When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down gyms around the country, many people took to walking and running outside. For some, that’s led to trying out running on trails. If you’re looking to improve your experience when trail running, it may be time to consider a trail running-specific shoe.
What your feet are like, how far you’re running and your experience level can all impact which shoe you should select. So does the unique shape and size of your foot and your running style, says Dr. Gbolahan Okubadejo, a board-certified spinal and orthopedic surgeon and director of the Institute for Comprehensive Spine Care in New York and New Jersey.
He notes that everyone has a slightly different shape to the foot, and how the foot works in concert with the rest of the body can vary from person to person, too. This means the mechanics of your best running style will naturally be different from your running partner’s. If you don’t find the right shoe for your specific needs, over many steps, “you can exacerbate underlying problems.”
‘Barefoot’ Shoes: Pros and Cons
Since the release of the best-selling book, “Born to Run” in 2009, interest in trail running — and the minimalist “barefoot” shoes the people described in the book favored — captured the imagination of runners around the world. Naturally, shoe manufacturers, sensing a trend, capitalized on this growing interest in trail running and began offering running shoes designed to mimic the leather sandals worn by indigenous runners in Mexico’s Copper Canyon.
These flat, barely-there foot protections provide little cushioning, but have become popular as they can offer greater feel for the terrain. Trails are often a bit softer than pavement, which means the foot and body may not need as much padding as might be optimal when striking pavement.
Lighter, more flexible shoes also don’t force the foot into a position it wouldn’t go into naturally, which can help preserve the unique mechanics of the individual runner’s gait. On trails, you may also want to have that better feel for the terrain with a thinner, more flexible sole, as you navigate around rocks and roots.
The problem with some of these minimalist shoes is that not everyone’s feet are up to the challenge. It can also be difficult to transition out of more conventional, thick-soled and structured running shoes into these lighter, thinner shoes.
“This style can increase the risk of fracture and other injuries, especially if a runner has weak intrinsic foot muscles, due to poor support,” says Dr. Oluseun Olufade, a sports medicine physician and team doctor for the Atlanta Hawks NBA team.
[SEE: Best Running Shoes.]
What to Consider
Instead, he recommends looking for “stronger and more durable shoes to protect oneself while running on rugged and uneven terrain. Depending on the trail, light, rugged or off-trail running shoes can meet runners’ needs.”
Okubadejo also recommends choosing a more stable shoe that can help support your foot and body on the trails. “With trail running, you need a sole that’s a little stiffer,” he says. “You don’t want to have too much flexibility because the trails are uneven.”
He recommends shoes with a carbon fiber plate in the sole, such as trail shoes from Hoka One One, La Sportiva and Salomon also offer this feature. These are “specifically designed to give you a lot of stability and are a little stiffer to accommodate pebbles and uneven ground,” he says.
You should also consider just how uneven the terrain you’ll be facing is when you head out on local trails or even off-trail. “Depending on the trail (and how hard or soft the ground is), light, rugged or off-trail running shoes can meet runners’ needs,” Olufade says.
Thomas Mikkelsen, an avid runner from Holliston, Massachusetts, who does much of his training and ultramarathons on trails, says that finding an appropriate middle ground for you foot is important. He notes that too much structure and a very thick sole can be hard on the ankles and other parts of the body, especially if you’re running in really rugged areas. For example, if you hit a hole, root or rock unexpectedly, if you’re running in shoes that have a lot of height in the sole, that can increase the risk of rolling your ankle or tripping.
Instead, he recommends staying “away from a lot of structure and going instead with a shoe that’s highly flexible with a relatively low heel/toe differential.” The heel/toe differential, also called heel to toe drop, refers to the height difference between the heel and the forefoot and isn’t related to the thickness or stack of the sole. Differentials commonly vary between 0 millimeters up to about 14 millimeters.
“Lower differentials might add strain on your Achilles (tendon) that isn’t used to the extra work a low shoe makes you do, while a higher differential increases the chances of rolling an ankle.” For his own running, Mikkelsen uses a shoe with about an 8 to 9 millimeter differential, considered a neutral differential. Mikkelsen runs in inov-8 shoes, a U.K.-based brand of shoes built specifically for trail running.
[Read: At-Home Foot Care.]
Find Your Shoe
The standard advice is that people typically benefit from shoes that correct the issues that come with their specific type of feet. For example, “I especially recommend maximum cushioning for runners that have flat feet,” Olufade says. On the other hand, “runners with high or neutral arches can tolerate barefoot and minimal cushioning better than people with flat feet.” This still holds true to some extent in trail running.
General guidelines to note:
— People with flat feet and low arches are typically told to opt for motion-control shoes that correct the overpronation — or the inward foot rolling that’s common in these individuals. “Rugged trail shoes provide more protection and are suitable for uneven and difficult terrain as they usually have toe guards, stronger shoe materials and help stabilize the foot,” Olufade says. “I typically recommend this type of shoe to runners with low arches.” He adds that the Hoka One One Speed is a good option for cushioning flat feet.
— People with bunions, toe pain or wide feet typically need a wider shoe with a roomier toe box that helps minimize joint irritation and provides your foot the space it needs to work. Altra, New Balance and Hoka all tend to have winder toe boxes making these especially attractive options.
— People with “high or neutral arches can tolerate barefoot and minimal cushioning better than people with flat feet,” Olufade says. He recommends looking for “light trail shoes that have minimal soles and are more lightweight compared to traditional trail running shoes,” Olufade says. “This style is typically recommended for runners with normal arch support,” and he says the “Salomon Sense Ride 4 is considered the best overall trail shoe by many people.”
If you’re going off-trail, Olufade recommends selecting an off-trail running shoe, as these “are the most resilient running shoe style, and that they can be worn in bad weather. The shoe provides ample cushioning which is important for runners of all arch types.” He recommends the Salomon Speedcross 5 and La Sportiva Bushido II “for soft and mountain trails respectively.”
All this said, there’s a lot of variability within these guidelines. Ultimately, you’re going to have to try the shoes out and see if they work for you, your feet and your unique running gait. “Fit is one of the most important factors to consider when selecting a trail running shoe,” Olufade says. I always recommend that people visit a running store to try on shoes and determine which shoe has the best arch support and forefoot size for your feet.”
Before you make a purchase, check on the store’s return policy. San Antonio-based fitness trainer and endurance athlete Thomas Roe says he’s returned several pairs of shoes over the years because the fit just wasn’t there. He says you’ll know whether the fit works “within 10 to 20 miles.”
Okubadejo also adds that if you’re doing trail running in addition to strength training, road running or other fitness activities and you can afford to, it may make sense to have a different pair of shoes for each specific activity. “That way, you’re able to accommodate things appropriately, and you’re able to maximize the health of your feet and ankles.”
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Update 03/15/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.