In the last article, the Beginner’s Guide to Trail Running Part 1, we discussed the benefits of trail running, trail running techniques, and how to find trails near you. Now in this article, we’re going to dive into:
- What to look for in a trail running shoe
- How to pick the best trail shoes based on your goals
- Specifically which shoe models we recommend based on your needs & preferences
- And a few beginner tips to help get you started
- What to look for in a trail running shoe
So without further ado...
What to Look for in a Trail Running Shoe
Now, you could probably get away with wearing most trail running shoes on pavement. But you don’t want to make the mistake of wearing road running shoes off-road.
Running off-road requires special features and technologies such as stabilizing materials to help avoid rolling ankles, and thicker soles to protect against sharp rocks. They also have stickier rubber and claw-like lugs for running over slippery terrain or in the mud, to name a few. There are a number of things to consider when choosing the best trail running shoe, but probably the 3 most important factors are:
- The amount of cushion
- The lugs (meaning the grip or traction)
- And probably the feature that requires the most adjustment is the drop (a.k.a., the offset)
- The amount of cushion
Let’s briefly break each of these down, then we’ll walk through which shoes would be best for the different types of trail runs.
How to Pick the Right Trail Running Shoes
First the cushioning. The amount of cushion you want in a trail shoe is a personal preference. Some people prefer a plush level of cushion between them and the ground, while others prefer being able to feel every bump in the ground beneath them. As you’re getting started in trail running, you’ll probably want a shoe with medium cushioning. This will let you experience a little bit of both – plush cushioning and feeling the terrain – so that you can learn which style you prefer.
Next is the grip. They’ve got everything from, essentially a grippier road shoe, up to shoes with such deep lugs it’s almost like you’re running in cleats. As with cushioning, it’s probably a good idea to start with medium lugs as you’re learning the feel of running off-road.
If the traction on your shoes is too sticky, it might slow you down on smoother parts of the trail. But if they’re not sticky enough, you get into trouble if you come across any mud or slippery rocks. So, a middle-of-the-road grip is your best bet for starting out.
And last but not least, we’ve got to talk about the heel-to-toe drop. This is the difference in elevation between the front of your foot and the heel, and it’s important because it has everything to do with how your foot lands on the ground. Shoes with more drop (8-12mm) encourage you to land on your heel, while shoes with less drop (0-4mm) encourage you to land on your forefoot or midfoot.
A lower drop (e.g. 4mm or lower) is usually more suited for a faster, more aggressive running style. Shoes with lower drop are typically intended for running races – anything from 5ks to ultramarathons.
A higher drop (e.g. 8-12mm) is generally associated with a more laid-back, cushioned experience. You’re likely to find that a good every-day running shoe will have a heel-to-toe offset somewhere around this range.
But it’s important to note: If you’re used to running in a high drop shoe, and you abruptly switch to a low-drop trail shoe, it’s going to affect your legs differently. A lower drop puts more effort on your calf muscles, and if you’re not used to using them as much, they’re likely going to get sore. You may want to start with a trail shoe with a higher drop, as you’re adjusting to the feel.
Okay, now that we’ve covered the different factors, now let’s narrow down which type of shoe will be best for you based on the types of trails you plan to run on.
Best Trail Running Shoes for You
If you plan on doing more casual runs, looking for a little exercise, de-stress, maybe you even plan on some trail runs but also a little road running from time-to-time. Then you’d want a jack-of-all-trades trail running shoe.
Or you may want to check out the wildly popular Saucony Peregrine 10. This shoe has a more aggressive drop (4mm) compared to the Ride 3 (8mm), which would make it slightly better tuned for faster runs.
Tempo / Fartlek Training
If you’re looking to get into serious shape and improve both your aerobic and anaerobic systems, you’ll likely be doing Tempo training. This is similar to interval training – essentially this just means sometimes you may be sprinting, sometimes you may be jogging. And for beginners, sometimes you’ll probably even be walking.
For this aggressive type of trail running, you’ll need a shoe that will protect you while sprinting over rocky terrains. You’d probably appreciate the protective cushioning, and a decently low drop, from a shoe like the Brooks Catamount.
Or you might want an even lighter, springier, lower-drop shoe like the Hoka JAWZ. The JAWZ has some seriously deep lugs that’ll grip onto any surface, making sure you won’t slip during the intense parts of your runs.
Racing & Speed (5k–Half Marathon)
If you’re into racing, and plan on running faster like in a 5k, or longer like a marathon, or both, then you’ll need a shoe that can handle all of the above.
Or the heavily cushioned Hoka Evo Speedgoat 4. This shoe rides really high & fluffy off the ground, as Hoka’s tend to do. Though the Speedgoat is probably a tad on the heavy side for anything longer than a marathon.
Now if you’re interested in really long ultramarathon runs – 30, 50, even 100 or more miles – you shouldn’t just grab any ol’ shoe off the shelf. You need a light trail shoe, that’s built to withstand the distance, but also without getting in your way and bogging you down.
The Merrell MTL Long Sky is a great long-distance shoe. Though it can have a slightly firmer feel, so it would probably be best for the lower mileage ultramarathons – if you go too far beyond 30 miles, it may start to take a toll on your feet.
Or you’ve got the Altra Superior 4.5, a popular choice for those longer ultramarathons largely because of how light and responsive this shoe is. Another key feature about the Altra Superior is that it doesn’t try to dictate how your foot lands. The shoe just keeps you safe and lets you do the running -- a great ultramarathon trail shoe.
Now, the last thing we need to cover are a few very important beginner tips you’ll want to know before heading out for your first trail run.
Beginner Tip #1: Stay Hydrated
It’s extremely important to stay hydrated, even more so on a trail run, because you’re burning so much more energy than you would on an evenly paved road. And you don’t want to wait until you feel thirsty to start drinking water.
There are a couple of good solutions for this: For shorter trails, some runners like a handheld water bottle for its convenience. And early on when it still has plenty of water in it, you can even swing your hands to get a little momentum boost.
Or if you’d prefer your hands to be freed up, there are hydration waist packs that can hold water and a few other items, like your phone.
And for those really long runs, where you may need a backup reservoir of water, and even some food, a hydration pack or vest might be a good idea. They’ve got room for plenty of water, some snacks, your phone, and a few other supplies – just in case.
Beginner Tip #2: Pack Sugar
Not only can you be caught off guard by the extra energy needed to traverse the unpredictable terrain, and the added weight of trail shoes (the stability tech), but many people get caught off guard by how much extra energy their brain is expending on trail runs.
On a road run, you can sometimes let your mind wander. But on a trail run, you’re constantly having to study and adjust to the dynamic environment. This means spending more brain glucose, which can be exhausting in and of itself.
If you find yourself getting lightheaded, seemingly out of nowhere, that could simply mean your blood sugar is being used up quicker than you’re used to. So it’s always a good idea to have a backup source of sugar, like gels or jellies, just in case. Once you consume the sugar source, you should notice yourself returning to normal in about 5 minutes.
And that’s it, you’re ready to hit the trails! Of course, this is by no means all there is to know about trail running – we’ll have plenty more tips, tricks, and advice coming your way. Speaking of which...
Interested in running your first off-road 5k? Check out our free 8 week training program!