How to Choose the Best Trail Running Shoes

How to Choose the Best Trail Running Shoes

You might be tempted to use road running shoes for trail running. Don’t. You’ll ruin them fast (road running shoes are not as durable as trail runners), and they don’t offer the protection or traction you need for trails. At best that means you’ll enjoy trail running less, and at worst it could lead to injury. 

Trail running shoes come in a range of options, from minimalist to highly cushioned to super protective. Some models achieve a combination of benefits. All types have their merits. To find the right trail running shoe for you, the first thing to ask yourself is this: What type of trail running will you be doing most often?

Smooth Flats to Rolling Dirt, Woodchips, or Grass

This is the most forgiving surface, so despite the advice above, you can get away with road running shoes if you must. But having the traction of a trail shoe will give you better grip on loose surfaces. Look for shoes that mirror road running shoes in being highly flexible to allow a smooth running stride; lightweight to not add unnecessary effort to your stride; and the amount of cushioning you prefer. Choose low-profile traction, like slight protrusions of rubber (say, 3-4mm lugs) instead of larger (like, 5-7mm lugs). For this type of running, there’s no need to purchase shoes with sticky rubber outsoles.

Road to Trail

If you run a mix of roads and trails—like running out your door and through neighborhoods en route to trails—you’ll want a shoe that can handle both surfaces. For comfort on pavement and hard-packed trails, you’ll likely want shoes that are more cushioned. That generally means the shoes will have a thicker rather than thinner midsole.

You’ll also want a shoe that’s flexible enough to allow a smooth stride on roads instead of feeling stiff, which you’ll get from the most protective trail shoes. Once you reach the trails, you’ll need traction underfoot. But since you ran roads to get there, it’s best to search for shoes with smaller lugs (again, in the 3-4mm range) that are in a flat, smooth pattern as opposed to large, toothy protrusions. 

Rocky, Rooty, Hilly Terrain  

Running on more rugged terrain, where small to large rocks or roots riddle the trail and/or you’re doing a substantial amount of uphill and down, you’ll benefit from a more technical trail running shoe. Look for aggressive outsoles with pronounced lugs meant to grip loose or rocky, rooty terrain. Sticky rubber can make a big difference in feeling surefooted on rocky trails. Rock plates, or thin plates made out of hard plastic (TPU), are often sandwiched between the layers of midsole cushioning in order to protect from rocky jabs. Rock plates can run either the full length of the shoe to provide maximum protection, or half to three-quarters length of the shoe. The latter provide more flexibility than the full-length versions. Highly cushioned shoes can also provide protection from underfoot jabs.

If you’re running particularly hilly terrain, shoes that are more flexible allow your foot to bend at the toes with your uphill strides. Some runners, however, may prefer stiff-soled shoes for protection and stability. The most protective shoes will feel a bit slow and clunky compared to lighter and more nimble models.  

A key feature to watch for if you run technical terrain: a protective upper. The upper is the portion of shoe that surrounds your foot. Trail running shoes differ from road running shoes in that the uppers are reinforced with materials and stitching to increase durability and protect feet. Most trail shoes have a rubber toe bumper as well. The reinforced uppers also add stability, which is critical on uneven surfaces.

Other Factors

Terrain is the first priority to consider, but it’s not the only one. No two people—or two sets of feet—are alike, so you’ll also want to consider these factors.

Feel: Some runners prefer a lot of cushioning underfoot, while others prefer a more minimalistic ride. The more cushion, the less of the actual trail a runner feels through the shoe. For some, ample cushioning feels better on ankle and hip joints (even spinal columns) than more minimal shoes. Less cushioning allows more of a “ground feel.” These types of shoes can feel more agile than highly cushioned models.   

Drop: Like road running shoes, trail running shoes come in a range of “drop,” or, “offset.” Both terms refer to the difference in height between the heel and the forefoot. Shoes range from having a 12mm drop—the difference between the heel and the forefoot—to having a 0mm drop. The latter is said to mimic a natural stride (since our feet have zero drop), but the drop in shoes is a personal preference. Many options fall between the 4mm to 8mm midrange.

Waterproofing: If you know you’ll often be running in cold and wet conditions, waterproof/breathable shoes are a good choice. But they’re less breathable and slower to dry (and usually more expensive) than non-waterproof shoes.   

Fit: Nothing else matters if you don’t get a good fit. Do you like a wide toe box or a more snug feel? Try on multiple brands and models, use the socks you normally run in, and allow plenty of time to run around the store (or your house). You want shoes to feel comfortable immediately, with no pinching or rubbing. And you want them to inspire you to get out and enjoy the trails.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.