10 Ways to Pick the Perfect Trail Running Shoes
Running shoes are full of technology; in fact sometimes there can be so much tech, so many variations and so many designs, that choosing the best running shoe can become a bit overwhelming. So to help you navigate the world of the trail running shoe and to give you a head start, we’ve busted 10 common misconceptions to help you make the best decision for yourself.
Your gait is not fixed (the trail is not a lab)
Try not to get fixated on whether you are an over-pronator, under-pronator or neutral runner. The truth is that when you are on the trail, different rules apply. The problem with many of these gait assessments is that they are done under controlled conditions, using slow motion cameras, with fresh legs on the unchanging surface of a treadmill. Unlike on the road, when you are on the trail the surface will constantly change. This means that the interaction of your foot with the ground will rarely be the same. You need a shoe that is supportive yes, but because the terrain is constantly changing, so will your gait. The way you run can change greatly over a number of strides simply because of the different surfaces underfoot. Trail shoes are therefore predominately made with a changeable terrain in mind.
GORE-TEX® will keep your feet dry (and wet)
Waterproof membranes protect your feet from getting cold and wet when running through damp grass, puddles, mud and snow. They also allow sweat vapour that is produced inside the shoe to escape. This dual process helps to keep your feet dry and comfortable throughout your run. However, if you suspect that you’ll encounter water that goes above the ankle-line, then you may wish to consider a pair of trail shoes without a membrane. No membrane means that the water can quickly drain away rather than sloshing inside the shoe, weighing you down. On a side note, don’t forget that waterproof membranes can also help to keep your feet warmer on really cold days, even in dry conditions.
Shock absorption is a good thing
Unless you are an experienced fore-foot runner then you will probably wish to have a shoe with a modest amount of cushioning, especially around the heel. Classically the sole of a running shoe will be thicker around the heel and thinner around the toes as the majority of runners land on their heel which absorbs the impact.
Larger runners, beginners and people heading out on seriously long runs would do well to select a shoe with a decent amount of cushioning. This can help prevent injury, reduce fatigue and keep you comfortable.
The change in height between the heel and forefoot is known as the ‘drop’ as the height of the shoe drops. However, greater levels of cushioning do not necessarily mean a larger drop. Shoes can have lots of cushioning in the heel and forefoot, but with a very small drop and visa-versa.
Barefoot running is a technique you learn, not a shoe you buy
Like all sports, running has a number of contrasting approaches to the same problem. That problem is impact; especially as the majority of runners move on concrete. One way to get around this problem is through insulating the foot from impacts as covered above. The other approach is to use minimalist footwear.
Minimalist footwear removes the vast majority of the cushioning. The argument is that when our shoes are less bouncy, we cannot run in the same way. Removing the padding forces us to take shorter strides, places the landing on the forefoot and absorbs lots of the energy through bent, soft knees, not unlike skier.
As good as this sounds it is important to understand that minimalist footwear is not just a purchase; it is a completely different way of running, one that can take time and effort to develop. Furthermore, over the often rocky and rooted ground of a trail, minimalist footwear offers little protection.
Trail trainers are not just ‘grippy’ road shoes
Despite their similarities, there are a few characteristics of a trail shoe that makes them specialists of changing terrain and your time on the trail more enjoyable.Shock absorption has already been covered, but it’s worth repeating that on the slightly softer surfaces of natural trails, plus the need for a low centre of gravity, trail shoes tend to have a bit less padding; this make the shoe lower and more stable. The grip, or ‘lug pattern’ will vary greatly on trial shoes too, with flat, relatively smooth patterns for running on dry even surfaces, and deep, claw-like patterns for loose and muddy ground. They will also have features that protect your feet from protruding objects underfoot. A mid sole shank for example is a thin plastic plate that protects the foot from impact. Some prefer not to have this in order to feel everything underfoot and adapt their steps accordingly, whereas others want the protection. On really long runs however, protection becomes increasingly important as the likelihood of injury increases.
Your shoes will choose you
When standing in a store or browsing online you’ll quickly realise how much choice there is. To help narrow this down you may already have a few mental filters in place such as a particular brand or colour. But a much more effective approach is to accept that you don’t get to choose the shoe, the shoe will choose you. It’s not as mysterious as it may sound, in fact when you think about it, it is the only logical approach; one that involves listing your requirements and allowing these to filter out and narrow down the range. One of the most important elements is getting your feet accurately measured. This is not just the length of your foot, but also its width, height and flexibility; all of which will refine your options. You also need to think about the terrain you will be moving on as this affects the depth of any grip patterns, waterproofing and how much padding you will need. Toe protection? A midsole shank to protect from stones? Lead with your requirements and the right shoe will present itself.
Your gender really does matter
In the past there was a saying when it came to women’s clothing and equipment; ‘pink it and shrink it’. Fortunately women’s footwear has moved on and in doing so an entire new understanding has emerged around the biomechanical differences between the genders.
That does not mean that women and men can only stick to their gendered shoes. If they fit and are right for purpose then they are correct. But when picking shoes, especially women, you no longer have to make such sweeping compromises.
Your shoes are only as good as your socks
Some shoes make your feet hot and sweaty, some shoes give you blisters, some shoes are just plain uncomfortable. All of these things may be true, but what is commonly misunderstood is that sometimes these things can be alleviated by a pair of good quality running socks.
Running socks are purpose built for high intensity, high friction use. They usually have really flat seams that help avoid pinching and creases, they also use soft, sleek fibres that help to reduce friction and wick moisture away from the skin, reducing the chance of blisters. You may also find that they have areas of padding around the heel and on top of the foot to aid comfort.
A good fit is the most important thing
If your trainers do not fit then you will not want to run in them. It really is that simple. Too big and you get excessive movement and friction, too tight and you will damage toenails and compromise circulation. It goes without saying that something that fits will be more comfortable. Make sure you take the time to get your feet professionally measured, which will include length, width, flexibility; as well as heel width and arch height. A good fit should be snug everywhere, but tight nowhere. Do consider having a bit of space around the ends of the toes however. When descending steep slopes you will be grateful for it.
One day your shoes will die
After all this, it is worth pointing out that unfortunately, one day your shoes will be worn out and will need replacing. They take a formidable amount of wear and tear which will eventually compress all of the cushioning materials. You may be very attached to your shoes but running on tired old trainers can actually be quite detrimental to your joints and to your form. Don’t be sentimental, when it’s time to replace those old, worn out shoes make sure you do so with plenty of time to break in the new pair, especially if you have a race coming up. Or if you find a style that you are really keen on, consider investing in a few pairs, that way you have some ready in reserve.
Contributed with thanks by Cotswold Outdoor