Off-Road Adventures: 8 Factors to Pick Trail Running Shoes

Looking for the perfect pair of trail running shoes?

You know...shoes that will help you:

  • Go the distance
  • Navigate gnarly terrain
  • Give you enough traction
  • Feel good mile after mile...

There's more shoe brands than ever playing in the dirt now than ever.

Which means you've got more trail running shoes to choose from than ever.

That's a good thing. But how do you know what to look for to find the right trail running shoes for you?

In this article, we're going to show you 7 factors to consider when you're shopping for trail running shoes.

1. Outsole

1. Outsole

A huge difference between road shoes and trail shoes is the outsole or tread on the bottom of the shoe. 

The tread on trail shoes is known for being more rigid and typically have an assortment of lugs, which function like cleats to grab and hold onto the soil as you run. 

Depending on the type of terrain the shoe is designed for, these treads and lugs can change considerably.

  • For really technical trail running, bigger and tougher lugs will give you more traction.
  • For less technical trail running, a road-to-trail shoe (like the Hoka Clifton) typically has smaller lugs and works for both types of running.
2. Cushion

2. Cushion

Even in trail running shoes, cushioning comes in all shapes and sizes. 

Runners have gone back and forth for ages on how thick cushioning should be on a trail running shoe.

  • More cushioning adds more weight to the shoe but will serve you well for longer runs. 
  • Thicker cushions are also best for harder trail surfaces and runners who struggle with knee or joint pain.
  • For example, Topo Athletic recently released the Topo Mtn Racer 2 with it's newly developed ZipFoam cushioning.

On the flip side, thinner cushioning works great on softer trails where dirt and terrain are not packed down. They can also be beneficial for short runs.

There’s also a school of runners who prefer a more minimalist approach to feel the earth as they run...

3. Stack Height

3. Stack Height

This is simply the distance between the bottom of your foot and the ground. 

It’s the combined thickness of the tread and the cushioned material in the shoe.

  • Altra just released the Altra Olympus 5 with a massive 33mm stack height.

A lot of stack height can provide you with extra protection underfoot for trail running.

But some runners steer clear of trail running shoes with massive stack height because you lose some ground feel and may feel unstable at times.

4. Rock Plate

4. Rock Plate

If you want maximum protect from rocks, roots and gnarly terrain, look for trail running shoes with a rock plate.

  • What's a rock plate? It's a nylon or carbon-fiber plate that's built into the outsole and cushioning material.

The extra layer does add some weight, and it can make trail running shoes stiffer. 

Trail running shoes without a rock plate tend to be more flexible.

5. Upper

5. Upper

All the material above the outsole and cushioning is part of the upper.

  • Trail running shoes tend to have tougher uppers to keep your feet safe from rugged terrain (unlike the Nike Air Zoom Alpha Fly that has a minimalist upper and lacks durability, according to some runners).

If possible, choose trail running shoes with a single-fabric design as they offer more durability.

Depending on your terrain, you may want a breathable design or waterproof upper made of GORE-TEX material like the Nike Pegasus Trail 3 GORE-TEX.

6. Lacing System

6. Lacing System

For a long time, there was only one lacing system for trail running shoes. 

You know...flat or round laces that thread through the eyelets of a trail running shoe that you lace up and tie.

It's still the standard lacing system for a lot of trail running shoes.

But now a growing number of trail running shoe brands are using alternative lacing systems.

For example:

  • Many trail running shoes made by Solomon use the SensiFit lacing system. Instead of tying laces, you move a slider and tighten the laces to get the right fit.
  • And then there's the On Cloud Ultra trail running shoe. "One of the unique things about this shoe is the engineering of the upper and lacing system," says On Running shoe rep Jason Shaver. "There's a funky flip-release. If your foot swells when you're running, you just flip this release that looks kind of like a paperclip. And it loosens the shoe by giving the laces about an extra inch of length.
7. Heel-to-Toe Drop

7. Heel-to-Toe Drop

Heel-to-toe drop (sometimes referred to as just 'drop') wasn't talked about much until a few years ago. 

  • This measurement points out how many more millimeters of cushioning exists in the heel versus in the toe.

Ten millimeters is a pretty standard number on trail running shoes, meaning the heel sits an extra centimeter off the ground compared to the toe. Runners who land on their heels and roll forward onto the toes favor this design.

A lower drop number promotes landing in the middle of the foot. 

  • There's a popular belief that this type of foot strike is lower impact and thus better for durability and longevity. 
  • If you’re not currently using them, lower drop shoes will require some getting used to but can be great in the long term.

It’s usually advisable to pick a heel-toe drop that closely matches what you’re used to in a road running shoe.

Fun fact: Altra Running built it's brand on designing zero-drop shoes. But it recently made a transition of it's own: "Every Altra shoe is built on a Balanced Cushioning™ platform that positions the heel and forefoot an equal distance from the ground. This natural foundation aids in optimal alignment, cultivates better form, and encourages a low impact landing." 

8. Running Surfaces

8. Running Surfaces

This has less to do with actual trail running shoes, and more to do with where you plan to be running.

  • What type of terrain, trails, and running surfaces will you spend the most time on?

It's a good question to ask. Why?

  • If you plan to run a mix of easy trails and roads, a road-to-trail shoe with less aggressive lugs and outer makes sense.
  • If you plant run a lot of trails, maybe even take on an ultramarathon, a tougher trail running shoe makes sense.

Ready to run some dirty miles in new trail running shoes?

Use these 8 factors to pick trail running shoes to help you narrow down your choices.

The put a few pair to the test.  Try them on at a local running store, and run 50+ miles in the shoes.

  • Running Warehouse let's you put every shoe to the test with a no-questions asked 90-day return policy. 

A few more tips to find the perfect trail running shoe:

  • Try shoes on in the afternoon when feet are the most swollen, and bring a thicker pair of socks that you might be wearing in cold or wet weather.
  • Ensure the shoes don't pinch or rub your feet anywhere and allow a gap between the front of the shoe and your toes. 
  • Roll your foot around with the shoe on the ground to simulate how your foot might feel under the torque of an uneven running surface. 
  • Spend a little time running backward in the shoe to test the impact you might feel if running up a hill.

There’s a lot to consider. But using these 8 factors will help you pick a trail running shoe that works for you.

What's your favorite trail running shoe?

Create a WeeView or tell us about it in the comments.

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Noah Zelvis
Saint Joseph, Michigan

Long distance runner, world traveler, writer

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