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BLOG | TIPS | 03 June 2016

How to Choose the Right Trail Running Shoes for You

Whether they are for short runs or for ultras of more than 100km, we will discuss the different trail running shoe options that are suitable for every condition.

Trail running and mountain races have grown tremendously in popularity over the last few years. This growth in the number of participants has been linked to a variety of offerings in the type of races and runners. With so many different trails, terrains, weather conditions, and distances, trail running really has something to offer almost any type of runner. Trails can be classified from your standard off-beaten mountain path, to truly technical terrain that is reserved for those with experience and knowledge of the mountains.

The evolution of trail running has been rapid yet convoluted. During the beginning stages, runners used minimal equipment and usually ran for fun as there were only a few competitions to choose from. Today, you can find many different kinds of races and runners such as: ultradistance, middle distance, trail, rugged terrain, hill or fell running, short distance and more.

This evolution has led to the production of different shoes that are designed for each type of race, runner and terrain. Due to this variety of races and runners, it is possible to find a shoe that is suited for any given circumstance. However, it is becoming more complex to discern among the many brands, models, and types of footwear that are now available to trail runners. Before delving into the different types of shoes and their specializations, we will first look at the different types of runners that exist.


Runners are classified according to a number of different factors, including running style and gait, technical level, weight, and aspirations and expectations. For example, there are runners who like to run more relaxed and with less technique and may prefer a more stability-focused, ultra-distance shoe, regardless of the type of race. Keep in mind that these choices always come with a trade-off, though. Ultra-distance shoes are designed to offer greater stability when a runners tires over the course of a long race, so that he or she doesn’t have to be constantly aware of stride or foot protection. In doing so, however, the runner is most likely sacrificing performance and losing time in exchange for a higher level of safety and protection.

Alpine Ultra races can have very technical terrain. In the photo, a trail runner participant, with Ice Master crampons for shoes, from Camp.
However, the same cannot be said for the opposite: Shoes designed for short distances are not suitable for ultra races, as your feet will not have the necessary protection they need. It is important to understand that while the highly responsive and lightweight features of short-distance race shoes may sound attractive, they offer less of the protection, stability and cushioning that you’ll need for an ultra race. Based on this, you should try out several models in the hopes of finding one that offers the best balance between performance and stability.

The thing about trail running is that you can run almost anywhere, and on any type of land. With the conditions of the landscape so varied, different soles are designed according to the terrain you are running on. For example, if you live in an area with a lot of precipitation, you will most likely have wet and muddy conditions. In this instance, you should look for shoes that have soles with spaced-out lugs that can release mud easily and prevent build-up that leads to slips and falls. For steeper hills and rugged terrain, we would recommend a sole that offers more structure, support, and protection from rocks, stones, pebbles, twigs and whatever other obstacles you may come across.

Each brand develops its own materials and technologies for the soles. Some are more adherent than others and sometimes, what happens is that based on how people run and what their foot strike is like, the sole's adherence can be affected. However, we can say that all the shoes mentioned in this article use high-quality rubber compounds with superior adherent properties.

Generally speaking, the softer the sole, the greater the adhesion, but at the expense of durability. This is something to keep in mind, and therefore the softer-soled shoes tend to be more suitable and necessary for more technical courses, though they will wear out faster than a harder-soled model.

The soles should be tested out on various terrains, including climbing over rocks and boulders.
Recently, several advancements have been made in the design and construction of soles. An example of this can be seen with The North Face Ultra Endurance which has above-average adherence without compromising durability. You can learn more about the TNF Ultra Endurance in our video review. Another example is the Salewa Ultra Train, designed in partnership with Michelin brand to develop an innovative approach to sole design, traction, stability and durability.

With slight variations, we can divide trail running shoes into four groups, from shortest to longest distance. Again, we will see the trade-off that occurs in different models between performance and stability/protection as distances get longer. The shorter the distance, the more responsive and technical the shoes will be while offering less protection, balance and cushioning. This is fundamental to know because this classification can be viewed as a “ladder.” Be aware that this is a ladder that in most cases you can go down, but not up. Let us imagine this ladder, with the first step being ideal for cross-country shoes and the last and highest step for Ultratrail shoes. We can go down the stairs, and run a half marathon with Ultratrail shoes, as there are many runners that, due to their type of build or gait, need more stability, cushioning, or protection, so they choose this option. Yet it is not advisable to go down the ladder, as running an ultra or a marathon in cross-country shoes is not advisable.

Sometimes we don’t realize that this isn’t just a matter of convenience or comfort. If we choose a lighter or more technical shoe for its performance capabilities, but it stabilizes us less (which is what we need for long distances) we will probably end up going slower because we have to struggle to maintain stability towards the end of the race. We end up not saving any time as originally intended. The same can be said for shorter distances. If we need a lightweight, technical shoe to move quickly, then balance and cushioning shouldn’t be the priority.

A list of the general types of mountain running shoes:


This is a very specific category that is ideal for technical races between five and ten kilometers on rugged, uneven terrain. Designed for pros and advanced amateurs, be sure not to confuse these races with the “fun runs” of the same distance. For cross-country races, runners require a lot of response from their shoes and a lot of feel of the terrain for speedy descents. This can only be obtained by lowering the profile, which also provides the stability needed to go at that speed on unforgiving terrain.

Women’s La Sportiva Helios, cross country shoe

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