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What To Look For in a Trail Running Shoe

Trail running will take everything you know about road running to the next level. If you’re new to running altogether, start with our guide on picking out a good road running shoe. At the very least, this guide will give you some tips on the type of support your foot will need while running.

Anatomy of a Shoe

Tread

A huge difference between road shoes and trail shoes is the 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.

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.

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.

The Hoka One One Challenger ATR 6 GTX is a hybrid trail/road shoe. Hokas are well known for their generous cushion and high stack height. Photo credit Eric Hancsak.

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 cushion. 

Hard-edge Protection

A robust trail running shoe will have a built-in nylon shank or rock plate to offer added protection. These plates work well on rocky paths and protect your feet from bruises caused by ill-shaped rocks. The extra layer does add some weight, so this is only a feature you'll want on rugged trails.

Uppers

Trail shoes will have tough uppers to keep your feet safe from rugged terrain. If possible, choose a single-fabric design as they offer more durability. Depending on your terrain, you may want a breathable design or something waterproof.

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 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 drop that closely matches what you’re used to in a road running shoe.

Know Your Terrain

Before you can start looking at how a shoe will fit on your feet, you first need to decide the type of terrain you plan to be running on. If you’ve never run on a trail before, there’s no shame in starting out on relatively flat paths. When considering the type of shoe to match the terrain you'll be running on, start with where you're at now. It's great that you want to run up and down that mountain someday, but start with shoes that will work well on today's trail and worry about the mountain when you're ready.

Some trail shoes are designed to be better for specific conditions. The Salomon Speedcross 4 GTX is designed for a soft technical trail. While great for this, they are unlikely to be comfortable over firm and flat surfaces for long distances.


Light Trail Shoes

Light trail shoes are designed for dirt trails that have been well-worn over time. These trails are frequented by walkers and runners and see heavy use, so they are either well-maintained or kept clear from constant traffic. They are designed for more beginner-level activity that doesn’t have anything more strenuous than some rolling hills.

Light trail shoes will be moderately stiff to absorb impact and allow for stable foot placement. The soles have shallow lugs (usually 2 to 4 mm) to grip the path and offer traction. This style of shoe tends to have a wide range of cushioning available in the midsole but is lightweight.

Rugged Trail Shoes

Rugged trail shoes are made with the running or hiking trail in mind. You can wear these shoes on just about any trail that’s been blazed but not packed down from heavy use.

These shoes are going to have some of the extra protection that you’ll need for whatever the trail throws your way. Expect to find hard edge protection and a solid, resilient shoe body to protect feet from roots and rocks. Lugs will be in the 5 to 7 mm range with firm cushioning and a lot of shoe support to keep feet stable. Note that lugs of this size will be very uncomfortable on a hard surface.

Off Trail Shoes

If you want to be the trailblazer, going where none have gone before you, these are the shoes for you. They take everything the rugged shoe has and add even more durability and foot protection for whatever you’ll find on the run. Off-trail shoes have extra grip to hold up even when a lot of torque is applied to the foot. Since your route could take you anywhere, you’ll find more waterproof shoes in this category.

To Waterproof, or Not To Waterproof

Waterproofing on trail running shoes can be a blessing or a curse. On the one hand, if you see yourself doing a lot of running in wet areas, through streams or bogs, or running in snow, a waterproof shoe is nice to have. Waterproof shoes can offer some extra protection and warmth in cold weather, even if there's no snow on the ground.

On the other hand, in warmer, dry weather, having waterproofing on a trail running shoe can be overkill. Heat and sweat will get trapped in the shoe and make for an uncomfortable running experience, even if the shoe says it is breathable. Even with occasional rain, it may be better to lean towards a non-waterproof shoe if your routes are mostly dry.

Many trail shoes come in both a waterproof (often called GTX if Gore-Tex) and non-waterproof model. Shown is the Hoka One One Speedgoat 4 GTX.


Top Brands for Trail Running

Now that you know how a good trail running shoe is constructed, here are a few brands that do it well.

HOKA One One

HOKA One One has a strong presence in the trail running game and tops a lot of lists with their line of shoes. They know how to do comfort, and shoes like the Speedgoat 4 are designed to feel great for the entire distance of your run. They are a bit on the heavier side, but with the extra support, it’s unlikely you’ll notice.

La Sportiva

La Sportiva is a climbing shoe brand that chose to take its knowledge of traction and bring it into the trail running space. They’re technical shoes that grip surfaces well to keep you from wiping out. This makes La Sportiva an excellent brand for just about any surface. Their shoes are usually lightweight and built for speed but have a thin stack height, and therefore not much padding.

Brooks

Brooks has always been known for making a well-rounded shoe. Although not as well-known in the trail running space, Brooks has some nice offerings. They struggle a bit with durability over time and are not overly aggressive. That makes Brooks shoes more suited for packed trails and not off somewhere uncharted. Their shoes also tend to be more on the affordable side, making them nice for beginners.

Salomon

Salomon is a company that got its start on the slopes of France over 60 years ago. They've since fallen under the Adidas line of products, but their shoe offerings retain that knowledge of handling challenging terrain. These shoes are known for keeping you moving forward at break-neck speed over the ground with soft and springy cushioning.                 

Final Thoughts

Once you’ve narrowed down where you’re planning to run and the style of shoe that will work best for you, you’re half way there. Next, it’s important to take the time to try out as many pairs of shoes as is necessary until you find the one that fits you well. 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 this guide will set you well on your way to getting a great pair of trail running shoes. After that, all that’s left is to hit the trail!

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