If you’re experiencing pain in your ankles, knees, lower back, if you’ve got shin splints or heel spurs, or if you have ongoing plantar fasciitis... you’re probably running in the wrong shoes.
The Ultimate [Pain-Free] Trail Running Shoe Guide: How to fix or prevent joint pain, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, and more
How to NOT Pick the Best Trail Running Shoe for You
If you picked your last shoe because of the premium price, or the sleek design, or because of some technology that you thought sounded cool. Or if you picked your last shoe because it felt comfortable for the few minutes you wore it inside the store, then yeah, there’s a good chance that’s not the best shoe for you.
Too many runners don’t understand why there are so many different shoe models.
Each model is designed for a different combination of foot shape, gait cycle, and specific running goals.
So in this article, we’re going to match specific trail shoes to the different features and technologies that runners needs, based on:
The types of runs you're going on: Casual, tempo, 5ks, marathons.
Your foot shape and gait cycle: Do you need a neutral shoe or one with arch support?
- Your preferences: How much heel-to-toe drop, what type of cushioning?
Interested in road running shoes instead? Check out our ultimate guide to choosing the right road running shoes.
How to Pick the Best Trail Running Shoes for You
First, let’s look at the different types of runs, and pick the best shoe model that’s designed for that type of run – casual runs, 5ks, ultramarathons, etc.
Next, we’ll narrow it down by factoring in your preferences – how much cushioning you want, and the heel-to-toe drop.
- And finally, we’ll really zero in on the best shoe match for you by adding in your needs – your arch type and gait cycle.
You can read through each category, or jump to the section that applies to you:
Casual Trail Shoes
We’ll start with casual runs – essentially if you’re not going super fast, or really intense, but just looking to get some fresh air and a little exercise
BEST OVERALL CASUAL TRAIL SHOE:
For this type of run, one of the best shoes on the market is the wildly popular Saucony Peregrine 10. This shoe has a pretty aggressive drop at 4mm, which makes it slightly better tuned for faster casual runs. But even if you’re going for a laid-back run, the Peregrine is still one of the best all-around trail shoes.
BEST HEAVILY CUSHIONED, CASUAL TRAIL SHOE:
Hoka One One Stinson
If you want a more heavily cushioned trail runner, then you’ll probably want to look into the brand known for its luxurious cushioning. The Hoka One One Stinson ATR 6 has an astounding 37mm stack height under the heel, which means a ton of cushion between you and the ground.
BEST HEEL-TO-TOE DROP, CASUAL TRAIL SHOE:
Salomon Sense Ride
The Saucony Peregrine and the Hoka Stinson both have a very low 4mm drop, meaning you’ll be more inclined to land on your midfoot or forefoot. If you’re looking for a model that’ll promote landing on your heel, but still has a ton of cushion, you’ll want to take a look at the award-winning Salomon Sense Ride 3. This shoe has an 8mm drop, and it’s heavily cushioned to keep your feet happy all day, no matter what you’re doing.
BEST ARCH & PRONATION SUPPORT, CASUAL TRAIL SHOE:
If you need a casual, daily trail shoe that’ll guide your feet to land safely and avoid injury, you’ll want a model with pronation & arch support. The Brooks Cascadia 15 GTX is a popular running shoe for overpronators for this very reason. It’s an all-around amazing shoe, with a little bit of everything you need, including stability.
Tempo Trail Shoes
Next up are Tempo trail runs – anything from uphill sprints, to multi-directional movement, and probably, at times, some muddy conditions.
BEST OVERALL TEMPO TRAIL SHOE:
Hoka One One EVO JAWZ
For this type of run, you’ll probably want a light, springy shoe like the Hoka One One EVO 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.
BEST HEAVILY CUSHIONED, TEMPO TRAIL SHOE:
Or you may prefer a heftier shoe with a bit more cushioning to protect you while sprinting over rocks and constantly changing terrain. For this, you’d probably appreciate the thick, 32mm of cushioning, in the Brooks Catamount. This is a fan favorite tempo shoe.
BEST HEEL-TO-TOE DROP, TEMPO TRAIL SHOE:
The Hoka One One Jaws has a 3mm drop, and the Brooks Catamount has a 6mm drop. But if you’d like just a bit more heel-to-toe offset, encouraging you to land more midfoot to heel, the Salomon Wildcross would probably be the model you’re looking for. It’s a rough and rugged shoe, with deep lugs, and decent cushioning (for a Salomon), and has a mid-level 8mm drop.
BEST ARCH & PRONATION SUPPORT, TEMPO TRAIL SHOE:
Saucony Peregrine ST
If you’re looking for a tempo training shoe, but also need a little arch support, then the Saucony Peregrine 10 ST is likely your best bet. Not to be confused with the normal Saucony Peregrine 10, the ST (which stands for “sloppy terrain”) has 6.5mm lugs, making this great for muddy, mucky trail conditions.
Speedy Trail Shoes (5Ks - Marathons)
Now moving on to speed trail shoes – for running 5ks, half-marathons, marathons, or just doing speed drills.
BEST OVERALL SPEEDY TRAIL SHOE:
Inov-8 X Talon G 235
For this type of run, the Inov-8 X Talon G 235 is amazing. It’s light, and the lugs are super durable, which means it can take quite a beating without the shoe showing any wear – a feature you definitely want in a trail shoe. The X Talon is a popular shoe for short-to-moderate speedy trail runs.
BEST HEAVILY CUSHIONED, SPEEDY TRAIL SHOE:
Hoka One One Speedgoat
Or if you’re looking for a heavily cushioned speed shoe, you’d probably fall in love with the Hoka One One Speedgoat 4. This shoe rides really high & fluffy off the ground, as Hoka’s tend to do. Though just know, because of all the cushioning, the Speedgoat is probably a tad on the heavy side for anything longer than a marathon.
BEST HEEL-TO-TOE DROP, SPEEDY TRAIL SHOE:
Speed shoes often come with an aggressive drop for landing on your forefoot. The Hoka Speedgoat is 4mm, and the Inov-8 Talon is a little higher at 6mm. But if you’re looking for a more moderate heel-to-toe offset, you should check out the Inov-8 Roclite G 275, which has an 8mm drop. It’s also pretty light for a trail shoe, and it has plenty of cushion for longer runs (though probably not enough for an ultramarathon).
BEST ARCH & PRONATION SUPPORT, SPEEDY TRAIL SHOE:
Saucony Guide 13 TR
If you’re going for a speed shoe that also has support for pronation and low arches, you’ll want to check out the Saucony Guide 13 TR. It’s designed to counter mild pronation, help with medium-to-low arches, it has great cushioning and it’s still roughly the same weight as the inov-8 Roclite. The Saucony Guide TR checks a lot of boxes, which is why many runners agree: it’s a pretty impressive shoe.
Long Distance Trail Shoes
And now we get to long-distance trail shoes – 30, 50, or even 100+ miles.
BEST OVERALL LONG DISTANCE TRAIL SHOE:
Merrell Long Sky
If you’re running just above marathon distance, the Merrell MTL Long Sky is an elite trail 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.
BEST HEAVILY CUSHIONED, LONG DISTANCE TRAIL SHOE:
If you prefer a little more cushioning, as the Long Sky is on the firmer end of the spectrum, you might like a heavily cushioned long-distance trail shoe. The Altra Olympus is a premium cushioned model, built for longer runs. And unlike a lot of other ultra plush models that flatten out over longer runs, the Olympus’s cushioning stays plush the entire time – a great ultramarathon trail shoe.
BEST HEEL-TO-TOE DROP, LONG DISTANCE TRAIL SHOE:
New Balance Fresh Foam Hierro
While the Altra Olympus has plenty of cushioning, its drop is 0mm which is pretty aggressive. If you’d like a shoe that encourages landing more on your heels, for a less intense run, you’ll want a model with a higher drop.
The New Balance Fresh Foam Hierro is probably what you’re looking for. It still has a great amount of cushioning, but with a much more laid-back 8mm drop. This is a very popular trail shoe.
BEST ARCH & PRONATION SUPPORT, LONG DISTANCE TRAIL SHOE:
ASICS GT 2000 Trail
If you’re going to need a long-distance shoe that has stability tech to help guide your feet and correct your gait, you’ll want to check out the ASICS GT 2000 Trail.
It’s great for mild-to-severe pronation, has a 10mm drop, and a really plush cushioning to last the duration of a longer run. Seriously, if you’re running ultramarathons, and you need pronation support, you’ll want to check out the GT 2000 Trail.
And there you have it! Hopefully, this helps you decide which trail running shoes would be the best match for you.
Of course, this is by no means all there is to know about trail running and trail shoes.
We’ve got plenty more tips, tricks, and helpful advice coming your way. In the meantime if you’ve got any specific questions you’d like answered, please let us know in the comments!
And one last thing...
Interested in running your first off-road 5K or improving your time on the next one? Check out our Ultimate 8-Week Training Program for your First Off-Road 5K!