Trail running is a rapidly growing sport. In fact, the State of Trail Running 2022 report details that it has grown 231% in the last decade. Trail runners now account for approximately 20% of all runners. More trail runners mean a greater demand for trail running shoes. With more to choose from than ever before, it can be an utter mind-blowing choice. What should you choose and why? How do you begin? Which are the best trail running shoes for your feet? in the following article, we aren’t going to blow your mind with model after model. Instead, we will tell you what you should be looking for, how to choose trail running shoes and suggest some of the most popular choices:
In this article, we look at the following:
- The features of a typical trail running shoe
- The top brands of trail shoes
- How to select the correct size
- Where to buy them from
- What sort of shoe you should buy – waterproof, wide fit, mud shoes etc
- Which are the ‘best’?
- How much should you spend?
- Why colour is not important
What qualifies us to advise on trail running shoes?
From losing toenails to suffering with blisters and sore feet, we have learned the hard way what works and what doesn’t so, can pass on the benefit of our experience plus that of our many running peers. Having run thousands of miles off-road across many different types of terrain in many areas of the country and others, we have had our share of good and not-so-great trail shoes.
Features of a Trail Shoe
Before we start with our top tips on how to choose trail running shoes, let’s look at the jargon relating to the features of a trail shoe and what it all means:
- Lugs – these are positioned on the soles of the feet and are what provide grip. They are important when considering the type of terrain you will be running on.
- Drop – this is the distance between the heel of the shoe and the ground. Some will have a 10mm drop for example while other trail running shoes have zero drop
- Rand – this is the thin layer of rubber that wraps over the toe of the shoe
- Heel counter – the reinforcement around the heel to support it. Placed on either the outside or inside of the shoe. Also known as a heel cup
- Outsole – the part of the shoe that touches the ground
- Midsole – the middle part of the sole between the outsole and the upper mesh. This provides cushioning and padding
- Upper – as the name suggests, this refers to the upper part of the shoe and is usually mesh. There are all kinds of mesh, some of which is waterproof or anti-debris
- Toe box – the part of the shoe where your toes sit
- Cushioning – you will find all different types of cushioning and support. The cushioning is found in the midsole and absorbs the shock. Different levels of cushioning suit different types of terrain and distances.
Now that we have explained the language of trail running shoes, let’s take a look at some more top advice on how to choose trail running shoes
Which Brand of Trail Shoe Should I Buy?
Different brands suit different people. For a long time, I was convinced that I should wear the off-road version of my road shoes as they would be the best fit. This didn’t transpire and I ended up wasting money on the wrong shoes that were a completely different fit.
Take brand out of the equation. You will find lots of useful help and information about different trail running shoes online, in articles that advise on the best shoes for cushioning, zero drop etc. You are looking for the right fit for the right terrain – not the most popular brand.
Some people prefer a brand like Salomon and use these as their go-to shoes. Others favour the Hoka Speedgoat, while some prefer brands such as Inov8. I personally love the Hoka Speedgoat because that’s what suits me. It did take me a while to discover the perfect shoe for the terrain and distance that I prefer. I love long running – 30-50 miles and the Speedgoat serves me well. That said, I love the Hoka Tekton for shorter stuff and the Mudclaw for muddy situations.
Once you find a brand that works for you, you usually end up sticking with it. Different ultra athletes are sponsored by different brands therefore you will only ever see them wearing these brands. They may get the shoes as part of their deal but they wouldn’t wear them if they were uncomfortable. The trick is to do your research and find a shoe that is suitable for your feet whether that be a shoe for wide feet, narrow feet or something with a wide toe box. Try not to spend too much on your first pair and look for last season’s models which are usually cheaper.
What Size Should I Buy?
If you go up half a size in your road shoes then go up half a size in your trail shoes. Some people prefer to go up a whole size. As a 6.5 in day to day shoes, I have found that a 7.5 is a good fit. If you are completely new to running you may not have heard this particular piece of advice before but speak to most runners and they will tell you the same.
Sizing is important. You need to ensure that your feet have enough space but not too much that your toe slides forward and bashes against the front of the shoe. Another factor is the width of the shoe. Some runners have wide feet and need something with more room. The Salomon Speedcross is a shoe that is rumoured to be a narrow fit however they do a wider foot version. I like the Hoka Speedgoat wide which gives me more room in the toebox. You will find a whole guide to best trail shoes for wide feet here. Finding a shoe that is comfortable is particularly important on the trails, especially with uneven terrain and long distances.
Where Should I Buy Trail Running Shoes?
Before the pandemic, it was pretty much the norm to go to a local shop that specialises in running shoes to have a proper fitting. This involved getting on a treadmill and having your gait filmed while running. The footage would then be analysed to see how you run, how your feet land, whether you overpronate etc. You would then be recommended a bunch of shoes to try on to see which felt best on the treadmill. Of course, Covid-19 put paid to that and we had to switch to buying shoes online. That said, running on a treadmill is not going to help you try shoes that can handle tough terrains or rocky climbs so many prefer the ease of ordering online with the knowledge that they can send them back if required.
When it comes to buying trail running shoes online, while some prefer shopping directly from brand websites such as inov-8 or Hoka, others prefer to go to an online discount shoe store such as Sportsshoes.com. Here you will find the latest models from a whole range of brands as well as last season’s models. The returns policies make it easy for you to return a shoe if it is the wrong size and you can read comprehensive reviews from others that have purchased the same. The beauty of a website like this is that you can pick up last season’s models at a fraction of the cost of the latest models meaning you don’t have to spend a fortune.
What Sort of Trail Shoes Should I Buy?
This is your next consideration. There are so many different types of trail running shoes. Take inov-8 for example. You have the Roclite, the Mudclaw, the Parkclaw, the Terraultra – what does it all mean? Well, essentially each pair is designed for a different terrain. Some are suited for all terrains. We find the Roclite is good on the tarmac and on the trails but not so good in the mud. The Mudclaw however are great in the mud but not very forgiving on the road. The Salmon Speedcross offers great grip and transfer well from road to trail over long distances. In fact, you can check out our review of this shoe here. The Hoka Challenger and Hoka Speedgoat are both great shoes but serve entirely different purposes.
When deciding which to buy consider the following:
- What time of year is it? If it is summer, you can get away with something that hasn’t got as much grip. In winter, you need to consider wet, slippery conditions and mud
- What type of terrain will you be covering? Rocky, muddy, grassy, a combination…
- What distances will you be covering? You will want to choose different shoes for long distances than you would for shorter runs
Ideally, you want to try and get a pair that suits multi-terrain and distance however, you may find that you need a pair for short distances and a pair for longer runs that can cope with different types of runs. The time of year often plays a part with mud shoes for the rainy season and a less aggressive pair for the summer. I have collected a few pairs for different circumstances and in the summer months I often find I can get away with an old pair of road shoes.
Which Trail Shoes are Best?
This is the hardest part of choosing off-road shoes. It is a balance of recommendations, reviews, reading the profile of the shoe, and weighing up which tick the most boxes on your wish list.
Listen to Friends/Running Buddies
I have lost count of the times I have admired a pair of trail running shoes on another athlete only to find that they are too narrow, too tight or just uncomfortable. I would love to be able to run in every pair of trail shoes but unfortunately, I have to accept that they aren’t suitable for me. They might rave about them and tell you that they are super comfy but that doesn’t mean that this will be the same for you. Ask them questions about the fit, what sort of terrain they cover, what sort of distances they run etc.
Read the Online Descriptions and Reviews
To get a feel for a pair of shoes before you buy them, in the absence of running shoe shops, you have to read the reviews. You can find lots of reviews and in-depth descriptions on sites like Sportsshoes.com and get a good idea of whether the shoes are narrow, suitable for mud, good for all surfaces, comfortable for ultra marathons, and much more.
Use this information to get a feel for those that are billed as cushioned, those that have deep lugs for running in mud, those that specify they have good grip etc. Nowadays, so many people turn to online first that there has to be enough detail to allow people to make an informed decision.
How Much Should You Spend on Off Road Shoes?
You can spend anywhere between a few pounds and £150-£200 on a pair of trail running shoes. of course, those who are new to running may not want to spend too much, especially to discover that they don’t really like off-road running. You may be hesitant to spend money on something that you haven’t tried on before.
If you don’t have a lot to spend you can have a look at brands such as Scott, Merrell, and Higher State, all of which you will find on Sportshoes.com. You can pick up a pair for as little as £29.99. When you feel more comfortable running the trails and you feel it’s something you want to pursue, then you can look at investing more in a pair of shoes. Alternatively, you can try one of the leading brands and see how you get on but be sure to do your research first.
Don’t Worry About the Colour
We love the many funky colours and styles that are available and have fallen into the trap of choosing shoes based on colour in the past. This is fine for road shoes but do not let this form part of your decision with off-road shoes. They are not going to stay this colour for long. Even my bright red Mudclaw managed to stay red for about half a mile. Now they are in a sorry state of brown and that’s OK. Trail shoes are supposed to be dirty – in fact, are you even a trail runner if you don’t have dirty trail shoes? Don’t let colour be part of your process of how to choose trail running shoes.
We are always happy to offer our advice should you have any questions. Just drop a comment below.
Disclaimer: Many of our posts may contain affiliate links. We may earn commissions if you shop through the links on this page although we only ever recommend products that we genuinely believe will enhance your trail running experience.