There are hundreds of trail running shoes on the market. Choosing the right shoe for you can be the difference between breezing through miles of beautiful scenery or limping back to the trailhead with injuries or sore feet.
Choosing running shoes of any kind is extremely personal. Here are a few tips on how to choose the best trail running shoes for you!
Features to Consider in Trail Running Shoes
Trail running shoes have a number of unique features to give you better traction and more stability over many kinds of terrain. There are different tread options, cushioning, toe plates, and a number of other features to choose from.
Types of Tread
The types of tread are the biggest difference between road running shoes and trail shoes.
Deeper lugs (the “cleats” on the bottom of your shoe) give more traction. The deeper and wider spaced the lugs are, the better traction the shoe will have in muddy and wet conditions. However, deeper lugs can be uncomfortable to use on hard trails or pavement. It might feel a bit like running on concrete in a pair of sports cleats.
Choose deeper lugs (greater than 5mm) if:
- you plan to run on softer trails
- you live in a wetter climate
Chose short lugs (2mm – 5mm) if:
- you plan to run mostly on hard, packed trails
- you want to use your trail shoes on both trails and paved roads
- you plan to run over rocky terrain
Some trail runners have outsoles that are made of “sticky rubber”. This is a special type of rubber that provides more grip and traction on rocky trails and gravel.
Types of Cushioning
The “stack height” is the amount of material between your feet and the ground. Minimalist running shoes have the least amount of cushion and the most “ground feel”. On the other end of the spectrum “maximalist shoes” have the most cushion.
Choosing the kind of cushion is a combination of personal preference, the kind of running you plan to do, and your biomechanics (how your feet, legs, and hips move). There is no conclusive evidence that one stack height is better than another. Everyone runs differently and has different preferences. You should try on a number of shoes with different stack heights to find a shoe that you prefer.
Consider more cushion if:
- you plan to run on hard packed trails or run on both trails and pavement
- you plan to run a lot of miles each week or run long distances
Consider less cushion if:
- you run mainly on soft, smooth trails
- you keep your running mileage and distance relatively low
- you prefer to “feel” more of the ground and you want to be more agile
Runners who have a history of joint pain or injury should consult with their doctor, but shoes with more cushion can reduce impact and help protect your joints.
NOTE: If you do choose a minimalist running shoe make sure you give your feet a long adjustment period. Start with very short, slower runs and build up to longer distances and greater speed. This will help your feet adjust to a very different style of running shoe that requires more foot strength and agility.
Trail running shoes typically have a “low heel drop” to give you better traction and stability on uneven terrain.
The “drop” of a shoe is the difference in the height of the heel and the height of the toes, usually measured in millimeters. So, if your runners have a 10mm “drop” that means your heel will be 10mm higher than your forefoot. If your runners have a “zero drop” that means your heel and forefoot are at the same height.
The drop of your shoe impacts how your foot strikes the ground when you land. Low or medium drop shoes (0mm to 8mm) help you to land on your forefoot or mid-foot. High drop shoes (10mm to 12mm) tend to promote landing on your heel.
NOTE: The lower the drop the more your Achilles tendons will be stretched and have to work (this is not necessarily a bad thing). If you choose a low or zero drop shoe, you may need to give your feet and legs time to adjust. Start with short runs and be careful running uphill to avoid straining or injuring your Achilles tendons.
Rock Plate or Foam Protection
If your runs take you over rocky terrain, consider a shoe that offers more protection from hard edges. Some shoes use thick foam and others use rock plates made of thin plastic. The disadvantage to rock plates is the added weight, especially if you are running long distances.
Both types of protection have their own benefits:
- Rock plates tend to offer better feel of the ground and more precise foot placement
- Foam protection absorbs more shock
Most runners only use shoes with rock plates or foam protection if they are running on gravel or rocky, technical trails.
Unless your runs take you over very muddy, wet, or snowy trails or you run in cold, wet weather avoid waterproof running shoes. Waterproofing makes the shoes less breathable and your feet will sweat too much. Also, if water or snow gets into your shoe, it can get trapped inside the membrane.
Even waterproof shoes that are advertised as “breathable” never breathe as well as non-waterproof shoes. A quick-draining non-waterproof running shoe is usually a better choice.
The Fit Guide
Now that you are familiar with the many options and features of trail running shoes, it’s time to find one that fits you!
You should have about a thumb’s width of empty space between the end of your toes and the shoe. It should feel snug around your heel and the middle of your foot with little wiggle room around the forefoot and toes.
Try to wear the shoes as long as possible before purchasing them. Make sure there are no places that pinch or rub. Those little places can become big problems after a few miles on the trail.
Make sure the tongue fits comfortably and doesn’t feel bunched anywhere. It should sit snugly and keep rocks out of your shoe.
With trail running shoes, lighter is usually better. Look for your preferred balance of weight and comfort.
More expensive does not always mean better and less expensive does not always mean a good deal. Focus on the fit, comfort, and the quality of the shoe instead of the price.
Remember everyone’s feet are unique (and your feet will probably change over time)! Try on a number of brands and styles of trail shoes to find one that is most comfortable for you.
Be sure to give your feet time to adjust to your new shoes. Start with short runs and slowly work up to longer and faster runs. (I usually use my new pair of shoes for my shortest run of the week and my old running shoes for my longer runs for about 2-3 weeks before I transition completely to my new pair of shoes.)
Do you have a favorite pair of trail running shoes? Share in the comments and tell us what you love about them!