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How to choose the right trail running shoes

Written by Fiona

November 16 2022

If you are new to trail running, or keen to move from paths to hills and mountains, the chances are you’ll be keen to find out how to choose the right trail running footwear, where it’s trainers for women or for men.

A running shoe is a running shoe, right?

Wrong! The most obvious difference is the sole of the shoe. Trail running shoes generally more grip for use on path, trails, tracks and the steeper gradients of hills and mountains.

In addition, many trail running shoes have more durable and robust uppers to cope with abrasive environments including the rocks, stones and vegetation of tracks and hills.

Choose trail running shoes to suit the terrain.

Trail running shoes: The sole

The sole of a running shoe comprises the outsole and the midsole. The outsole is the part of your shoe that is in direct contact with the ground. A trail running shoe usually offers greater traction or grip because runners will be on a range of surfaces such as wet rock, mud, grass and stoney paths and steep slopes.

Traction is provided by lugs and studs of different depths, depending on the terrain. So, for forest tracks the lugs will be smaller and more sparsely placed, while for muddy or steep hill terrain, you’ll discover trail shoes with more rugged studs.

You will find that trail running shoes usually have a stickier compound on the sole compared to road running shoes to ensure runners have grip on rocky and uneven terrain.

Trail running shoes: Cushioning

The midsole is the part of the running shoe that sits between the outsole and the insole. Cushioning is made from a foam material and the levels of cushioning vary in a number of ways.

In general, trail running shoes are less cushioned than road running shoes, which are meant to be used on harder surfaces. Meanwhile, trails are usually softer underfoot and create lower levels of impact so there is less need for as much cushioning.

However, there are some trail running shoes that have higher than average levels of cushioning. It might be that they are trail running shoes aimed at longer distance runners, such as adidas Terrex Agravic Ultra BCA trail running shoes. If you run ultras, you might prefer more cushioning to provide more comfort from the repetitive impact of running many miles.

Your choice of cushioning will be personal. Some runners like more cushioning, wether they are running on trails or tarmac, while other runners prefer more minimalist, in-contact-with-the-ground not-so-much cushioning.

Trail running shoe: Heel-to-toe drop

Heel-to-toe drop refers to the difference in the thickness of the the midsole, from heel to toe.

With road running shoes, the drop is usually larger to protect the Achilles tendon and legs from the pounding impact of running on tarmac.

With trail running shoes, the heel-to-toe drop is generally lower, which means the foot is closer to the ground. This gives improved ankle stability and enhances your proprioception, which is the sense of self-movement and body position while running. 

When running off-road, you need to be able to trust in your footwear and the sense of where your foot is and therefore it is usually favourable to have a lower heel-to-toe drop for you have a greater sense of balance.

Trail running shoes: Medial post

The medial post is an insert of harder-density foam that is positioned on the medial side (inside) of the midsole. The aim of the medial post is to control excessive pronation.

While some trail running shoes have a medial post, most do not because so as to allow for a more natural motion and freedom of movement of the foot.

Trail running shoes: Uppers

The upper part of a running shoe includes the tongue, laces, mesh cover and heel collar. Trail running shoes usually have uppers made of fairly sturdy and durable materials with the aim of protecting your feet from natural hazards, such as stones, rocks, vegetation and tree roots. 

Trail shoe uppers might also have a water repellency treatment or a Gore-Tex liner to help with wet trails.

The shape of the upper and the fit and feel will be different from brand to brand, so it’s a good idea to try on shoes before buying them.

Trail running shoes: Lacing

Trail running shoes need to be able to support feet during a run on rough terrain. Some brands have developed lacing systems to keep feet supported, such as the Salomon Quicklace System that uses a toggle lock, as well as La Sportiva’s BOA Fit System.

Trail running shoes: Colour and style

While it can be tempting to choose footwear based on looks, it’s never a good idea. Most important is fit and also what you will use the trail shoes for. The chances are you will find a brand you most like and stick with it. After that, you may find you buy several different types of trail running shoes to suit different off road situations, from paths to hills to mountains and from dry trails to wet and muddy tracks.

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