How do you select a trail shoe?

Many runners start off as road runners, pounding on asphalt or running on smooth gravel surfaces. Then, they discover trails. The question arises; how do I select a good trail shoe? 

There are many different types of trail shoes, ranging from hybrid shoes that can handle both road and trail, such as the HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATR, to very aggressive mountain running shoes with deep lugs such as the HOKA ONE ONE EVO JAWS, which would also be suitable for cross country racing. In this article, we will take you through some of the things to consider when selecting a trail shoe.

Difference between road shoes and trail shoes

There are many different types of road shoes as well as trail shoes, and some come quite close, but if we generalise, here are some of the main differences:

Upper: A road shoe typically has a lighter upper. The upper doesn’t need to withstand quite the same wear and tear as that of a trail shoe.

Toe protection: On the trails, you might kick rocks and roots, which you don’t do on the road. Trail shoes, therefore, tend to have more robust toe protection

Material in the outer sole: There are different types of trails and certainly material in the sole and grip vary greatly, however, a trail shoe will have better grip than a road shoe in order to make it more safe to run on uneven and technical terrain, and sometimes wet surfaces. Typically the rubber compound is softer and more sticky and in that offers better grip, but if you were to wear the shoe on road it would wear down quicker. 

Stiffness: A trail shoe will typically be a bit stiffer than a road shoe, e.g. it is less bendy. Some trail shoes have a built-in rock plate that protects the foot even more.

Sole pattern: A trail shoe typically has deeper lugs than a road shoe to contribute to better grip. On the road, this is unnecessary and doesn’t add any value.

Weight: considering the extra features of many trail shoes it is fair to say that a trail shoe generally speaking is heavier than a road shoe. However, just like with road shoes, some are very light and minimal, and some more robust. 

Considering these differences it is important to move to a trail shoe when you venture from road running out in the woods or the mountains. Otherwise, your road shoes will not only wear down quicker, but you risk not having sufficient grip and protection which can result in slips, falls and injuries.

How to select a good trail shoe?

Cushioned and Robust, or more minimal?

Firstly, if you normally run in a minimal road shoe you can look for a lighter trail shoe, if you generally prefer a more robust and cushioned shoe, stick to that for your trail shoe as well. 

You may hear the term stack height. This refers to how high the sole is. The higher the sole the more cushioning. It might be a good idea to opt for a stack height that resembles the stack height on your road shoes, or at least not make radical changes. Bear in mind, however, that with more cushioning (and stiffness) in your trail shoes, you lose the “ground feel”. Some people like to get a sense for where they put their feet and to some extent feel the ground. Other prefer more protection.

Also, see terrain considerations below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hoka EVO Mafate 2

Surfaces and terrain

Secondly, where will you be doing most of your training and racing? Generally speaking the more rocks and roots the better grip you’ll need, grip being a combination of the rubber compound in the outer sole and the sole pattern. The deeper the lugs, the better the grip, as a generalisation. If you think you will be running on wet surfaces regularly the rubber compound becomes important and you could, for example, look at shoes with Vibram in the outsole.

Models include: HOKA ONE ONE Speedgoat (cushioned), HOKA ONE ONE Mafate Evo (cushioned), Altra Olympus (cushioned) or Altra King MT (minimal).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speedgoat 3

Furthermore, if your running will include a substantial amount of flat trails that are runnable, as opposed to a lot of up and down in the mountains where you might be doing a greater amount of hiking, you might want to strike a balance and opt for a shoe that you feel is comfortable for more running. This may involve a greater amount of cushioning and less aggressive sole pattern.

If the terrain is aggressive you need a more robust shoe. Example of very aggressive terrain is volcanic terrain like that you will find in many parts of the Canary Islands. This sharp rock can tear shoes to pieces in no time. Other technical mountain terrains will also demand a more robust shoe. If you run more on groomed trails and gravel roads without so much rock, robustness becomes less important and you may want to focus more on a hybrid shoe such as the HOKA Challenger ATR.

If you are unsure, a very versatile shoe, capable of handling a wide range of terrains, is the Altra Lone Peak.

 

 

 

 

 

Altra Lone Peak 4

Heel to Toe Drop

A constant topic for discussion is the heel to toe drop, or simply “drop”. If you are not so well versed in these technical terms this is the difference in height between the heel and the toe part of the sole. Typically this ranges from 0mm, like in all Altra shoes, to 11mm, like in some more mainstream brands. Normally, the more minimal the shoe the lower the drop but it does vary. Typical values range between 4mm and 8mm for most shoes. 

If you are used to running with a high heel to toe drop, say 10mm, it would probably be unwise to suddenly swap to a zero drop shoe. This could impact on your calves and Achilles. Many people feel they initially work their calves more in a lower drop shoe. 

As a general guide, opt for a drop that is similar to that of your road shoe. If you are unsure, go somewhere in the middle, like around 6mm, which should suit most people. 

If you would like to explore a low drop shoe but this is new to you, we suggest to either do this in increments, for example start with a 6-8mm shoe if you have used 10mm previously and then gradually reduce it when you buy a new model, or to alternative a lower drop shoe with a higher drop shoe until your body gets used to it.

All Altra models have zero drop. Examples of other models:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Altra King MT 1.5

Special features

Different shoes have different features. You should pick a shoe for comfort over features but just to mention a few.

Waterproof Gore-Tex shoes are an option. This might seem tempting if you are going to run in wet terrain or rain, however a word of caution here. The most important thing when running in wet terrain is that the shoe can drain out the water. A lightweight shoe, which doesn’t get unnecessarily heavy, and which allows the water to drain (some shoes even have drain holes) would be a much better option. Water will enter the shoe regardless if there are puddles or stream crossings, and in a shoe with a lot of material it will stay inside. Running with water slushing around in your shoe and weighing it down is not a great experience. Instead, use a product like Gurney Goo to “waterproof” and protect your feet, and opt for a shoe with drain-friendly upper. 

Some people also consider Gore-Tex shoes for desert running, thinking it will keep sand out. We strongly advise against this due to the shoe being warmer. Again, pick a shoe with a breathable, thin upper and use a desert gaiter.

Quick-lacing is another feature which we see mainly on the Salomon shoes. This enables you to quickly lace and unlace your shoes, but at the expense of being able to adjust the lacing to cater for wide feet, do a lace lock to prevent the foot from slipping forward in the shoe etc. It is a matter of personal preference but the quick lacing sure has advantages. Be sure to tuck it away in its pocket so that you don’t trip on the lace. The Altra King MT comes with a Velcro strap across the midfoot which offers some extra support and helps secure the footwell in the shoe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Salomon Sense Pro 3

Size & Fit

We find that many people who come from road running tend to wear a rather small size shoe. The stiffer construction of a trail shoe often means it’s less flexible. With some exceptions, it’s not like putting on a slipper which it can be with some road shoes. Also, when you venture out on the trails you might go for longer outings than you did on the road. Often the terrain, especially in the mountains, means that it takes significantly longer to do the same mileage that you would on road. Therefore the shoes need to be comfortable and have enough room in the toe box to cater for this longer duration and the possibility that your feet might swell a bit, but without being too big.

As a general rule, we suggest you have a thumb’s or thumb nail’s width available in front of your toes. 

The foot should not be able to move in the shoe. This is a hazard as it makes it easier to twist an ankle or get blisters. Make sure the width is right for you and the shoe is properly laced up. Lacing becomes particularly important when going downhill in order to prevent the foot from slipping forward in the shoe. 

Here is an example of how you can tie a “lace lock” which is an effective method for keeping the foot in place:

Image credit: Solescience

With so much to think about it can be easy to get bogged down in technical details, but don’t forget that shoe must be comfortable. It should feel comfortable when you put it on.

Support for overpronation or supination exist on trail shoes but is perhaps less important than on a road shoe. The terrain on trails is often uneven and you will rarely land on a flat surface. A more robust shoe may, however, be a better option if you have any gait significant gait issues or other problem. If you wear orthotics, make sure they fit in the shoe you pick. If possible, try on in-store and bring your orthotics with you.

Durability

The durability of a trail shoe will vary greatly. How robust it is in the first place, your running style, the terrain you take it on all play a part. Therefore, it is very difficult to specify a particular mileage you can expect and we prefer not to. The manufacturers sometimes provide guidance as to what mileage you can expect from your shoe. It may well last 300-400 miles but equally, it can be trashed after one race in demanding mountain terrain.

Summary

There are many factors to consider when choosing a trail shoe. Experienced trail runners will have several different models depending on the terrain they will run in and it’s a matter of learning as you go. A great starting point – unless you know you will be venturing out in very terrain – is to start with an all-terrain shoe and take it from there.

Top trail tips

Pace yourself – Don’t go too far too fast. Your intention is to gradually build both distance and speed, even if you can already run much further on road.
Be aware of your running technique – Many runners alter their running style on trails opting for higher knees and a faster stride turnover to stop tripping on unexpected roots and stones. This takes getting used to. Be careful and relaxed. 
Proper kit – Road running generally happens in urban areas. A fascinating experience with trails is to get out in nature and explore. Don’t forget the nature and weather can change quickly. Always bring extra supplies, rucksack, hydration, light water and windproof. Mandatory kit is not only for races.
Be patient – When you start trail running, take your time at first to get used to placing your feet on uneven surfaces and slippery terrain. Don’t push yourself too much as you are more likely to trip or injury yourself.
Strength training – Add some simple strength training exercises to strengthen your legs and feet. Good stability makes all the difference.

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