What Makes a Good Trail Running Shoe – A Beginners Guide

What Makes A Good Trail Running Shoe

If you are new to trail running, or just interested in progressing to the trails from the road, then you will notice that there are a lot of different types of trail shoe available on the market today. It leads to the question of what makes a good trail running shoe?

What makes a good trail running shoe is based on many factors including but not limited to, price, comfort, weight, terrain, grip, and drop to name but a few. In this post, I will break down all the main features you should be looking at before making your purchasing decision.

Where Will the Shoe be Used

This question might appear obvious to begin with, but you should consider how you plan to use the shoe and where it will be used. For instance, would you purchase a shoe designed as a tarmac to trail offering when you are going to be using it in rocky wet conditions?

So it is very important to understand where the shoe will be used most of the time and purchase one suitable for that task. You should also consider that the wrong type of shoe could lead to an accident or injury in the most extreme cases so you really need to decide what is right for you for the bulk of your running.

Not everyone can afford to do it, but I normally have 3 different running shoes at any one time – One for road, one for hard-packed type trails (1 shoe could do both of these), and one pair for more technical terrain.

Comfort

This should go without saying, but you really want your shoe to be comfortable. What works on a short run may not be suitable on an ultra marathon for instance. Some shoes are built for speed and have very little cushioning, where others might be highly cushioned to offer a more comfortable ride.

The cushioning, or stack height as it’s more commonly known, is really down to the user at the end of the day. I have known many long-distance runners who prefer less cushioning because they want to feel the ground under their feet whereas others don’t want to feel anything at all.

Greater cushioning may also work for the user who wants less impact on their joints, such as the knees, ankles, etc. The table below outlines the type of level of cushioning for some popular trail shoes:

Stack HeightCushioning TypeBest For
1 – 8 mmBarefootSpeed work
Short Runs
Soft Surfaces
9 – 13 mmMinimumRacing
Minimalist Runners
14 – 18 mmLowFaster paced workouts
19 – 23 mmMediumMost common for most
Good for most
24 – 29 mmHighLong Runs
Easy Runs
Recovery Runs
30+ mmMaximalLong Runs
Easy Runs
Recovery Runs

Another thing to consider is the width of the shoe, especially around the toe-box. I personally prefer the wider toe-box that is used by companies like Altra.

If you like some toe room then consider a wider shoe as some manufacturers make shoes quite narrow. For instance, I really like Salomon shoes, but unfortunately they bust my toes up on longer runs. So if you have a ‘normal’ width foot then you have a great choice of different shoes to choose from.

When purchasing trail running shoes, also consider the size you are buying. I normally find a half size larger works for me, but you will find a lot of sites will tell you if a shoes runs slightly larger or not.

Weight

Another important factor for some is the weight of the shoe. Too heavy and some people might find their legs tire very quickly, especially on longer runs. Too light and they might not offer the robustness and the protection a trail shoe needs to offer, but they will be the best shoe for speed work or racing shorter distances.

Below is a table of the average weights (per shoe) of the top trail running shoes on the market today :

Shoe ModelShoe Weight (Men’s Size 9)Shoe Weight (Ladies Size 5)
Altra Lone Peak 4.510.5 oz / 298g8.7 oz / 247g
Brooks Divide10.3 oz / 292g9.2 oz / 260g
On Running
Cloudventure Peak
9.2 oz / 260g7.4 oz / 210g
Salomon Sense Ride9.9 oz / 280g8.3 oz / 235g
Saucony Peregrine ISO10.5 oz / 298g9.2 oz / 260g
Hoka One One
Challenger ATR 5
9.4 oz / 266g7.7 oz / 218g
Altra Timp 29.9 oz / 280g8.0 oz / 227g
La Sortiva Bushido10.2 oz / 289g8.8 oz / 249g

Outsole

The outsole is a very important component of a trail shoe. Not only is the grip important, but the material, traction, and ability to protect the foot is something you need to consider as well. Let’s take a look at the key factors that make up the trail shoe outsole:

Most typically the outsole of a trail shoe is made of rubber in one form or another. The type of material used can have an effect on the durability, flexibility, and firmness of the shoe. Generally the following types of rubber can be used (but not exclusive to)

  • Carbon Type Rubber – this makes up the majority of trail shoes due to its durability.
  • Blown Rubber – created by injecting air into the rubber during manufacture. This is generally used for forefoot of the outsole due to it being lighter, softer and more flexible, therefore looking after that part of the foot. Blown rubber is less durable than Carbon Rubber.
  • Outsole Grade EVA – EVA has rubber-like properties but is less durable than rubber itself. It is much softer and flexible than rubber and is designed with ground contact in mind.

Midsole

The midsole is the area between the upper of the shoe and the outsole that we just spoke about. This is where you will find the cushioning of the shoe comes from. It is also the area where the manufacturer adds the pronation control.

In simple terms, pronation is the natural side to side movement of your foot as you run. Often runners can have ‘over pronation’ where the ankle rolls too far inwards with each step, or supination (under pronation), where the ankle rolls excessively outwards with each step.

If you have any concerns about any of these issues then it is advisable to have your gait pattern diagnosed – most good running shops offer this service.

The midsole material is generally a foam-like material and depending on the type of material will dictate the durability over time as well as the quality of the ride.

Upper

This is the area of the shoe where the material basically wraps around your foot to hold it in place whilst preventing any excessive movement in a side to side or up and down direction. Manufacturers use multiple types of materials and are often coming up with their own new designs, configurations and materials.

The upper itself can be broken down into these basic features:

FeatureKey Uses
Overlay Usually, a synthetic material that sits on the upper providing support and reinforcement
whilst conforming to the shape of the foot.
Heel CupThis is generally a rigid or semi-rigid material used on the outside of the heel to help hold
the foot in place. Your heel should fit snugly into this area.
Toe BoxThe area at the front of the shoe which creates the space around your toes. I personally
prefer the wide toe box to allow my toes room to move freely.
CollarThis is the area of the shoe that sits just below your ankle and should be made of a softer
material that should provide a gap-free fit and support.
LacesUsed to tighten the shoe around the top of the foot. They come in various options including
standard and quick lock styles.
SaddleThe area around the midfoot that supports the arch. This should fit snugly to avoid foot
movement. If it doesn’t, you are likely to get blisters.
TongueSits below the laces to protect the top of the foot and add protection. Ideally, this should be
pulled up tight.

You will choose the upper based on your criteria and dependent on the use the shoe will have. If you are going to be running in tough rocky terrain for instance, you might choose a shoe with a upper that works for that as opposed to one that would be more suited flat, dry, and warm conditions.

Breathability

Running in warm weather doesn’t have to destroy your feet. Quite of we can find trail shoes that have a mesh like material that makes them highly breathable.

The benefit of a breathable upper is that the shoe has the ability to allow air flow to circulate around your feet which in turn keeps you much cooler. The other benefit is that it reduces feet from sweating which can generally have an impact on blisters and hot spots.

Do remember though, your shoes will only be as good as your running socks so it is important you consider the right sort for your running. You can check out this post on why running socks are importantOpens in a new tab..

Drop

When we talk about the drop, we are talking about the height difference between the heel and the forefoot when wearing the shoe. Different drops will work differently for different types of runner and can help avoid injury.

In the table below I have outlined the more common heal to toe drop sizes and the benefits they may have for runners.

Drop RangeBest For
10 – 12 mmRunners with Aggressive Heel Strike
Tight Calves
Achilles Tendon issues
Easier on the lower leg
8 – 10mmSuits a broad range of runners
Comfortable for multiple uses like casual running and gym
4 – 6 mmRunners with Mid and Forefoot Strike
Require greater calf flexibility
0 mm (Zero Drop)More natural running form
Can help reduce knee pain
More stress on the lower leg

When choosing the best heel to toe drop for you, it is more about what you are more comfortable in. Personally I run in low and zero drop shoes because I love the natural run feel and I have far fewer injuries. For some reason, I have calf issues with higher drop shoes.

The other time when you may want to consider a certain heel to toe drop might be based on whether you have any type of injury. For instance, if you have issues with your knees when running, a lower drop shoe might be the answer. However, you should always seek medical advice in the first instance if you are carrying any sort of injury.

Style

When I talk about style of shoe I am talking about the purpose they are intended for. Before deciding on the correct shoe, it is worth having a think about the main use it will be intended for. Here is a breakdown of the shoe style you should consider.

Light Trail

This type of shoe has a lot of the same characteristics of a road running shoe except they may have the added benefits of better grip for gritty flat surfaces as well as some moderate protection from rocks, roots etc.

This type of shoe could be perfect if you intend to run from road to trail, or you want to incorporate some tarmac training into your routine without having to buy an extra pair of shoes to do it.

Rugged Trail

This type of shoe offers more underfoot protection from rocks, roots, and other objects. You will usually find that additional features such as toe guards and rock plates have been added.

The upper will often be designed to add additional support which will in turn help to stabilize the foot over uneven surfaces. There will be greater grip on the outsole designed to allow for greater grip, traction, and materials that are designed not to slip on wet surfaces.

The rugged shoe should be your go to shoe for a multitude of trails and is classed as an all-rounder.

Off Trail

Think of water, mud, extreme conditions, and you have the off trail shoe. It has all the attributes of the rugged trail shoe with the addition of more resilient materials that offer stability, strength and durability.

It’s also a great option of shoe if you like to hike on some off the grid type of location. However, if you don’t plan any extreme locations in the near future you probably won’t need to worry too much about a shoe like this just yet.

Price

We all want value for money when we purchase anything and trail shoes are no exception. With prices that range from under $50 to in excess of $200, there are so many options to choose from.

It’s worth remembering that cheap isn’t always the worst shoe and the most expensive aren’t necessarily the best either. At the end of the day it is about what you need from your shoe and how you intend to use it that matters.

I have purchased endless amounts of shoes over the years with some I loved and some I hated. It can take time to find a shoe that you really connect with that works for you.

As a guide, I have outlined the 3 shoes that I am currently using today for all my running and training. Two of them are recent additions whereas the Altra Lone Peak has been a long standing favourite.

Altra Lone Peak

Best All Round Shoe For Trails

pair of altra lone peak zero drop trail shoes

I have been wearing Altra Lone Peak’s since version 2.5 and these are without a doubt the best running shoes I have ever owned bar none.

They are a zero drop shoe that suits a more natural running style and they have a wide toe box which allows my toes to move freely within the shoe.

There is enough cushioning to run in comfort for many miles without any issues at all – I ran a 50 mile race in them with no issues at all.

I have run on roads, gravel tracks, grassy fields, woodland, and mountainous terrain and this shoe copes with it all.

My current set is actually waterproof too and they do keep my feet very dry in most wet conditions. If this is a shoe that you feel would work for you, I have noticed that Amazon is doing them at a great price right now, which you can find hereOpens in a new tab..

Hoka One One Challenger ATR 5

Best Road to Trail Shoe

I tried a pair of Challengers a few years ago in an earlier version and got rid of them after a week due to the fact they were crushing my toes. It was a shame because they offered a level of cushioning that I was eager to try.

Then I noticed this year that the Challenger ATR 5 also came in a wide fitting shoe which was a great move by HOKA in my opinion. So I purchased a pair that were half a size up to my normal shoe size and I have been super impressed.

Straight out of the box they felt fantastic around my feet and were so comfortable to wear in general. After a 3 and 6 mile training run midweek, I did what I tell everyone not to do and ran a marathon that weekend. To my amazement they felt great with no issues at all. It just takes a while to get used to all that cushioning underfoot.

The shoe is still a fairly new model, but if super cushioning and comfort is your thing, they can currently be purchased on Amazon. Want to know more? You can check them out by clicking this linkOpens in a new tab..

I hope this post went some way to helping you understand what makes a good trail running shoe. If you have any thoughts or questions, please feel free to drop a comment below.

Mark Emmerson

Mark loves everything outdoors, especially trail and ultra running. He has competed in many events ranging from half marathon up to an 86 mile ultra. He also follows a primarily plant-based diet.

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