Trail running has been gaining a lot of ground in recent years, and that should come as no surprise. Following participation in obstacle courses like Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, and other variations of such mud races, more and more people are trying out “proper” trail running. (I am not bashing these obstacle courses, hell that’s how I got into trail running myself!) Since the most important pieces of kit for running are wrapped around your feet, I thought it would be a good idea to point people in the right direction when thinking about a trail-specific shoe.

So what should you look for in a trail-running shoe? The same attributes you look for in a road shoe. Do you need support, are you neutral, or do you want to go full-on minimalist? Over the years, I’ve used several models of shoes, such as the Inov8 X-Talon 200, Salomon Speedcross, Brooks Cascadia, and more recently, the Salomon Fellraiser. The distance, your level of experience in running, your physiology, and your running form will all be factors in choosing the right shoe.

I cannot say to someone, “Run with this particular shoe because it is the one that fits me best.” So many factors come into play that I will not praise a single model. Rather, I will “run” you through the evolution of my shoe selection over the years, what I liked about each model, and what made me change to the next model. Hopefully this will give you a few pointers to help with your selection. I will add that my choice distance is the marathon (26.2 miles) whether on pavement or trail. I have run ultras (50 miles), and I might do it again, but on the short term, the marathon is where I am at.

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The famed UTMB. Picture courtesy of Chamonix.net

The Inov8 were my first trail-running shoes, and I bought them at a time when minimalism was what I consider a fashion. Not to say they were bad shoes; they were very good trail shoes, just not the best for me. My next pair of shoes, the X-talon, had a 3mm drop with virtually no cushioning at all. It’s a very fast and responsive shoe. With its well-spaced lugs on the sole, you don’t get mud buildup. It really rips through to get to hard ground. The downside to this is when you get to a drier part of the trail, you really feel the lugs making pressure points under your feet. It really is a minimalist shoe, so if your feet require any kind of support, this is not the shoe for you. It is oriented toward more advanced runners.

I then got a pair of Brooks Cascadia, a shoe that has had barely any changes made to it for years. I wanted something more comfortable that I could use on longer distances, so that meant losing some responsiveness in exchange for cushioning. I have wider feet than most people, so I instantly felt more comfortable with the roomy toebox offered by the Cascadia. It offered plenty of cushioning for those longer runs, but I did miss some elements that I really liked about the X-talon. The sole on the Cascadia is much less aggressive than many other trail-running shoes out there.

Although it didn’t create any pressure points, I found that I lacked traction in wet conditions. The fact that the lugs were much closer together meant the exact opposite of the X-Talon: I had mud building up, and I had to clear it from time to time. On the weight side, I also had to compromise for the sake of comfort. At 337g, they were much heavier than the X-Talons, which weighed only 200g. I also went from a 3mm drop to a 10mm drop, which altered my running form. In short, I went from one extreme to another. While the Cascadia was a great shoe and I put close to 1000 km through it, it felt a little too “sloppy” for what I was looking for.

Still looking for the right shoe, I got a pair of Salomon Speedcross, since I figured there was a reason so many people had these shoes at races. I liked what I saw on the first run. They had a responsiveness that was somewhere between the X-Talon and the Cascadia, while being lighter than the Cascadia at 260g. The chevrons on the sole offered me plenty of grip and were well-spaced to avoid mud clogging. Then, the Fellraiser came out. This was the shoe I had been looking for since the very beginning. With its 6mm drop, wide toebox, and slightly tighter chevron pattern than that on the Speedcross, it had it all. The only downside to this shoe was the breathability, but I didn’t mind sacrificing that for some support.

Ultimately, the best way to select a good trail-running shoe is to go to a running shop. Buy your shoes where people know what they are talking about and have a large selection for you to try. Of course, this does not mean you will find the right shoe the first time. But your chances of finding a better-fitting shoe are greater than if you shop at bigger retail sport shops.

(Featured image courtesy of: swide.com)