How To Choose The Best Trail Running Shoes For You - Outdoors Magic

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How To Choose The Best Trail Running Shoes For You

Our expert trail running shoe tester Kieran breaks down the key aspects to assess when choosing a pair of shoes for off-road running

Getting off the tarmac and onto the trails brings a range of benefits like improving your cardio engine and boosting your mental health. At the very least it’ll take you to beautiful places that are hard to reach by other means. For many off-road adventures, you don’t need loads of specialist kit or loads of experience either. But it does pay to consider your footwear carefully. Lacing up the right trail running shoes ensures comfort, safety and the confidence to explore further.

OM tester Callum trying out shoes by La Sportiva. Photo: Chris Johnson

If you’re eyeing up your local trails but don’t know your leg depths from your drops, here’s our whistlestop guide to choosing the right trail shoe for your offbeat exploration.

And if you manage whizz through this – check out our round up of the best trail running shoes on the market right now.

Know Your Enemy

Trail running is a big umbrella term we use to cover almost everything we encounter when we head off road. It includes a huge range of different terrain. From the groomed, compacted mud and gravel paths you might find in a forest, park or alongside a river, to mud-slick fields, coastal paths, rocky mountain descents, moorland fells, and even shingle and sand. Knowing what you’ll encounter will influence your trail shoe choice. Make sure you’ve researched what lies underfoot ahead and think about how conditions might change with varied weather. Will that descent turn into a mud slide in the rain? Will sloppy paths become rutted in the baking sun? This will dictate what kind of tread and cushioning you might choose. 


Get A Grip

Testing Saucony’s Peregrine 11 shoe on our Outdoor 100 2021/22 gear test. Photo: Chris Johnson

While road running shoes put a lot of emphasis on the midsole, when it comes to trail shoes, the outsole is arguably more important. This rubber studded layer provides the reliable grip, durability and longevity you need. As a rule, the deeper the lugs, the more aggressive the grip. Big lugs (5mm-7mm) are better for battling deep mud (see above picture), shallower lugs (2mm-4mm) cope better on firmer ground. But brands also place these studs in patterns designed to deliver more or less grip, for example on slippier, stoney terrain. The lug patterns can also create channels to help water to flow away. Great if you know you’re running in wet conditions. Many trail races take in mixed terrain with lots of firmer ground where shorter lugs might be more appropriate as the traction from longer lugs can slow you down. 

Know Your Plates

While carbon plates recently transformed road running, having a slither of carbon or nylon embedded between your midsole and outsole isn’t new for trail shoes. If your routes take in trails with lots of debris, these rock plates help protect feet from the worst sharp stones and lumpy bits the trails throw in your way. That said, some trail shoes from brands like The North Face and Adidas now also come with performance-focused carbon plates too. These plates work with the midsole foam and are designed to guide and propel each step, delivering extra response and efficiency.

Waterproof Trail Shoes Versus Non-Waterproof

On Running Cloud Ultra shoes from our Outdoor 100 2021/22 gear test. Photo: Chris Johnson

Unless you live in the driest of climates, rain, puddles and trails go hand in hand. And that can mean wet feet. But soggy socks on soaked skin create the perfect conditions for blisters. That’s particularly bad if you’re running ultras.

Related: Best Trail Running Caps
Related: Best Trail Running Caps

These days many trail shoes offer weather-proof coated uppers, to provide an extra barrier against drench foot. Great. But it’s important to make sure that doesn’t come at the cost of breathability. You still want sweat and moisture to escape. Plus if you know you’ll be running through water above ankle deep, a non-Gore option might be better for letting water leak out faster once you’re done plodding through the puddles.  


Stack Height

Trail shoe midsoles range from the super-minimal, barefoot style options that keep you close to the ground and rely on your foot’s own natural shock absorption system, right up to high-stacked shoes that put a chunk of midsole foam underfoot to soften the lumps and bumps. But even the max-cushioned shoes that come with slightly softer, more responsive foams run firmer than their road-going counterparts.  Smaller stack heights give you more feel for the terrain underfoot, bigger chunks of foam help to absorb impact. Finding your ideal ratio of cushioning to ground contact is important. If you’re running less technical, flatter trails, you might get away with shoes with squishier, more responsive foams that also help on longer runs. But remember stability trumps everything, particularly on the harsher trails.  

Understanding Sole Unit Drop Or The Off-Set

La Sportiva Karacal shoe from out Outdoor 100 2021/22 gear test. Photo: Chris Johnson

The drop or off-set is the difference between the height of the midsole/outsole at the heel and under the toe. Different drops can alter how your body interacts with the ground, changing the way you load and unload in each step. Trail shoes tend to have lower drops that help maintain a good ground contact feel but there’s no perfect drop for everyone; each runner is different. Avoid making drastic changes, for example shifting from a 10mm drop to zero drop overnight and if you’re running injury free at a higher drop, stick to what you’re used to.


Size Things Up

Brooks Catamount shoe from our Outdoor 100 21/22 gear test. Photo: Chris Johnson

Getting a good lockdown fit is even more important on the trails. Heel hold and security from a well-laced midfoot upper is crucial. You don’t want your feet sliding forwards on descents. You do, however, want a little extra wiggle room in the toe box and a little space in front of the toes, to help avoid your toe nails bashing up against the tops and the end of the shoes, causing that black toe nail damage. This is particularly important on mountain or coastal routes with lots of long steep mountain descents. When you’re sizing for trail shoes, it also helps to consider that you might run those trails in slightly thicker socks. Check out our trail running sock guide for more info on what might work best for you. 


Main Photo: Chris Johnson


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