torrent IIs in my size with a £50 discount. The colour wasn’t my favourite but the price was.
Different trail running shoes for different terrains
Just like bikes, I think you need different trail running shoes for a range of different terrain. I’d say that three or four different pairs should do it but actually you may end up with more! This might sound excessive but it is a lot cheaper than buying four different bikes.
The number of pairs that you have will depend on the range of trail running that you do. In my experience, it is a good idea to have these three pairs as a base number and then add to these over time. The main details to look for are the outsoles and cushioning.
Trail running shoes for hard-packed forest trails / tarmac. These will likely have more cushioning than other trail running shoes and they do not need a lot of grip. They are different from road running shoes because trail running footwear usually has a more robust and durable upper with rand around the shoe to protect the upper fabric from wear and tear on the trails, as well as a sole that provides comfort and grip on rougher paths and trails.
General trail running shoes for a mix of tracks, paths and some mud. My Hoka One One Torrent IIs have enough grip for a range of general terrain plus there is plenty of cushioning for my old joints and bones. Other runners will choose a trail running shoe with less cushioning but it’s the traction of the sole that you need to consider. You want to stay upright on wet trails and muddy paths. These shoes might not be so good on steeps and wet rocks but that’s why you’ll need another pair…
Trail running shoes with greater grip and studs. Turn over the trail running shoe and have a look underneath at the sole. You want a sole that has fairly big studs/lugs. Rather like football or hockey boots, it’s these studs that will keep you upright in very wet and slippery conditions. If you plan to run on terrain with wet rock you’ll need to find a trail running footwear that helps with this.
I am yet to find anything perfectly sticky but a couple of brands to try include inov-8 (look for studs and graphene, which the brand claims is great for wet and slippery conditions), Scott Supertrac and Adidas Terrex trail shoes. Salomon Speedcross also has a decent sole but there are more aggressive soles.
I have also heard great things about VJ Sport trail shoes but I haven’t been able to buy any in my size.
Winter running versus summer running: Winter throws up snow, ice, wet and more mud than summer. I have a pair of Salomon ice running trail shoes with metal spikes built into the soles. I also add Snowline Chainsen ice and snow grips to my usual Hokas the I want to be able to adapt to different conditions on a snowy run. See my recent snowy run of Ben Vrackie.
Trail running shoes with a Gore-Tex liner can be really useful in wet weather or on wet trails. I find the liner makes the shoe quite stiff and I prefer a more flexible upper but some friends swear by the benefits of waterproof trail shoes. It might be a good idea to add a running shoe gaiter or wear waterproof running socks – my current favourites are Dexshell Running Lite waterproof socks – to keep more of the wet out of your shoe.
If you want to run faster on the day, buy a pair of trail running shoes for races. These are usually a pared down version of a trail running shoe and they will be lighter in weight and more minimalist. Some people wear this trail running shoe for all their running but I find that I need more cushioning these days.
There are brands that make trail running shoes for ultra runners. They claim the shoes last longer and give greater comfort over many miles. I think it’s best to buy footwear that is your go-to for comfort and then see how they do with eating up the miles. You’ll need to replace trail running shoes when the tread or uppers wear out and if you are going to be training for an ultra race or challenge, the means you will need to buy shoes more frequently.
Male, female and unisex fit
As I say to everyone who ask me to advise on a good running shoe brand, everyone has different feet. For some people, a shoe designed to fit their male or female foot it perfect. For some, unisex fit is fine. For some women, a male fit is fine. For some men, a female fit is fine.
Each brand makes different trail shoes and in different fits. Some brands make the same trail running shoe in a range of fits and in male and female designs. In most cases, the last is different and it usually means there is a narrower fit at the heel and forefoot for women’s sizes.
It depends on the width or your forefoot, heel, size etc as to which gender/brand/model you choose.
Don’t be swayed by fashion, looks or colour
Above all, don’t choose trail running shoes for fashion, looks or colour. A trail running shoe needs to be practical, supportive, useful and stop you slipping over. If you find a pair that also looks good and in your favourite colour then that is a bonus, but it. is important you see past these features to find the best trail running footwear for you.