Choosing The Right Trail Shoe

I’ve noticed that a handful of my speedy friends from the ‘road running’ universe have started to casually show up to more trail races as of late. Naturally, I’m excited to see more love of the trails. I’m always impressed to see someone make this transition so seamlessly. The transition isn't easy for everyone.  

These boys and girls are regularly taking first place wins, preparing for Boston, and up late at night reading Jack Daniels books under the covers with a flashlight...they are killing it. Two friends of mine recently decided to include a 5-mile segment of my favorite local trail in the dead center of one of their 20-mile Boston training runs. It was beautiful: you could hardly tell they left the pavement looking at their Strava activity.

This was not a flat trail; we’re talking technical single track with some honest climbs. And the nerdist question: what kind of shoes did they do that in? Is this a legit question? Many of us spend time on pavement and dirt, but rarely both on the same run. I may use 0.7 miles of the A&Y Greenway to connect the Owl’s Roost and Piedmont trails, but that’s less than 10% of my long run mileage that day.

So to those of you who are new to trail running, the question I ask is ‘do you really need a trail shoe?’ Let’s dig right into this in detail! These aforementioned roadsters are killing it in their everyday road shoes, so should you?

Seriously, Do We Need Trail Shoes?

I know: silly question, right? I’ll answer this a couple ways. The child in me says yes, because buying running fun. Be honest: most of use are shoe junkies, a la Sex In The City. The pessimist in me says it’s just a marketing gimmick, and whereas I know this to be a ridiculous notion, we can’t completely exclude this from the data pool.

Mud Obstacle

Some of the trail versions of more mainstream shoes are just silly. I was in a shoe store in 2008 when a sales clerk was trying to sell me the ‘trail’ version of the Brooks Adrenaline. I was far newer to the sport at that point, but even then was willing to call bullshit on this. Changing the color schema does not make a shoe a trail shoe. Let's face it though: there are circumstances under which having a well adapted trail shoe is not only beneficial, but fun!

The answer to this question is really more about why your current shoe or ‘road’ shoe isn't working well on the trail. If it isn't working out, the shoe you’re coming from ought to provide some clues about the shoe you’re going to. There are, however, other things to consider. Ask yourself the following when you’re trying to find the right shoe.  

What Is The Trail Surface Like? 

This is the first question to answer, above all else. The term trail is highly variable and can include paver sand, gravel, fire road, mud, packed dirt, flat rock, and many other of your favorites. When we think trail shoe, we typically think bigger lugs for traction, but this concept gets too much mileage.  

For a transition to trails that consist mostly of sand, packed dirt, or even fire roads, a typical neutral cushioned road shoe will perform just fine, especially if you already have a history with that shoe. Sad as it may be, there is no inherent need to jump immediately to a new shoe. Proceed to the next question below.   

For trails with more aggressive rocks, roots, and stumps, a shoe with a higher rubber to foam ratio will provide more protection to the foot. This is where the ‘trail version’ of your favorite road shoe may not be different enough. This category will include shoes like Brooks Cascadia and most shoes made by The North Face.

Shoes with big lugs (think football cleats) and aggressive outsoles have become more popular in recent years, especially among those taking part in the Tough Mudder or other military style obstacle races. These shoes are highly specialized to a specific terrain and not considered to be very versatile on variable terrain. This category includes Salomon Speedcross, Altra KingMT, and Inov-8 X-Talon.

On the topic of lugs for traction, it should be noted that good traction is a product of good running form. The one thing that consistently causes road-runners to lose traction on trails is over striding. The trails require a mildly higher cadence and maintenance of the feet more close to the runner’s center or balance.

Proper running form can create all the traction you need in any shoe unless we’re talking ice, algae covered river stones, or 5 inches of mud. In these cases, all hope is lost.

Do You Have High Maintenance Feet?

Are your feet fragile little friends or invincible enablers? Many runner transitioning to the trails for the first time will note that their bodies feel less beat up than equivalent mileage, but the feet are more variable. The answer to this will help you determine the shoes you need. 

Some runners will have less tolerance to the occasional stone, black walnut, or abrupt root. Others will not tolerate well the added foot sliding that can occur in a shoe as the transition is made away from a flat, graded, stable surface.

All variables kept equal, moving from road to off-road will create additional motion within the forefoot joints themselves. For runners with flexible feet, this may go unnoticed. These runner are likely using a lighter, racing flat or minimalist shoe on the road, and will do well will more minimalist shoes like the Altra Superior 3, New Balance MT-10v1, and Vibram Trek Sport.

For runners with more rigid feet, additional support may prevent unnecessary soreness the next day or just more generalized comfort. Runners who typically rely on orthotics are also likely to enjoy a slightly more rigid shoe for comfort and injury prevention.

Is There Terrain Variability?  

Weather and trail conditions associated with your neck of the woods must also be taken into account. Do you regularly run in heat or frigid cold? Breathability should be taken into consideration, or if you anticipate wearing extra socks, your sizing may not be right. Do you run in dry, rocky conditions where gaiters may be of use?

Keep in consideration that even the most primitive of trail races will still have segments of asphalt, wooden foot bridges, and rocky passes. Unless you are in a very specialized running environment, the more versatile the shoe, the better. I suspect this is why brand like Altra and HOKA have seen so much growth in the last 5 years.

Snow Run

Related to that, I have friends who live in Western NC and do most of their runs on more rugged and steep portions of the AT. These runner have consistently complained about the poor durability of the uppers on many Altra models, and leaned more toward the rigid and durable European mountain shoes. On this list I would include La Sportiva Bushido, Scarpa Proton, and Salomon XA Pro 3D. 

Are you planning on running through heavy wet or snowy environments where the Altra Lone Peak 3.0 Mid Neo or Solomon XA Pro 3D GTX  will be useful? Do you anticipate several ankle to knee deep stream/river crossings where your shoes must be able to drain quickly and well?

I recently polled some trail ultra runners about their opinions on running shoes with Gore-Tex. I have no personal experience with this, but I gathered the following three points. 1. Gore-Tex might be useful if you live in the Northeast or Midwest and run in the snow regularly. 2. Gore-tex is basically useless for keeping feet dry on runs with any water crossings, and once wet, stay wet. 3. Gore-Tex breathability is limited, resulting in hot, sweaty feet.

What Is The Grading Variability Like?

If you are solely accustomed to running in straight lines on flat surfaces, a sudden shift to ups and downs and endless switchbacks will test your feet. Buying for this is more difficult to predict, hence I recommend some trial runs in your road shoes first to see what you think is missing.

Rocky Terrain

For those runners who seem to be able to run in a variety of shoe types on pavement without problem, this will likely be a non-issue. For others who have a strong loyalty to a particular make and model, lest the demons of old injuries be stirred up: transition to the trails with caution. If you rely on an orthotic for form control, but have not addressed strength or motor control deficits, I can almost guarantee your form will be worse on the trail.  

There is a reason trail shoes are typically not marketed as ‘motion control’ or ‘neutral stability.’ Trail running requires occasional overpronation, and occasional oversupination. It requires heel striking and forefoot striking. It requires both long strides and short strides. There is no shoe that will prevent any of these things from happening on the trail, so if any of these movements tend to make your body explode, approach with caution.

Pace and Distance Considerations

I am always amazed by how little race distance dictates shoe selection in my friends and patients. I have a theory as to my simple amazement here. I think there are two kinds of runners who substantially change their shoe type for a particular event and combined they probably represent less than 5-10%.

The first are the minority of minimalist running enthusiasts out there. I fall into this category. On the roads, I’ll gladly run 60-90 minutes in barefeet or Vibrams without issue. When I transition to the trails, I seek a shoe that allows that same level of midfoot mobility and responsiveness, but also offers some protection. Be that as it may, I have in years past made some fairly specific shoe changes for longer races or more technical courses.

The second group of runners likely to do this is more transient: it’s made up of runners who are new to a particular race distance, perhaps starting to getting into ultra distances for the first time and realizing that their favorite shoe just isn't the best option. I sense this trend among many who have gone the way of maximalist running, which includes Altra Olympus and many of the shoes produced by HOKA.


This is simply trial and error. Why? Because for middle distance trail running, one can get away with an imperfect shoe if the feet are strong. Terrain variability dictates that you will constantly be utilizing different parts of the shoe and foot. A mild incompatibility between runner and shoe can become major as runs exceed 4-5 hours and might not be realized until then.  

In terms of pace, runners averaging slower paces are more likely to feel comfortable in their everyday road shoes for variety of reasons that are beyond the brevity of this post. Faster runners, especially those more likely to run the steeper hills and cut corners at higher speeds will find greater running economy and support from a more rigid shoe.

Don't Overcomplicate Things!

If you are new to trail running and feel unprepared: don’t fret. For most of those first runs, on simpler terrain and short distances, try out your old kicks. Pay attention to your form and think about what you want your shoes to do better for you. If you are training for a specific trail race in a novel location, be sure to do your homework and learn as much about the course as possible. And once you’ve done that, go out and run some trails, because that’s what you really need to do in order find the right trail shoes.

Until next time, keep moving!


Not familiar with these brands? Here are some places to find a good selection of trail specific shoes.

Durham, NC

Raleigh, NC

Asheville, NC

Black Mountain, NC

Charlotte, NC

Greensboro and other areas: REI and Great Outdoor Provision Co.