Trail Running Shoes: How to Choose the Best Pair for Your Run
Whether you're new to the world of trail running or are an experienced trail runner with plenty of miles under your belt, finding the right shoes can make a huge difference to your experience. More than that, the best trail running shoes offer comfort and support with every stride, which can ultimately prevent injuries.
Trail running shoes aren't the same as hiking shoes, and the shoes you wear on traditional road runs also aren't going to cut it on rugged terrains or uneven paths. Below we're explaining which factors to consider when shopping for trail running shoes so you can find a pair that gets you excited to hit the dirt every single time.
Shopping for Trail Running Shoes
There's an entire gamut of trail running shoes to choose from. To make sure you're choosing the best pair, consider the following factors.
The type of trails you prefer should be factored into your decision when shopping for trail running shoes. There are three main trail types:
- Well-maintained trails: These paths are usually relatively flat and even and may be laid with fine gravel or soft dirt. Well-maintained trails generally require less cushioning and foot protection but do need more support than what standard road running shoes offer.
- Rugged trails: The next tier of trail running involves slightly more rugged terrain. On these paths, the surface is generally less smooth and may have small obstacles like rocks or debris.
- Off-trail: Off-trail paths typically have rough terrain and bigger/more obstacles, which makes your path very uneven and unpredictable. You'll want a pair of trail running shoes that protect your feet and keep you comfortable and safe.
Shoe cushioning is also called stack height, and refers to the shoe's ability to absorb impact.(1) You might assume that the more cushioning in trail running shoes the better, but that's not always the case. Cushioning adds weight to your shoe, so it's important to find a good balance for your needs.
- Barefoot: You'll get a barefoot-like feel with some protection.
- Light: Light cushioning offers midsole padding with some protection.
- Mid: This is the most traditional type of cushioning offered. You'll get slightly more cushioning than a light cushion shoe, but without too much extra weight.
- Maximum: This is the heaviest option with the most cushion. It's ideal for the most rugged off-trail terrains.
Another characteristic to keep in mind when looking for trail running shoes is the heel-to-toe drop. This simply refers to how inclined your foot is in the shoe and is typically measured in millimeters.
The ideal level of drop depends on your gait. If you tend to hit the ground with your heel first (like many trail runners do), then high-drop shoes are usually preferred. If you tend to hit the ground at the midfoot, then a mid-drop is best. Those who strike at the forefront do best with a low (or zero) heel-to-toe drop.
- Zero drop: 0mm
- Low drop: 1 to 4mm
- Mid drop: 5 to 8mm
- High drop: 8+ mm
Check the heel-to-toe drop on your current running shoes because a sudden change can feel dramatic at first.
Pronation refers to the way your foot rolls on impact and it's a hot topic in the running community no matter what type of running you do. That includes on-road and trail runs, long distances and short jogs, competitive racing and leisurely strolls.
- Neutral pronation: Weight is distributed evenly across your foot as it rolls forward as you step.
- Overpronation: The foot rolls too far inward, which applies uneven pressure across the foot.
- Under pronation: The foot doesn't roll inward as much as it should and too much weight is put on the outside of the foot.
According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS), overpronation or under pronation can put you at a higher risk for injury when walking or running.(2) That includes immediate injury—like a rolled ankle—and issues that develop over time, such as arch pain.
To prevent either type of injury, it's important to wear trail running shoes that prioritize stability and motion rather than wearing a neutral pair. That said, if you don't have issues with pronation, then a neutral pair may be your best option.
Trail Running Shoes FAQs
Have more questions about finding the best trail running shoes for your needs? We've got answers.
Do You Need Waterproof Shoes for Trail Running?
You don't need waterproof trail running shoes unless you tend to run in snowy, wet or muddy terrains. Waterproof options may be uncomfortable on dry paths since they aren't as breathable.
What's the Difference Between Trail Running Shoes and Hiking Shoes?
Hiking shoes are typically more robust and likely made with waterproof materials versus breathable mesh uppers and side panels. Some also have very thick and heavy soles that allow for improved traction on vertical and highly slanted surfaces. Generally, hiking shoes aren't considered a great shoe for trail runners.
Can You Use Trail Running Shoes on the Road?
Though you can technically wear trail running shoes on both roads and trails, it's better to reserve your trail running shoes for earthy surfaces. Concrete and similar surfaces can wear down your shoes and, over time, affect the grip. To get the most out of your shoes, stick to trails.
Do I Need Toe Protection?
Some trail running shoes have a rock plate in the toe box, which can help prevent debris or rocks from impacting your toes. Though this feature does add some weight to the shoe, it's a good trait to consider if you tend to run on rugged terrains.
What Are Some of the Best Trail Running Shoes?
You have many options to choose from when it comes to trail running shoes. Some well-reviewed options include the Salomon Sense Ride, Saucony Peregrine, Altra Lone Peak, Brooks Cascadia and La Sportiva trail running shoes.
Remember, the best trail running shoes are comfortable and supportive and help prevent injury. When possible, test out shoes in person to find a pair that's perfect for you.
1. Soraruf, Isabella. "Study on the effect of shoe cushioning on trail running: perception and biomechanical approach," February 7, 2021. https://etd.adm.unipi.it/t/etd-01132021-113539.
2. "Walking and Pronation Animation." OrthoInfo -AAOS. https://www.orthoinfo.org/en/staying-healthy/walking-pronation-animation/.