Trail running shoes seem to be everywhere these days, they're coming at you from two

different directions. First traditional outdoor footwear brands like

Scarpa and Brasher have spotted and opening in the market and moved

into the lightweight shoe side of things.

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Then on the other side, running brands like Salomon and Adidas have

come into things from the opposite direction using their running

expertise

to produce shoes designed specifically for running on trails.

Finally, Inov8 - a small UK brand - specialises in trail-running shoes

and has its own unique take on design and construction based on

allowing the foot to work as naturally as possible.

We're not talking about full-on, minimalist fell shoes here, more the

sort of

footwear designed to be used for running on off-road footpaths and

bridleways, anything from hardpack fireroad through to rocky tracks

Pretty much the paths you'd normally walk in fact.

It's not just runners who should be looking at trail running shoes,

they also make decent ultra-lightweight walking footwear that saves

energy and adds agility over long days in the hills. Or short ones for

that matter.

The Basics

Trail-running shoes are a compromise between cushioned but

over-tall road shoes, that tend to be unstable off road, and ultra-low,

but minimally-padded fell shoes, which have very little cushioning, but

keep your foot close to the ground for maximum stability.

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The ideal trail-runner has enough mid-sole cushioning for comfort, but

is still low enough for stability on uneven ground - think not platform

soles - has good grip on both rock and softer ground, good longitudinal

flexibility combined with lateral stiffness and a close-fitting upper

with some protection from abrasion on strategic areas like the rand and

toe.

Finally you may also want a waterproof / breathable membrane to keep

winter puddles at bay, though for summer use, a mesh upper may be

better.

Sole Unit

What you're after in outsole terms, is enough tread to

grip well

on soft ground - look for pronounced cleats with decent depth and space

between them to help shed mud - combined with rubber that's soft enough

to grip on rock and harder surfaces. A quick dig of the thumb nail will

give you some idea. Shallow tread will be fine on hardpack, but not so

clever on soft, steep slopes.

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The mid-sole unit is generally made from EVA foam and provides

cushioning as well as contributing to stability. Be wary of thick

mid-soles, they make it harder to balance on rough terrain, you want

your feet close to the ground. Look for sole units that have different

densities of EVA at different points in the shoe to keep your foot

strike even - often manufacturers will use a different coloured foam to

emphasise this. [Eg: Hi Tec, Carn]

Finally, some brands use cunning technology that you may not be able to

see to improve cushioning and / or stability. Some work well, some seem

more gimmicky. [Adidas?]

Chassis

The bit of the sole unit you usually can't see, is some

sort of

internal stiffening plate. Sometimes it's actually been styled so the

edges of the plate stick out for the sole unit, but its main point is

to allow end to end flexibility but give lateral stiffness to the shoe.

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This helps with stability on rough ground in particular and, in some

cases, like Inov8's range, can actually help to improve energy transfer

on foot strike and toe off.

Uppers

Virtually all trail shoes use a fabric, often mesh, upper.

With

road shoes, abrasion isn't a factor, but off road, there are plenty of

rocks and rubble zones to run through, so ideally you want some sort of

added protection at the toe of the shoe and ideally right the way round

in rand form to preserve the uppers. At the other end, look for a

stiffened heel cup which is essential for stability as it helps hold

your heel in place.

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You may also find external plastic moulding designed to work with the

lacing system to hold your foot firmly in place. A combination of

these, a good, slick lacing system and a close, but not tight, fit will

stop your feet swimming about on rough terrain which in turn improve

stability and balance.

Buying

As always, we'd suggest using a well-stocked specialist

shop

where you can try lots of different brands and get expert advice from

experienced staff. Shop in the afternoon when your feet will have

swollen by up to half a size and try different brands as they all have

subtly different fits. You're looking for one that suits your foot

shape best.

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We'd go for a snug but not tight fit. Make sure your toes don't slide

into the front of the shoe on steep downhill gradients or you'll be

blistered and risking your toe nails. Your foot and heel in particuarl,

shouldn't lift at all on climbs.

A couple of very basic tests are to try and pinch the heel section of

the upper to make sure it has a stiff, stability enhancing cuff. Then

bend the sole unit longitudinally and check that the sole bends easily

and flexes at the same point as your foot.

Finally hold the front and heel section of the sole and twist your

hands in different directions. The sole unit should resist twisting, if

it twists easily, look elsewhere.

Trail Running Shoes For

Walking

The same guidelines hold good if you're buying a

trail-running

shoe for walking, but bear in mind that walking seems to trash running

shoes fast, so you may be better off with heavier-built models rather

than ultra-lightweight versions. Even then, don't expect them to last

as long as traditional walking boots. They simply won't.

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A good compromise, if you're wary of shoes on the hill, is a

lightweight mid based on a trail running shoe. These are

psychologically reassuring and give some ankle protection as well as

being less prone to stone ingress. The higher cuff won't actually add

much stability, that's mostly down to the construction of the sole unit

and the heel cuff.

Finally some so-called 'trail running shoes', particularly from

traditional outdoor brands, are really walking shoes in disguise.

Brasher, for example. And Scarpa which has both a 'proper' running shoe

in its range and what it calls a 'runnable' shoe, which is really

better suited to lightweight walking.

Waterproof Or Not

Many trail running shoes give you the option of a

waterproof

liner. These work well in damp UK winter conditons, but may be overly

hot in summer weather and slow drying when they do get wet.

Alternatively, the Berghaus

Phobic range and Hi-Tec shoes which use their excellent Ion Mask

water-repellent

treatment will shrug off water but still remain breathable and dry fast

into the bargain.

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Fell Shoes

Think of fell-running as off piste trail-running and you

won't

go far wrong. Fell shoes need to be able to cope with breakneck

descents on open fells away from the paths, where stability and grip

count for more than comfort and cushioning.

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Because of this, traditional fell shoes have minimal sole cushioning,

so your foot is as close to the ground as possible for optimum balance,

a glove-like fit to avoid foot slippage inside the shoe and fierce,

aggressive outsole cleats with softish rubber for maximum grip on

grassy and rocky terrain.

All those features make them fantastic for their purpose, but a tad

minimalist for all-round trail running and walking use.