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Choosing A Trail Running Shoe That’s Right For You

Two top trail running experts offer their top tips.

Two top trail running experts offer their top tips. 

Trail running shoes, the dirty, rugged older brothers of traditional running shoes meant for the road, aren’t all that different from their svelte sibling. In the simplest of terms, both are intended to protect the feet; however, running in muddy, rocky and uneven terrain requires more protection, which is where trail running shoes separate themselves.

Most trail running shoes are designed to address two of a trail runners’ feet protection needs: a more substantial buffer between the foot and the ground, and outsoles (the bottom outermost part of the shoe), which are equipped with deeper lugs or tread patterns to grip the trail and avoid slipping.

David Harkin, owner of the Portland Running Company, and pro ultrarunner Geoff Roes offer tips and advice for your quest to find the perfect trail shoes for your needs.

Will you be running on rugged terrain or groomed trails?

Most recreational trail runners who frequent dirt trails or the occasional rocky path can stick to shoes that are comparable to their road shoes, explains Harkin.

“Unless you are running in very rugged terrain, choosing a trail running shoe that is similar to your road running shoe is best,” Harkin said. Many road running shoe companies make trail shoes that complement a road shoe and are a good choice for road runners looking to occasionally take to the trails because they are protective and durable enough for the trails, yet still comfortable on the road.

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“These hybrid shoes are the most successful in store because they are used for more than one application,” Harkin explained. “People might have a mile or two [on the road] to get to the trails. So it is best to buy one shoe that is also a good running shoe so you can run in the city to get to the trail.”

Runners looking to tackle trickier terrain should look for more traction, stability and protection in the outsole, which are characteristic of the shoes many outdoor companies are designing. “Most of the outdoor companies now make trail running shoes, which can be confusing [because of all the options,]” Harkin said. But these options allow runners who will be running on rougher terrain to choose a shoe that complements that environment.

Is it essential to wear trail shoes on the trail?

Wearing trail-specific shoes out in the dirt can make kicking a rock less painful and slick rocks less slippery, but perhaps more essential is overall comfort, explained Roes, one of the most successful ultrarunners in history. “If you have a shoe you love and trust just wear it. I wear trail shoes because I found a pair three years ago and now I wear the same shoes for every run. I found something I really like and I stick with it. I do wear trail-specific shoes but I don’t think they are at all necessary.”

And Harkin agrees. “You have to wear what feels the most comfortable,” he said. Running in Oregon where Harkin lives, the terrain is fairly flat and not too technical, so he is most comfortable in a road shoe. However, when it rains and the ground is wet and muddy he wears trail shoes because they offer a waterproof upper that keeps his feet dry and comfortable.

The comfort of a waterproof trail shoe comes with a price, however. “If you want more traction, stability or more protection you’re also going to get a stiffer and heavier [shoe]. It’s the trade off,” Harkin explained. “It’s the give and take of a road shoe versus a heavier, clunkier trail shoe.”

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What kind of foot type do you have?

If you aren’t familiar with your foot type—neutral, supportive, or control—Harkin advises you to get a gait analysis at a specialty running store, and use the same approach to finding trail shoes as road shoes. “It’s really important to identify your running characteristics and apply that to a trail running shoe,” Harkin said. “If you have tremendous support needs you still need that on the trails.”

The trend for trail runners right now is to wear a more minimally constructed shoe, but Harkins cautions new trail runners against this. “If you have tremendous support needs [on the road] you still need that on the trails,” he explained. “Don’t traipse off in really light trail shoes and think you’re going to be fine.”

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How far will you be running?

If trail running translates to ultrarunning then you will likely be spending a lot of time in trail running shoes. After a few hours your feet will swell slightly and a half size or a full size of extra room in the shoe is necessary. “My body has made adaptations and my feet don’t swell unless I run for three days straight, but I still wear a full size bigger to accommodate the swelling, and warmer socks,” Roes said. “Now, after 100 miles my feet look exactly the same after, but I couldn’t say the same thing a few years ago.”