How to choose trail running shoes

Trail running involves running off-road and is considered a completely different sport from road running. While they do take place in different environments both trail running and road running requires the same action. The difference in environment is where you need to consider what your requirements are, and this starts with the outdoor sports shoe.

Difference between road running shoes and trail running shoes

The outsoles of trail running shoes tend to be thicker with softer lugs for better traction on rocks and other footings on a trail. Trail running shoes will also usually have a stiffer midsole, reinforced uppers, and rock plates to protect against sharp rocks on the trail.

Naturally, road runners would rarely encounter sharp rocks and sticks and thus are lighter in weight and more breathable. Running shoes should be as light as possible while still offering the protection you desire.

5 Trail running features you should look for

1. Fit

Pierre with the Gear recommends sizing up when choosing a trail running shoe to avoid stubbing your toe on a rock or on a decline while running. Your feet will swell during a run so choose a trail running shoe that compensates for this.

Ensure there is a thumb’s width of empty space at the toe, while snug at the heel and midfoot. Any small discomfort felt when trying on will increase significantly on the trail. The tongue should fit comfortably and keep rocks out of your shoe at all times.

2. Terrain

How do you plan on using your trail running shoes? Determine the typical terrain (around your area) you will be running on, your running goals, and what distances you plan on covering or are currently able to cover.

Unstable or muddy terrains require deeper and more widely spaced lugs. This is to prevent mud from building up in the tread. Ensure that you choose a trail running shoe with a well-supported instep. This will make uneven terrains easier to run and will provide you with extra balance.

If you plan on running on rough and rocky trails, choose a stiffer outsole and reinforced uppers. But if you are planning to run on a variety of surfaces, choose a lightweight trail running shoe that has shorter and more closely spaced lugs (nothing more than 4mm).

3. Distances

For short distances (up to 15km) we recommend a lightweight and responsive shoe. A responsive trail running shoe has a flexible sole and is designed to feel like it responds to the ground and gives energy back.

If you dream of running a long-distance trail from start to finish but realistically will start with 5km training loops around your neighbourhood, buy trail running shoes for this use initially.

4. Cushioning

There are 4 types of cushioning for a trail running shoe, these are: barefoot, minimal, moderate, and maximum. Choosing your preferred type of cushioning can certainly be a preference and “feel” vs. “float” cushioning offers you many options.

Barefoot trail running shoes are no-padding shoes. Some runners enjoy the feeling of running barefoot on a trail and their own biomechanics. Minimal cushioning provides a little more midsole support and moderate cushioning is characterised as the most traditional form of cushioning for trail runners. Moderate cushioning allows you to comfortably run over roots and rocks on trails.

Maximum cushioning trail running shoes provide the most amount of padding in the midsole. This type of cushioning is easier on the joints and can reduce fatigue on long trail runs. Some trail runners may not enjoy this type of cushioning due to it feeling less efficient or “mushy” as you run especially in the toe-off area.

5. Drop-in running shoes

The Heel-to-toe drop on a trail running shoe should match your natural stride. This measurement can be found on your current pair of running shoes or even other regular shoes that you wear. Choosing a trail running shoe that adapts to your natural stride decreases your risk of injury. A drop measurement is closely related to cushioning height.

Most shoes will have a moderate heel-to-toe drop, which simply suggests you avoid trail runners that are at or near the 0mm and the 12mm ends of the spec range. If you wear flats or flip-flops all the time, then low-drop shoes might be fine.

A drop that is not suited to your natural stride will force you to adopt a different stride, and suddenly and abnormally increase the stresses on your muscles and tendons. In the beginning, this might cause unusual aches and pains that could develop into tendonitis or periostitis injury.

A final note on waterproof trail running shoes

For most trail running, you don’t want a waterproof shoe. Waterproofing can be great for hiking, but for running, your feet will sweat too much for a waterproof membrane to keep up. Obvious exceptions include muddy or snowy trails at ultra-lengths, and possibly cold, wet weather. Generally, though, stick with highly breathable shoes.