Gear Tips for Buying Trail Running Shoes Sara Davidson July 15, 2016 Join the Conversation Make the Switch from Pavment to Off-Road Running Let's be honest here, treadmills suck and pounding pavement is boring. Winter is long over, so save yourself the sole-crushing (see what we did there?) monotony and head off-road and get dirty. Trail running is no longer a fringe sport full of feral-looking runners who think running 100-plus miles in a day is delightful. Ultramarathoners don't own the market on running's dirty side, so feel free to jump off-road and play in the woods without committing to Herculean distances or super gnarly terrain. And it's fun. We promise. Really, we promise. The blood will wash out. (OK, we can't promise that.) While you can run trails in your roadie kit, those who want to do more than dabble on dirt should consider investing in some specialty trail shoes. Note that their aggressive tread patterns work superbly at the range – a fact that hasn't been lost on top-level 3 gun competitors. We talked with a couple mileage addicts about three key factors to consider when shopping for shoes: form, fit, and function. We talked with a couple mileage addicts about three key factors to consider when shopping for shoes: form, fit, and function. Form Trail shoes aren't just road shoes in obnoxious colors. They typically have a thicker, more rugged outsole with lugs for better traction, higher collars to aid in lateral stabilization, and rock plates to protect your tender feet from pointy rocks. Monogamous with a certain brand and style? Some road shoes have a trail-loving counterpart, but make sure you check your options before you simply settle for more of the same. “Don't just buy your road brand in a trail version,” says Travis Rolph, retired Army Special Forces and two-time finisher of the 170-mile Grand to Grand Ultra seven-day stage race. “Make sure that it's going to work for you and the style of running that you're going to do.” In the beginning, don't go too far from your concrete-running comfort zone; phase in a new pair of shoes gradually. “If you're already minimal or zero drop, you want to look for a trail shoe that offers the same kind of capability,” says Mosi Smith, a former assistant coach for the Navy Marathon Team with more than 40 ultramarathon finishes. Fit Fit is more important on trail than pavement because your feet move around more when covering the rocks, roots, holes, and other hazards of off-road terrain. Besides being uncomfortable, a poorly fitting shoe can lead to run-ruining blisters, lost toenails, or injury. “The No. 1 mistake that most people make in purchasing running shoes is getting shoes that are too small,” says John Andersen, who owns Crozet Running, a specialty store geared toward trail running near Charlottesville, Virginia. Andersen, who is training for his first 100- miler, recommends newer trail runners “listen to their feet,” and find a shoe that doesn't cause rubbing or pressure points, and feels comfortably snug in the heel. “Because the trail is softer than pavement, and the uneven terrain breaks up your running gait,” he says, “most people can successfully run in a much wider range of shoe types.” Still unsure? Most staff at specialty running stores will help fit you for shoes, and most have generous return policies if what you bring home doesn't work out. Function The biggest place new trail runners can screw up is not letting the terrain inform the shoe choice. “The terrain you're going to run on is as big of a factor as fit, form, and everything for the shoe,” Rolph says. “Different shoes are made for different things.” Be thoughtful about what kind of trails you'll be running (rocks, gravel, sand, slick clay, sloppy mud) and what kind of terrain (steep ups and downs versus flat and rolling), then use it as the principal criterion of your shoe choice. Making the wrong choice will hurt — literally. “In 2008 I ran the Javelina Jundred,” Smith said. “That was my first 100-miler. I showed up to the game with some Nikes — they were billed as a trail shoe at the time. For a lot of the more pedestrian trails they were fine, but once I got out there on the rocks and sand it was horrible. My feet were beat up.” So where to start? First — before you fire up Google to order a new pair — a primer on shoe stuff: Stack height: Stack height, sometimes used interchangeably with “cushion,” is the measurement of how much shoe is between your foot and the ground. “Some people like shoes with less cushioning which tend to give you better ground feel and stability,” Andersen from Crozet Running says. “Other people really like the max-cushion shoes which feel like you're running on clouds as you descend over technical terrain.” If your feet feel beat up, try going up in stack height for some extra cushion. If you feel like you're fighting your shoes, try going lower. Offset: This is the difference between the stack height of the heel and the stack height of the toe. Traditional running shoes typically have an offset in the range of 8 millimeters to 12 millimeters, but shoes with a low offset — 4 millimeters down to zero — are becoming really popular. But don't confuse the two terms. The Olympus (featured) has a huge stack height of 36 millimeters, but a zero offset. That means your foot is flat from heel to toe, but you're way off the ground. Make sense? Technical features: Some shoes now come in waterproof versions. We love Gore-Tex for running in fresh snow, but these versions can be hot and trap water in your shoe. Polartec — like in Altra's Lone Peak NeoShell — is waterproof on the outside yet manages to be fairly breathable. Water-phobic models will also increase the shoe's sticker price. Our take? Your feet are going to get wet; the fastest way through the mud and water is usually straight through. Go get dirty. Still with us? Good. Now for the fun part. The Test Crew A little about our shoe testing crew: Jared Byrd, 32, was 9th overall at Alabama's Pinhoti 100 with a personal-record time of 22 hours and 19 minutes. He's training for June's Big Horn Trail 100 in Wyoming and the Washington's Bigfoot 200-mile Endurance Run in August. Leah Pan is new to the ultrarunning scene, but has already finished five 50Ks and her first 50-miler and 100K. She has eyes on a 100-miler next year but isn't ready to admit that publicly yet. Sara Davidson, the author, is a Washington, D.C.-based runner with more than 30 ultramarathon finishes. She's training for her third 100-mile race in November. *Shoe weights in the following spec boxes are given for a single men's shoe, size 9, regardless of the shoe pictured. All-Around Make The North Face Model Ultra Endurance Weight 11 ounces Offset 8 mm Cushion Medium MSRP $125 URL www.thenorthface.com Fit We did order a half size up, then they fit like Goldilocks: Not too loose, not too snug, just right. Notes The Ultra Endurance is a versatile option for runners who tread a wide variety of trails. These were the dark horse in our shoe test fight, but ended up being the surprise favorite of one tester who wore them for a 72-mile race in the gnarly Georgia mountains. The molded-TPU toe cap offered protection from toenail-trashing rocks and the Vibram Megagrip outsole severed up great traction on the course's 40,000 feet of elevation change. The low collar on these shoes made them low profile, but still supportive, and the toe box was roomy, but not too loose for steep downhilling. These fit so well he forgot all about them, which in shoes, is a great thing. *The authors' pick for best all-around shoe: The North Face Endurance. This shoe was one of the most versatile of the models we tested and performed well on a wide variety of trails, from rolling rail-trail to gnarly single track. Even after lots of punishing miles it still feels great. Make Pearl Izumi Model E:motion Trail N2 v2 Weight 10 ounces Offset 7.5 mm Cushion Medium MSRP $120 URL www.pearlizumi.com Fit These, like the North Face Ultra Endurances, fit so well that we put them on and forgot we were wearing them. Notes With a 7.5mm heel-to-toe offset and super roomy toebox, these Pearls are a great option for runners who want to try Altras, but aren't ready for a zero-offset shoe. The seamless upper on the N2s “fit like a sock,” one tester said, greatly improving the overall comfort. In fact, these no-fuss shoes fit so well they practically disappeared on our feet. Our tester found the Carbon Rubber outsole on these to be on the stiffer side, but loved them for shorter distances. Want even more cushion? Try the Pearl Izumi N3s. Make Altra Model Lone Peak NeoShell Weight 11.9 ounces (10.6 ounces w/o NeoShell) Offset None Cushion Medium MSRP $150 ($120 w/o NeoShell) URL www.altrarunning.com Fit Roomy, but runs slightly small. Order a half- to full-size up. Extra Features Polartec NeoShell upper, gaiter trap Notes Altra's Lone Peak is the middle child of the brand's trail shoe line and hits the sweet spot between cushion and performance. With a 25 millimeter stack height (and StoneGuard rock plate) the Lone Peak offers enough cushion to protect on technical trails while still a being a light and fast shoe. The Polartec lining on the upper means these kicks will be waterproof and breathable, which will help keep your feet warmer and dryer. Proof? These shoes were comfortably dry just minutes after sloshing through a calf-deep stream during a frigid February 50K. Max Cushion Make Altra Model Olympus 2.0 Weight 11 ounces Offset None Cushion Max MSRP $150 URL www.altrarunning.com Fit Roomy with an extra-wide toe box. Runs slightly small. Order a half- to full-size up. Extra Features gaiter trap Notes Altra's Olympus is one of the beefiest shoes on the market right now — with a stack height of 36 millimeters — giving cushion lovers plenty of protection from rugged terrain. This update keeps the brand's extra roomy “foot-shaped” toe box, but swaps the original's shallow tread for a new deeper and grippier outsole. The Vibram Megagrip material of the 2.0s performs better on slick rocks and mud, meaning you're more likely to stay vertical on wet footing. Make Hoka OneOne Model Challenger ATR 2 Weight 9.5 ounces Offset 5 mm Cushion Max MSRP $130 URL www.hokaoneone.com Fit Roomier than its predecessor. If you like extra toe-room, order a half-size up. Notes A longstanding gripe with Hoka — early to the max cushion party — has been the narrow and shallow toe box. But the ATR 2s have the best Hoka toe box we've tried. These kicks have enough cushion to take on the gnarliest of terrain, but a low enough stack height to still be lightweight and responsive. We did notice that the back of the shoe (plus a thicker insole) comes up higher than earlier models, giving one of our testers a heel blister issue. Make New Balance Model Leadville Trail* Weight 10.4 ounces Offset 8 mm Cushion Max MSRP $125 URL www.newbalance.com Fit True to size, roomy toe box Notes This stability shoe from New Balance has two types of cushion — N2 in the forefoot and a full-length REVlite foam midsole — which made them ideal, our tester said, for any trail surface. The company's “toe protect” toe cap kept the rock-kicking pain (and swear words) to a minimum, and the superb fit from the no-sew upper kept our tester blister free on a recent 50K. Want the cushion in a neutral shoe? Try the company's Fresh Foam Hierro. * Our tester wore the V2s; specs above are for the V3s — on sale now. Soft Ground and Mud Make La Sportiva Model Mutant Weight 10.7 ounces Offset 10 mm Cushion Medium MSRP $135 URL www.sportiva.com Fit Snug performance fit. If you like your shoes on the roomier side, order a half-size up. Notes We thought we knew how to tie our shoes, but then we pulled out the Mutants and were reduced to reading the directions. The asymmetric lacing system puts both laces the outer side of the shoe; once tied, the laces tuck into their own pocket to keep them out of the way. Yay! No tripping on untied laces. But where the Mutants really shine is on sloppy trail. Their super sticky FriXion XF outsole was excellent on the spring season's slick and sloppy footing. The snug midfoot wrap keeps your heel secure on downhills while the comfortably roomy toe box allowed for optimal foot splay. These are now our go-to shoes for sloppy and slick runs. Make Salomon Model Speedcross 3 Weight 10.9 ounces Offset 11 mm Cushion Medium MSRP $130 URL www.salomon.com Fit Snug like a glove. Unisex sizing. Notes The Speedcross 3's aggressive tread and Mud & Snow Contagrip outsole make them ideal for the sloppiest of runs, especially in winter's worst conditions. The high collar and snug mid-foot fit meant these shoes stayed on our feet when the sucking mud tried its hardest to pull them off. Salomon's speed-lace system helped dial in the fit even more. While not our first choice for dry conditions, these soft-ground superstars eliminate any excuse to skip a muddy run. The FORCES model (shown) is non-reflective for tactical use. Explore RECOILweb:TOPS Knives Releases the Baja 4.5Colt King Cobra ReviewRECOILtv Transport: Ram 1500 Night TruckAn Interview with Rughi: Mindset over Circumstance NEXT STEP: Download Your Free Target Pack from RECOILFor years, RECOIL magazine has treated its readers to a full-size (sometimes full color!) shooting target tucked into each big issue. Now we've compiled over 50 of our most popular targets into this one digital PDF download. From handgun drills to AR-15 practice, these 50+ targets have you covered. Print off as many as you like (ammo not included). 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