Finding the best trail running shoes for the terrain and distance you'll be running will help you to run faster and with more confidence. Our comprehensive guide covers what to look for in a trail running shoe and how to find the right ones for your off-road running.
Why do you need trail running shoes?
Trail running shoes are designed to give you confidence on rough terrain. Hidden rock plates in the sole and reinforcement around the toes protect your feet from sharp rocks and roots so you'll worry less and probably find you can run faster than if you were wearing your usual running shoes.
The treads on your road shoes are perfect on tarmac but easily pick up mud and rocks. The larger, more spaced-out lugs and tread patterns on trail shoes give you grip and shrug off loose dirt and the outsole will be made from a rubber compound designed for grip on slippery rocks.
The anatomy of a trail running shoe
At first glance, trail running shoes look similar to road running shoes, albeit with more rugged features. Each component is optimised to cope with particular terrain so it's useful to familiarise yourself with the terminology when you're trying to find the right pair for you.
Here's a breakdown of all the components of a trail running shoe and what to look for.
- Heel support - This keeps the foot stable as you negotiate uneven terrain.
- Gusseted tongue - The tongue on a trail running shoe is often stitched at the sides, preventing annoying stones from getting in.
- Toe box - If you're running longer distances, you might need a higher volume toe box so your toes have room to spread on impact. However, a lower volume toe box can offer more stability.
- Toe Rand - Think of this as a bumper to protect your toes from knocks. It's normally a tough, rubbery coating around the front of the shoe.
- Rock Plate - Normally made from nylon or carbon-fibre, a rock plate will protect your foot from sharp stones and roots. The extra protection has extra weight so shoes built for softer terrain might not have one.
- Outsole - This is the outermost part of the sole and is constructed from a rubber compound that has an optimum grip on slippery rocks and loose grit.
- Foot cradle - A structure wrapping around the side of the foot to give additional support
- Lugs - The knobbly bits that make up the tread and provide grip on loose surfaces. Shorter lugs are better on hard-packed terrain whilst longer ones offer grip on slippery mud.
- Midsole - The bit that sits between the upper and the outer-sole where you'll find the cushioning.
How much cushioning do I need for trail running?
If you'll mainly be running on hard-packed or rocky terrain, or running long distances, the repeated impact from your foot striking the ground can put a lot of strain on muscles and joints. Plush cushioning will make a big difference to your comfort and help to prevent injury by absorbing the shocks.
If you'll mainly be running on soft, muddy terrain, you won't need as much cushioning as the impact from your foot hitting the ground won't be as harsh. A firmer sole will help you to feel more stable as you push off.
How much grip do I need for trail running?
You'll need to think about the climate as well as the terrain where you'll be doing most of your running. Most trail shoes will have an outer sole that falls into one of two categories, with the exception of 'all-terrain' shoes which are designed to deliver the best of both worlds.
A shallow tread pattern with small grooves is perfect for gripping smooth surfaces like rocks. Look for a sole with a micro grip pattern if you're running on rocky, hard-packed terrain.
Large lugs dig into muddy terrain and generous gaps in the tread pattern shed dirt as you run. Look for a sole with a macro grip pattern for confidence-inspiring stability in wet climates where slippery mud is expected.
Also known simply as 'drop,' heel-to-toe drop refers to the difference between the cushioning in the heel and the toe. The drop on trail running shoes varies from almost nothing at all right up to 10-12mm.
To find the right heel-to-toe drop for you, you'll need to consider the type of running you'll be doing and your own running style.
Some runners prefer a lower drop of 0-7mm because this facilitates a midfoot strike which is lower-impact than a heel-strike as your foot hits the ground. However, since your day-to-day shoes are likely to have a more pronounced drop than this, diving in at the lower end might actually cause injury as your Achilles will have to work in a way that it's not used to.
If you're a beginner or intermediate trail runner, or if you've had issues with your Achilles or plantar fasciitis, look for something with a higher drop of 8-12mm.
A note on waterproofing
There's plenty of trail running shoes available with added waterproofing treatments to keep your feet dry and comfortable in downpours.
However, if you are planning to run somewhere where you'll encounter fords and streams, water that enters your shoes as you splash along can end up trapped, increasing the chance of blisters. Because of this, some trail runners prefer to wear shoes that are constructed from quick-drying materials if they're going to be running through water.
What are the best trail running shoes for you?
Here's our pick of the best shoes available right now.