Choosing Trail Running Shoes

Trail running shoes are designed to handle a variety of surfaces, such as grass, hard-packed parkland, canal sides, forests and woodland trails. They still have plenty of cushioning for a certain amount of road running if necessary, but the outsole has a deeper grip, and the upper is more durable than a road shoe.

Some have more grip and less cushioning, with a lower profile, ideal for softer surfaces and short sections of extreme terrain, off the beaten tracks. For more extreme terrain, consider fell running shoes instead.

The huge growth in off-road and trail running has been reflected in all the major manufacturers, and also some smaller niche brands, now offering a whole range of shoes in this area. This is good for choice, but when it comes to looking for your next pair of shoes, it can be bewildering. So how do you go about choosing a pair of shoes for running off-road? Here are some ideas to help you.

  • First thing you have to understand is that there is no one shoe that is perfect for every surface, so you may have to make a compromise. You have to weigh up what is more important to you: cushioning or grip. The most cushioned trail shoes usually have moderate grip. The shoes with the best grip are usually lower profile with less cushioning.
  • Next, you need to ask yourself a couple of questions. First question is, can you justify buying an extra pair of shoes for the trails, or are you looking for one shoe that can cope by and large with a mixture of terrain.
  • Second key question to ask yourself in choosing a trail shoe is looking at what proportion of the terrain is going to be on firmer ground and how much on potentially muddy and slippery or more challenging terrain. Firmer trails can take the form of hard packed trails, like river or canal bank paths, local farm tracks or woodland and forest access roads. More challenging terrain can be muddy fields and hillsides, or coastal paths.

Multi-Terrain Shoes

If you can't justify buying that extra pair of shoes just now, but need a shoe that will cope with road, hard packed trail and a bit of mud, you are probably looking at a multi-terrain shoe, or as the Americans say, "a door-to-trail shoe". Multi-terrain shoes are in many ways similar to road running shoes. They have enough cushioning to cope with miles on the road and hard packed trails, but will also have a slightly more aggressive outsole, to offer grip on wet or muddy sections. The material on the upper is usually also a little stronger to give a little more durability.


Dedicated Trail Running Shoes

If the answer to question 2 is that most of your running will be on roads and hard packed trails, with just a little on soft trails, a multi-terrain shoe may still work best for you. The compromise would be with the grip. If however, you are planning to do more running on the trails, and some of your routes will certainly, regularly involve some mud, then investing in a pair of dedicated trail shoes is probably the way to go. This makes sense too if you are planning to try one of the growing number of off road trail events. These shoes have better grip, but less cushioning. However, if you are running most of your miles on softer ground, the cushioning is slightly less of an issue than when you are running on the roads.


So what are the best trail running shoes? As always, it is not just about the best looks or the best review. It is about the fit and feel on your feet, and the type of terrain you will be running most on. A good trail shoe will hold your foot well around the mid-foot to stop it moving from side to side on uneven slopes, and will have a nice roomy toe box to allow your toes to spread naturally, whether you are running 5k or 50k. If you live in striking distance of one of our stores, do come and try few pairs on. There are staff in all three stores with experience of running on the trails and hills, happy to help you with shoe choices. Or you can contact us with any questions.

If you are planning to do some serious off-road hill or fell running, or any muddy obstacle-course style races like Tough Mudder, Mighty Deerstalker or Tough Guy, you may need to consider fell running shoes.

For little feet that want to run on the trails too, have a look at our junior range of off-road shoes.


FAQ

Q. I have had my gait analysed and I overpronate. I wear a mild-moderate support shoe on the road, should I look for similar over pronation support in a trail shoe.

A. As stated above, if for example 75% of your running is on road or hard packed trails, then yes, some medial or arch support to control the over-pronation could be advisable. If you are for the most part on softer ground, then pronation support is not such an issue, as the soft ground helps to give more natural cushioning with every stride.

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  • RussApril 24, 2016 at 5:23pm
    I overpronate. If mainly walking hard packed trails do I need a trail running shoe with overpronation support. Reply
    • Adrian Tarit StottApril 27, 2016 at 11:21am

      Russ,

      Thanks for your post. If the trail is generally firm and even, then a road shoe with over pronation support can be quite adequate.

      We do stock some multi-terrain shoes, like the Brooks ASR and the Asics Trabucco, which have road shoe cushioning, together with some anti pronation support and a little more grip. They can be used on roads or hard packed trails.

      People who need the extra grip of a dedicated trail shoe are usually walking / running on paths tor trails that can be muddy in places, or on undulating wet grass  where some grip can be beneficial.

      In addition, generally, the softer the ground you are running / walking on, the less pronation support you need, as the soft ground is more forgiving than hard packed trails or tarmac.

      Hope this is useful, but do post again or call our stores (I am in Edinburgh) if you need any more info.

      Adrian

      Reply
  • Mark v grantOctober 28, 2016 at 10:15pm
    Hello I've started doing quite a few cross country runs over winter, mainly trails and muddy forests. my road running shoes have support for over pronation, I'm looking for some shoes for cross country/trails what would you suggest. I've read a lot that while trail running you don't need the extra support as the ground is softer is this correct or would you still recommend shoes with extra support?
    Reply
    • Adrian Tarit StottNovember 1, 2016 at 10:58am

      Mark,

      Thanks for your post. As always it is such an individual area. Generally on softer ground, support is not such a big issue as when pounding out miles on tarmac or pavements. Much depends on running history, injury history, and the level of training you are doing.

      If you have a few years of running behind you, with little injury, you will probably be fine with a neutral shoe on softer ground, as long as you build the mileage up gradually. If you really do need the pronation support to manage an ongoing issue, a trail shoe with support could be useful, or adding a slightly more supportive insole like Superfeet to a neutral shoe could help.

      As for specific shoe types, it depends on the distance covered and the terrain as the above article illustrates. There are not many useful shoes that offer pronation support with the grip often needed for trails in winter, or anytime for that matter. Quite often on soft ground, a snug fit around the middle of the foot to stabilise and stop the foot moving side to side is adequate.

      If you can get to one of our stores to try a few and let our trained staff watch your in them, and ensure a good fit, that is always beneficial. if you are ordering from us online, we are always happy to chat by phone to advise on specific shoes.

      Hope that is useful but feel free to ask back.

      Adrian

      Reply
  • Chloe MeekMay 29, 2017 at 12:04pm
    Hi, I'm in the market for two pairs of shoes. My current Nike zoom kerra kigers have been brilliant to me however after running about 3 times a week on, but mainly off-road and taking part in the occasional devil mud run I have got shin splints and need to accept the fact I really do need some new shoes! I would like a pair for parkrunning which is 100% road, and have looked a the gel innovate 7 Asics for this, but noticed before buying they are cushioned and wonder if this could negatively affect my pronation if I don't need it? I also am in the marked for an awesome pair of trail shoes. The riverbank and off-road is where most of my running takes places and I need a shoe that can hack trails that in the summer are rock dry and have good grip so I can try and avoid those rabbit holes, but muddy like no other in the winter, and potentially cover a bit of roads in between as my routes do include a bit of road generally (2miles max). I wondered if you could recommend a trail shoe, as I want something that might reduce the impact on my feet a bit?- I don't know if current impact is just because my shoes are so old though! I also wondered if you could recommend a well working pair of calf supports or whether they all do the same job? Also my feet and legs go numb after a long time on the roads in my current shoe don't know what this means but I thought id put it in as I seem to have written an essay! Thanks so much! Reply
    • Adrian Tarit StottMay 31, 2017 at 10:57am

      Hi Chloe,

      Thanks for your comment. Always a challenge to recommend shoes without seeing the feet! However, one school of thought is: if the Keiger have worked well, a new pair should also do the same. The new pair will have much more cushioning anyway as your current ones will have compacted over the miles. Although any new shoe will offer more protection for your shins, our advice is: if any runner has a niggle/injury that is not getting better, it is best to go and see a physio etc. to get things checked out.

      Other similar options could be: Saucony Peregrine, Brooks PureGrit, Inov-8 X Talon or with deeper lugs, Salomon Speedtrak.

      As for your separate road shoes, if it is just for your Park Runs and some other slower road training the Asics Gel Innovate or the Asics Gel Pulse should offer enough cushioning. As for pronation support, that is hard to assess without seeing your feet and watching you run in some shoes. The two Asics shoes are well cushioned but are both "neutral" shoes, offering little medial support to help control pronation.

      As you mentioned possible shin splint issues, which have several causes – old/incorrect footwear being one – a trip to one of our stores, where you can get a proper gait analysis, would be beneficial, to assess the right level of cushioning and support.

      Regarding calf supports, we sell a lot of both Skins and Compresssport ranges. Compresssport have some great colour options. They both work well, it is really about the fit. So, as with shoes, come to one of our stores to try.Reply

    • Adrian Tarit StottMay 31, 2017 at 11:20am
      Lastly, the numbness is usually related to circulation. If the issue comes on during a longer run, you may want to look at a slightly wider fitting option or a size larger? Again a store visit to try a few pairs on and compare would seem appropriate.

      Hope this is useful but do ask back if more questions,
      Adrian Reply
  • Moira PlowmanJanuary 27, 2018 at 12:18pm
    I have knock knees & overpronation . I run my dogs (in agility) on grass which can often be wet and sometimes quite muddy. I am completely confused on what type of shoe I need. Is it a road running shoe with support,a trail running shoe or a fell running shoe ? Heres hoping you can advise me.
    Reply
    • Adrian Tarit StottJanuary 29, 2018 at 5:53pm

      Hi Moira,

      Thanks for your comment. In store or over the phone, we could answer these more specifically. Hope the below points help though.

      It sounds like you need really good grip to keep you upright, while some medial and or heel support to try and control your over pronation. Don't worry it is a common question, and finding the perfect shoe often needs a small compromise.

      You don't say if your overpronation causes you issues when you run. Generally if you do not have any ongoing injury issues and you are running majoritarily on soft ground, the stability needed is not as important as when you are running for miles on tarmac. Many people, in your case, can get away with a good trail shoe as long as it is not too flexible and has a good ankle support and the mid foot support and fit are good.

      You don't mention how far you run, and while every guide has exceptions, the further you run, often the more cushioning one may need. This is relevant because the shoes with the best grip are often lower profile and don't always have the best cushioning, and the shoes with the best cushioning don't always have the best grip. A compromise is then needed between cushioning and grip.

      Shoes worth looking at are the Brooks Cascadia, (good ankle support, cushioned with grip) Saucony Peregrine, good grip and reasonable cushioning, and the Brooks ASR, (cushioned and very supportive but much less grip!

      As with road shoes, you then have the issue of what fits the best, as all are slightly different. As always, If you can get to one of our stores to try things on and chat too, it helps. Otherwise leave another comment here or call me in the Edin Reply

  • TyAugust 1, 2018 at 10:36pm
    I have a great pair of Inov8 225s for 10k trails. Any suggestions for trail half marathons? Reply
    • Adrian Tarit StottAugust 2, 2018 at 3:48pm

      Hi Ty,

      Thanks for your comment. You do not say exactly which Inov-8 model you have. If your Inov-8 225 work for 10k, they could also work for 21k /half marathon.
      It is a personal thing as always. Some runners are happy doing this. It depends whether from experience, you feel you need any extra cushioning for the extra distance.

      Models with more cushioning would be the inov-8 235 (trail talon) Inov-8 Roclite 290, or looking at other makes the Saucony Peregrine which has slightly more cushioning and good grip.

      Again, much can depend how firm or muddy the trail is likely to be, when deciding what to buy. Whenever possible, call into your local store and try on a few different pairs, as they all fit slightly differently. With trail half marathon and longer, it is really a case of getting a good blend between fit cushioning and grip.
      Hope that is useful, but do ask back any more questions.

      Reply
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