Trail shoes: a buyer's guide

Which running shoes should I buy?’

I get asked this question regularly so thought I would put fingertip to keyboard to share my advice for choosing the best trail running shoe for you.

Shoes are a very personal choice. A shoe loved by one person may be loathed by others. It can be difficult to know where to begin. Here are some guidelines and ways to make trail running shoe buying easier.

1. Ask yourself: What will you use the shoe for?

Running on rocks, paths, railway line, snow, mud, a mix, mountain paths, scree slopes, fells, fields etc? Before buying shoes, ask yourself one question: “What will I actually use these for?” If you dream of running a 100-miler one day, but realistically will use the shoes for 5-mile training loops around your local park, buy shoes for the latter usage first.

2. Try on several pairs

This is the most important thing you can do when buying running shoes. Everyone’s feet are different. The only way to know if they really fit is to get them on. If you can’t try on many shoes, at least read as many reviews as possible from various sources.

With this in mind, if you do find a shoe you love and have used for significant miles, consider buying a couple of pairs up front. Brands are under constant pressure to evolve, therefore, the shoe you fell in love with this season may not be around the next. Buying online? Double-check the return policy and consider ordering the two pairs closest to your size with the plan to return one.

3. Consider how much cushioning or the ‘stack height’ of the shoe you really need

The ‘stack height’, or amount of material under your feet, is one of the fundamental differences between shoes. Some people think less material is good, resulting in a more natural feel that leads to good biomechanics (minimal shoes). Others believe thicker, more protective shoes lead to fewer injuries and more comfortable running. Even after tons of research, there’s no conclusive answer to which style is better, so do some homework and decide how much cushioning you’d like. It will help narrow your field dramatically. If you do decide to run in minimal shoes, be sure to start gradually, with short runs, then build up very slowly to help avoid injury.

4. Don't bother with waterproof shoes (and socks)

For most trail running, you don’t want a waterproof shoe. Waterproofing can be great for hiking, but for running, your feet will sweat too much for a waterproof membrane to keep up. Obvious exceptions include really muddy or snowy trails at ultra-distance. Generally, though, stick with highly breathable shoes.

5. Lug length

Compared to road running shoes, trail runners will want grippy soles to navigate the slick, uneven, rocky and muddy terrain. Look carefully at the trails you plan to run. If they’re mostly covered with stones and hard dirt, a short lug pattern will be great. Those who run on lots of muddy or soft surfaces should look to a deeper lug pattern to gain purchase.

6. Use an online Running Shoe finder

Invo8 (a British trail running shoe manufacturer) from the Lake District have an excellent online finder tool which considers width, terrain, weight etc. Other brands are available.

7. Use this handy checklist before you part with your cash

When considering what to buy use the following checklist of features to narrow down and inform your decision:

Fit: A thumb’s width of empty space at the toe, with snug heel and mid-foot. Some space around the forefoot can be good. Wear shoes for as long as possible before buying. Any small annoyance felt in the shop will be magnified dramatically miles down the trail.

Drop: How many millimetres of drop from heel to toe? Depending on running form and preference, you may want anywhere from a flat zero-drop to 12 mm or more. Investigate this before shopping

Tongue: Does it fit comfortably? Will it keep rocks out of your shoe?

Outsole: Choose big lugs for soft soil and mud, and small lugs for hard soil and rock

Weight: The lighter the better.

Price: More expensive doesn’t mean better. Judge the shoe by its attributes, not its price.

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