Choosing trail running shoes is perhaps one of the most difficult equipment choices for outdoor sports. It does not make it any easier for the buyer, that the selection of trail running shoes has become huge and the price difference is wide. If you google “best trail running shoes”, you will find hundreds of pages that talk about some specific running shoe brand(s).
Before I started trail running a few years ago, I was into long walks, Nordic walking and jogging mostly on flat surfaces. The Asics sneakers were fine until I moved on to running on uneven trails and slippery rocks. It was only in an online outdoor store that I realized that there are even such things as trail running shoes.
I immediately started an in-depth study of trail running shoes. Most of the trail running shoe reviews were written by very experienced runners who were racing and also ran in the mountains. The articles were full of terms and figures. Nobody ever described the shape of their foot yet admired the fit of the shoe or complained about the slightly loose heel cup.
Back then, I could run maybe a kilometer at a time on a forest path, and I had never even seen trail running shoes.
For many, especially beginner trail runners, the trails in the nearby forest are enough for running a couple of kilometers or miles. At the beginning of the hobby, there is not necessarily a need for reviews that discuss in detail the characteristics of trail running shoes for races, ultra-distances or technical mountain paths. The most important thing is to find the right trail running shoes for yourself, in which running feels comfortable.
In this article, I put together the most important things that a beginner trail runner should think about when buying their first trail running shoes. Based on thousands of running kilometers and dozens (if not hundreds) of reviews I've read, it's easy to pick out certain basics that matter the most.
What is the difference between trail running shoes and regular running shoes?
If you've been road running before, you might wonder how trail running shoes differ from normal running shoes. The biggest differences in trail running shoes compared to regular running shoes are the lugs and grip of the soles, as well as in how the shoe supports and protects the foot.
Regular running shoes are usually very rolling. A trail running shoe is more rigid, and it prevents the foot from excessive rotation. Trail running shoes do not have the same pronation control as regular running shoes, which is worth noting if you are used to running with pronation-supported shoes on asphalt.
Can you run on roads with trail running shoes? If you want to run both on trails and on concrete, you should choose trail running shoes with less aggressive outsoles. Different brands have trail running shoes that are great for all-terrain purposes.
You should start comparing trail running shoes by familiarizing yourself with the key features of trail running shoes: lugs and traction, heel to toe drop, and cushioning.
Lugs and traction
When you go from smooth roads to forest trails, you need running shoes with good grip. The soles of trail running shoes are full of various deep patterns and lugs that provide traction in mud and soft sand. The material used is so-called sticky rubber for maximum grip, for example when running on wet rocks.
As a rule of thumb, shallower lugs are suitable for hard surfaces such as gravel and dirt roads, deep lugs and diverse patterns are more suitable for soft surfaces such as mud.
Heel to toe drop
What does 'heel to toe drop' mean? The heel to toe drop means the difference in height between the heel and the toes. The value mostly varies between 0-12 mm.
Barefoot shoes and minimalist trail running shoes have a 0-4 mm drop. In these running shoes, the front of the foot and heel touch the ground at the same level. On average, a drop of 5-7 mm is regular, and 8-12 mm is a large drop. In running shoes with a larger drop, the heel naturally hits the ground first when running.
Road running shoes usually have a high drop. There are also many high-drop models in trail running shoes. For most runners, a higher drop is suitable for both road and trails.
The advantage of barefoot shoes and low drop running shoes is that they support the natural motion of the foot and activate the muscles that support natural movement in a versatile way. The lower the drop, the more the running shoe encourages forefoot or midfoot strike. With low drop trail running shoes, the step is shorter. This is natural when running on trails.
Trail running shoes can also have plush cushioning, but still have a low drop. So, the thickness of the sole or stack height does not correlate with the drop, and you can’t easily see the drop based on the appearance of the shoe.
The cushioning of trail running shoes varies from non-cushioned barefoot shoes and minimal cushioning to maximum cushioning. The amount of suitable padding depends, among other things, on the surface you run on. More padding means less impact to your body and less padding means more impact.
The more cushioning a running shoe has, the less feel for the ground when running. On highly technical trails, steep uphills and uneven terrain, you may need more agility and feel for the trail. For these conditions, a moderate cushioning may be better.
Maximum cushioning is especially popular on long distance running. The padding makes running feel very comfortable and reduces fatigue. Trail running shoes with good cushioning may also be more suitable for people with foot problems.
On the other hand, there is also research according to which maximally cushioned running shoes may increase the stiffness of the foot and thus the strain. There is a lot of debate about optimal cushioning as well as heel to toe drop, and there are no absolute right answers.
My own feet are comfortable (at least at the moment) in maximum cushioned trail running shoes. They make running with chronic foot pain quite tolerable, even on ultra-distances.
Should you get waterproof trail running shoes?
In most cases, you should choose non-waterproof trail running shoes. Trail running shoes are designed to dry quickly. When running, your foot sweats, so choose a trail running shoe that breathes better.
Gore-tex trail running shoes are best suited for winter days, especially slushy days and when you run long distances and the foot is in the shoe for a long time.
So, what are the three most important things you should consider when choosing the right trail running shoes for you?
1. First, think about where you run and how – the type of trail running shoe
Start choosing trail running shoes by considering the terrain you run on and how much you run. The purpose of this is to limit the selection to a little smaller.
There are various types of trail running shoes:
- Light shoes with modest protection and shallow lugs,
- More rugged models with sturdy materials and deeper lugs,
- Even more rugged and rigid shoes with maximum protection.
The lightest and most agile trail running shoes are used especially on easy smooth trails, on hard surfaces and on very technical sections where a good feel for the trail is required. In these models, cushioning can vary from minimal to moderate.
Trail running shoes with a stronger protection usually have more diverse lug patterns and more cushioning. The shoes support and stabilize the foot more and provide great traction. This category includes the most commonly used trail running shoes. So, if you're looking for your first pair of running shoes for forests and hiking trails, aim for this type of shoes in the middle category.
The even more rugged trail shoes offer maximum support and most resilient materials. This group also offers good options for hiking and trekking.
2. Your own running background and limitations – drop and cushioning
What kind of heel to toe drop is best for trail running? It totally depends on your own preferences and characteristics, which drop is suitable for your foot. For example, the structure of the foot can prevent the use of low drop shoes.
Salomon recommends a drop of more than 6 mm for most runners, because most runners’ foot hits the ground with the heel first when running. A smaller drop, on the other hand, is recommended for those who run a lot and for runners whose forefoot hits the ground first. The most important thing is to choose a drop that fits the natural movement of your own body.
- If you are used to wearing a high drop in your running shoes or high-heeled shoes in everyday life, switching to a low drop can be difficult and at least require a moderately long transition period. You can expect muscle stiffness and other discomfort.
- The best thing to do, is to look at your own shoes first, and choose a running shoe that is more or less the same in terms of drop. Regular running shoes usually have a fairly high drop (10 mm). If it has felt comfortable, you can continue doing the same also in trail running.
In the same way, the amount of cushioning depends on your own preferences. The most popular models are moderately cushioned trail running shoes. With the popularity of barefoot shoes, minimalist cushioning has also become the choice of many trail runners.
On the other hand, maximally cushioned running shoes offer a good option for both long-distance runners and those with foot problems. If you have health problems with your feet, however, it is worth discussing the choice of running shoes with an expert.
A safe choice for a beginner is a moderate drop (at least 6 mm) and a moderately cushioned trail running shoe.
3. Try different brands and different sizes – fit and comfort
When you have first narrowed down the category of trail running shoes and considered your own needs and selected a suitable drop, you now have a lot less shoes for consideration. At this point, it's good to look at reviews of individual brands and comparisons of different brands.
- A trail running shoe should fit perfectly on the foot, the foot or heel should not feel loose, and there should be enough room for the toes. Several shoe brands have regular and wide models for different foot types. The sizes are usually in half-size increments, so you should be able to find just the right length.
- The most important thing is to try on different models and sizes to your own feet. Trail running shoes should be fitted in the evening or after a working day, when your foot is possibly swollen. Foot swelling in the summer heat is good to take into account when choosing a size.
Based on reviews alone, it is really difficult to say whether a trail running shoe is wide or narrow, as the shape of the foot also affects the fit. In addition, it varies from person to person how people estimate the width of their own foot. Based on the reviews, you can only get a general idea of the fit of trail running shoe brands on your own foot.
For example, I’ve got my experiences from Hoka's trail running shoes and Saucony’s trail running shoes. In general, Hokas are considered quite wide, but I have also seen reviews where the last is considered to be narrow. My foot is wide, but Hoka's regular shoe fits my foot.
If you run a lot, the lifespan of your shoes will end relatively quickly. When you only have one pair of trail running shoes, you need to consider a new pair after six months of active running. At this point, it is good to change the model or brand if running has not felt as good or natural as you would have liked.
Another option is to get two different pairs of trail running shoes, and use them alternately for runs. At the same time, you can test how they work on different terrains and on various distances.
I have been using two different sizes of trail running shoes for a long time. A larger model is suitable for winter and ultra runs, and a smaller and more agile trail running shoe for summer and short or very technical trails.
The best trail running shoes and trail running shoe reviews
"The best trail running shoe of the test" means the opinion of the author or authors of the test about the trail running shoes that were in that test. The same shoe may not be the best trail running shoe for your foot. I made the mistake when buying my first trail running shoes, that I chose the shoes that were repeatedly rated as 'the best trail running shoes for women'. I had to buy a new pair of running shoes quite quickly.
From the trail running shoe reviews, you should read the general evaluations of the shoe's grip, weight, quality and price, but a trail running shoe tested by another person tells you almost nothing about the fit of the shoe on your own foot. You have to test the shoe yourself.
The main takeaway: choose a trail running shoe that fits your foot well and feels comfortable!
I hope these tips help you when you go shopping for trail running shoes!