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A Guide: How to Choose Trail Running Shoes 2017

How to Choose Trail Running Shoes

Musicians might have their violins, trumpets and drums, but we have our trail shoes, hydration packs and compression socks. Our instruments might seem simplistic, but the art we create with them is undeniably beautiful.

As you are entering the world of trail running, the selection of trail running shoes might seem overwhelming, but fear not! Here is a short primer to help you navigate through the gear maze and get a solid start with your trail running experience.

How to Choose Trail Running Shoes

A few considerations first...​

Trail running shoes are still running shoes, and first and foremost, they have to be a good fit for your feet and for you as a runner. They should provide the support you need and the comfort you require to keep on going. In this sense trail running shoes are the same as road running shoes.

If you already are a road runner and know what works for your feet and running style, use that as a base when choosing trail running shoes. However, there are a few other functions that a good trail running shoe should offer and we will discuss these below.

how to choose a trail running shoe

Thanks to our friends at REI!

Sometimes it Depends on the Trail

A good place to start when thinking about your first pair of trail running shoes is what trails will you be running mostly? Will those be dirt roads, muddy forest single-tracks, rocky mountain trails or off-trail alpine terrain? Maybe you will be running miles on grass, snowy and icy roads or spend hours “scrunning” (scramble running)?

Trail running shoes are designed to give you the extra grip required, when dealing with slippery and uneven off-road terrain. Different outsole surface geometries are designed to provide better traction and stability in varying conditions.

Do I Really Need Dedicated Trail Running Shoes?

If you will be running groomed trails or just occasionally step out on something more rugged, you are probably fine just using your road running shoes or something comparable to them. Many companies produce trail versions of the road running shoes that provide the best of both worlds – enough protection and grip for the trails combined with road running comfort.

However, if you think you might want to start spending more time on trails or run in more varying conditions, it is a good idea to purchase a dedicated trail running pair – this will make your trail experience much more enjoyable.

Lightweight Trail Running Shoe: Salomon Speedcross 3

I could not say enough good words about this shoe; I just purchased my 4th pair of them, and I should probably start buying in bulk. The outsole of Salomon Speedcross 3 contains an aggressive design of prominent arrow-shaped lugs on its Contagrip surface. This allows you to maintain control on soft ground, even, when running down steep wet mud.

The shoe is very lightweight and has a narrow (but NOT tight for your feet) toe box. This is very important feature for me, as running trails with protruding roots, stones, etc., you want your running shoes to feel like a glove to increase manoeuvrability and step precision.

Salomon Speedcross 3 performs well if used on snow too. The huge lugs are enough to maintain good grip with soft and compacted snow. The shoe comes in two versions – a more breathable regular version, and more waterproof edition – Salomon Speedcross 3 CS. The latter are a better choice for very wet/snowy conditions.

Other shoes that have a very similar profile suitable for soft ground include the Inov-8 Mudclaw 265, the Asics Gel-Fuji Runnegade and the Saucony Peregrine 5. They all have received amazing reviews and are worth checking out.

Salomon Spikecross 3 CS – Running Shoe for Extreme Conditions

As the conditions get icier and the snow – more compact, Salomon produces a variation of the Speedcross 3, named Salomon Spikecross 3 CS that features inbuilt micro-spikes. I personally tried this shoe too, and can vouch for its incredible performance. I was able run up and down sheer ice paths with control and stability.

More Trail Running Shoes for Rugged Conditions

When trail running, you are also likely to encounter sleek rocks, loose scree terrain and even light scrambling. Some people debate that flatter, higher-surface-area outsole performs best on rocky surfaces, but there are varying opinions on this.

Some more examples of highly praised trail running shoes for rugged terrain include:

There is a very wide selection of shoes featuring various technologies and designs that I am not going into detail here. There are also lots of opinions, reviews and debates on what is the best shoe for what conditions.

Ultimately, it is all highly subjective, and all the shoes suggested above would perform superbly in a variety of conditions. As you will gain some more experience, you will be able to pick what matches your running style and technique best, and most importantly – what shoe you will feel comfortable to push your running limits in.

Trail Running Shoes for Different Seasons

Running is usually considered a summer sport. However, with the right pair of running shoes, you won’t have to limit yourself to seasons anymore. More aggressive trail running shoes are excellent, when dealing with snowy and icy conditions, and combined with a pair of running gaiters, running in snow can be nothing but pure joy.

With the right pair of running shoes, you won’t have to limit yourself to seasons anymore.

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Road runners can also benefit from this, as a good pair of trail running shoes enables running icy roads, without risking broken bones.

Summer

Breathability and lightness will play the key roles, when choosing summer trail shoes. All or most running shoes are somewhat water-resistant, due to hydrophobic mesh and similar materials used for their cover.

This level of protection is usually sufficient, when running through lightly wet ground or light rain. Trail running shoes are also designed not to hold water, while lightweight materials drain well and dry fast.

Of course, if you will likely be running through rain storms or will be crossing creeks on the way, it is worth getting a more waterproof running shoe, as wet feet are more prone to blisters. However, do have in mind that you will probably be sacrificing some breathability of the shoe.

Winter

Running in winter can be a highly rewarding experience. Have you ever tried making quick steps trough narrow trails across snowy forests? If not, you should do so, and as soon as you get a chance. The so much sought running tranquillity rests in peaceful winter forests.

Picking winter running gear is a bit more complex and you will need a few things to consider. First – grip; choose the most aggressive outsole running shoes (huge lugs potentially with spikes could be something to look for) in the store, as they will help you handle slippery, icy surfaces and compacted snow.

Earlier mentioned Salomon Speedcross 3 CS and Spikecross 3 CS have exactly these features. I usually combine my winter running shoes with varying length running or hiking gaiters (depending on how deep the snow is) to prevent my feet and ankles from getting wet.

How to Choose Winter Trail Running Shoes (Continued)

You want your running shoes to be as water-resistant as possible. Wet feet in summer heat are a mild and often pleasant inconvenience, while wet feet in sub-zero temperatures can mean trouble. Aim for the shoe to be water resistant with Gore-Tex technology, like Salomon Climate Shield (CS).

Regarding shoe warmth, you do not have to worry too much – just combine your trail shoes with thicker wool socks (one of many reasons not to get your trail shoes too small). I for example run winter trails in my ski socks, and always have lots of fun (given that I sometimes run ski tracks, I find it completely appropriate).

Running Shoes Depending on the Type

Probably the easiest way to categorize running shoes is based on the heel-to-toe drop height – the difference between heel and toe shoe heights. The usual drop ranges between 0 and 14 mm, and, depending on which part of the spectrum they sit in, running shoes are categorized to minimalist, low-profile, traditional and maximalist.

Barefoot Trail Running Shoes

Minimalist trail running shoes, as the name suggests, provide minimal support in the midsole and 0 mm heel-to-toe drop - merely a grippy peace of rubber on your feet. The intention is to allow a natural stance and gait.

There is an entire movement behind this shoe type that has become exceptionally popular after the release of the book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall.

Trail beginners ought to be warned, though, that these types of running shoes require a good running technique and a certain level of feet and ankle musculature and connective tissue development.

If you are thinking of going barefoot (yes, people do that too) or minimalist, do watch this video first.

Some examples of good minimalist trail running shoes include the New Balance Minimus 10v3 Trail, the Vibram FiveFingers TrekSport and the Inov8 Trailroc 245.

The New Balance Minimus Trail – Highly Praised Minimalist Trail Shoe

The New Balance Minimus Trail is a minimalist trail running shoe that has earned a lot of praise. It is a very lightweight shoe with 4 mm of heel-to-toe drop and 6 mm of cushioning. It is a flexible, comfortable on trail and road shoe, with excellent grip and ground sensitivity – all that you might want from a minimalist trail running shoe.

The New Balance Minimus Trail was reported to have relatively poor foot protection though, which might be a bit rough, if running on very rugged roads; but isn’t it a small price to pay for a fun ride?

The Inov8 Trailroc 245 is a better choice if you want more feet protection, as it is featuring Meta-shank rock plate protection that brings this shoe to a new level. You can read a full review of minimalist trail running shoes here.

Low-Profile Trail Running Shoes

These shoes have 0 mm to around 6 mm heel-to-toe drop and similarly to minimalist – aim to mimic natural human stance and running stride. Low-profile running shoes have a bit more cushioning and underfoot protection than minimalist shoes, but still focus on sensitivity and manoeuvrability.

They are designed to be super lightweight, quick and technical and are currently dominating the mountain racing scene. It is considered a more advanced type of running shoe, and you'll likely have well developed muscles and a strong running stride.

Examples of well-reviewed low-profile shoes include the Saucony Peregrine 5, the North Face Ultra Trail, the Salomon S-lab Sense Ultra and many more.

Best Technical Trail Running Shoes

I am currently using the famous Salomon S-lab Sense Ultra 4 shoe, and I am very impressed. I just came back from a 2 week running trip from the hills of Costa Blanca, Spain, and the Sense Ultra 4 shoes were all I expected them to be, performing superbly on technical, loose and rocky Spanish trails and limestone scrambles.

The movement was effortless and the outsole grip - secure. Running with them didn’t feel like I was wearing any shoes at all – just reinforcement of my own skin. I am a big fan of the way the shoe fits around my foot and heel – snug fit with minimalist tongue and a solid quicklace system.

Apparently, you can even choose to not use socks with them (my feet definitely don’t smell like lavender, so I passed … pitying the people I might be sharing the bus with). Salomon S-lab Sense Ultra 4 did not perform as well on wet muddy stones, but very few running shoes do.

This is the lowest-profile running shoe I’ve even had, and my first month wearing it. I used Sense UItra for <10k road runs too, and the feeling wasn’t too bad. I wouldn’t say I would like to use them for daily road training, but with a bit of effort to keep my stride light and to stay on my toes, even the long road approaches to my trail runs were quick and comfortable.

Overall, the Salomon S-lab Sense Ultra 4 it is the perfect trail choice for quick (in time rather than distance) runs on rocky, technical and mostly dry terrain.

Traditional Trail Running Shoes

Traditional trail running shoes have the heel-to-toe drop of roughly 6-14 mm, and are the type of shoe modern humans are mostly used to.

It provides quite a lot of feet support and includes features like rock-plate that protects you from bruising from sharp rocks. Many runners choose this type of running shoe for longer ultra-distances to decrease the impact on their feet.

Examples of traditional trail running shoes include the previously mentioned Salomon Speedcross 3 and Salomon Spikecross 3 CS, as well as shoes like the ASICS Gel-Kahana 7, the New Balance Leadville 1210v2, the Mizuno Wave Kazan, the Brooks Cascadia 10 and the Salomon XA Pro 3D.

New Balance Leadville – Jack of All Trades Traditional Trail Running Shoe

The shoe was reviewed to be a good balance between comfort, underfoot cushioning and trail sensitivity. It was created with long-distance runners in mind, but would fit anyone, planning to run on a variety of trails and wanting some good cushioning.

One drawback – it absorbs and keeps the water all too well.

Maximalist Trail Running Shoes

With a >14 mm heel-to-toe drop and tons of cushioning, these shoes look more like a fashion statement than actual running shoes. The style is popular among some runners undertaking long ultra distances above 100k.

The type is represented by the highly popular Hoka One One Challenger ATR that you can read more about it here.

Minimalist Versus More Cushioned Running Shoes for Trails

As I pointed out in the beginning, comfort should be your primary concern when getting trail running shoes, especially if they are your first pair.

It is thought that running with more minimalist footware and lower heel-to-toe drop encourages better running technique and smaller impact to our joints. In addition, trail running often requires you to navigate obstacles like rocks, tree-roots, scree, sharp turns and trail drops.

Having good trail sensitivity and lightness in your step is a huge advantage, when moving fast through tricky terrain. It also helps a lot when your toe box fit is not too bulky, as this prevents you from tripping over or getting your feet stuck in narrower trail features.

Finally, when running with minimalist or lower-profile running shoes, your feet are closer to the ground, and hence you have a lower chance of rolling your ankle.

Low-profile shoes are very popular among more technical runners, racers and sport professionals. However, these shoes demand certain level of training and experience from the runner. Since there is so little support, your feet and ankles have to be trained enough to absorb and distribute any impact or forces correctly.

Lower-profile shoes might also be a worse fit if you are planning to run more groomed trails and pavements.

If you are planning to get a few pairs of trail shoes, definitely give low-profile shoes a go. Start by running shorter distances and give yourself time to adjust to the new running style. If you are a novice runner and this will be only pair of running shoes you will be using for daily training, it is probably better to get something with a bit more support and cushioning to avoid sore feet and injuries.

However you can still look at getting a highly manoeuvrable, lightweight, non-bulky pair of traditional running shoes. Or maybe pick a low-profile running shoe with a bit more cushioning?

What Sort of Runner are You?

This leads me to a very important question to ask yourself, before getting a pair of trail running shoes – what sort of runner are you or planning to be?

Are you a road runner getting a pair for a trail running race or are you a novice runner wanting to explore your local trails? Are you planning get a few different pairs of running shoes for different surfaces and running applications, or are you looking to get a single pair for all sorts of daily running and other purposes?

A more technical minimalist pair will provide you more maneuverability and speed on technical trails, but it will also require some prior training. A good idea for a beginner trail runner/runner is to get a traditional pair of running sneakers with a good grippy outsole, lightweight and not too bulky profile.

A pair like that is a useful addition to any runners gear kit, and will be a solid introduction to the trail running world. As you then start to run more and understand better what type of terrain/movement/ distance you enjoy, you can get a more specialized pair.

It is generally best to have a few different pairs of running shoes and rotate them, if training a lot, as this decreases chance of injury. So be honest with yourself and pick a pair that is the best and the most comfortable for you.

What to Consider When Choosing Trail Shoes for Severe Overpronation or Supination?

As you strike your foot when running, your foot naturally has an inward roll by up to around 15 degrees to distribute the forces, acting like a natural shock absorption system.

However, due to physical differences in your feet and leg structure, you might be rolling your feet too much, loading the insides of your feet more (overpronation), or the opposite – putting more force on the outside edge of your foot (supination).

Normally, you should be pushing off the trail with the front of your foot. However, if you overpronate, you are likely exerting more force with the big toe. Supinators load the outside of the foot more, when kicking off.

People with high arches tend to supinate, while people with flat feet usually overpronate, but the opposite is possible too.

Certain shoe designs may help you correct these foot strike variations, increasing running comfort and helping avoid injury. Most of the running shoes mentioned previously and available in stores are so called motion control neutral shoes – for normal pronators.

But there are shoes, specially designed to help you pronate correctly - the so called motion/stability control shoes. If you think you might have stride mechanics problems, it is worth consulting a specialized running store or a running physiotherapist, who could analyse your running mechanics. In some cases it is worth investing into custom orthotics.

Trail Running Shoes for Severe Overpronation

Some examples of designated motion control shoes include the ASICS GEL-Kahana 7 and the Salomon XA Pro 3D.

It is worth mentioning though that there is still a lot of debate on the necessity of wearing motion control shoes, and quite a few studies found no link between the injury rate and the wrong shoe type.

So you should not worry too much about hunting down the “right” prescription shoe, and focus more on what feels comfortable on your foot and what your training loads and running technique are like, as these are usually more frequent contributors to injury.

Picking the Right Size

It is very important to pick the right shoe size for you. Females should not stick to just female-specific shoes, if you have larger size, wider feet. Too small running shoes will lead to severe discomfort and even injury like foot tendonitis.

Similarly, males with narrower feet should not shy away for trying females’ shoes, as it might provide a better fit.

Get your feet measured in the store, as your shoe size changes during life, and find a pair that would provide a snug fit around your heel, and enough space in front for you to move your toes. It is advisable for your trail shoes to be half a size larger than your street shoes, especially if you will be running longer distances.

Running downhill, makes your feet push against the front of the shoe, and too tight shoes would result in severe discomfort and potential injury.

If You are a Runner Trying Something New

If you already are a runner, and have a pair that works really well for you, stick with it. Maybe there is a brand that works really well for you? Well then stick with that too.

It is good to try new things, but is also good to get a reliable stable performance. If you do already run a lot and are thinking of picking a different type or running shoe for your trail running, give yourself some time to adjust, especially, when going minimalist after years of “cushion-paradise."

Switching between shoe styles requires time, especially when training a lot. If you don’t believe me, try a longer barefoot run on a treadmill, and painfully observe how your calves lock up the next day.

How Far Will You Go?

If by trail running, you mean ultra-running, a few things you might want to consider is the size of the shoe and the cushioning. A half size larger shoe would be a good choice for the long distance run foot swell.

There is no agreement among the runners whether a more cushioned shoe is a better choice for the longer ultra-distances. Some people tend to switch between more minimalist shoes for shorter distances and pick more cushioned/protective shoes for longer distances. Others are exclusively minimalist, while even others tend to stick to what they are used to at that point.

However, I assume that if you will choose to run extra-long distances, you will probably have a closet full of shoes anyway and will be able to decide based on your experience, what works for you.

Best Trail Running Shoes Good for Hiking

What is amazing about trail running shoes is that they make excellent lightweight hiking shoes. Unless you are carrying a heavy pack or are planning to spend a lot of time crossing loose scree fields or steeper snow sections, a trail running shoe is your best friend in the mountains.

In fact, one of the most fun things to do in the mountains is to have a lightweight quick hiking day, and trail shoes are perfect for that.

Generally any trail running shoe can be used for hiking, as hiking is just a less demanding form of running. But if you want something more intended for walking, or styled more like a hiking shoe, choose a pair with some more support – probably a tradition type of shoe would be best.

Look for shoes with a more stable chassis and a bit more support than what you would choose for a running shoe, for example Salomon X Ultra 2 GTX or Inov-8 RocliteTM 280.

A Few Words About Wear and Tear

Highly technical trail shoes will wear out on pavements. If you are planning to spend a lot of time road running, and the trails you are going to run are not overly technical, it makes sense to just get something that is a good road shoe with an advanced outsole grip.

Trail shoes of course work well for road running too, but some of the more minimalist and low-profile ones might be a bit harsh on your feet for longer distances on the road, especially if you are new to running. Also it is a bit of a waste to invest a lot of money into a piece of gear that will not serve its purpose.

Trail running shoes should be regularly replaced (best every 300-500 miles), as worn out shoes increase chance of injury. If you have pair of very aggressive-sole shoes, be aware of pronation/supination enhancing shoe wear-out. If you overpronate/supinate, your shoes are likely to wear out more on one side, which will then over exaggerate your foot motion, potentially leading to injury.

It does not mean that you should not get a technical outsole pair, if you overpronate or supinate, but just be aware of the wear, and replace your shoes regularly; believe me – the investment is worth it.

The same applies to inner shoe features; DO NOT sacrifice the health of your feet, as even minor discomforts can lead to injury after many miles running. I once ran over 50km with a slightly shifted shoe insole that resulted in foot tendinitis. I spent months recovering from it.

Some Final Remarks

If still in doubt, which shoe to choose, I would advise visiting your local specialized running store. They usually employ people with a lot of experience that could help you pick the right size, model, and maybe advice on the level of support required for your feet.

Again, running shoes are very individual pieces of gear, and it will depend on your experience, gait, level of feet musculature and soft tissue development, weight and other criteria, what will be the best shoe for you. Do trust your sense of comfort. Take your time trying new shoes, give them a go on a treadmill if possible, and trust your choice.

Now go on and enjoy your trail run!

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About the author

Kristina Aluzaite

Kristina is an experienced and passionate mountain runner, climber, skier, yogi and a nature lover, currently traveling across the globe and training for the World Skyrunning Series. Follow her adventures and progress on her blog Mountain Hat and instagram: @kristinaaluzaite

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