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.

Mountain running shoes, the key to our equipment.

Trail running vertical races have grown in popularity enormously in recent years.

This growth in the number of participants has gone hand in hand with categorization within the sport. We can find people who:

  • practise trail running (literally, races on paths): in fact the majority of runs (and races) are like this). Depending on the type of path, the run can be more or less complicated, with more or less height gain, etc.
  • Also do technical runs (and races) in the mountains in places reserved for people with experience and knowledge of mountaineering, and mountaineers that run in complicated terrain.

Something similar happens with distances. We can find:

  • Short and explosive races
  • Medium distance races
  • Long distance and ultra races

And the categorization of distances, difficulty and athletes has led to the material, and especially the footwear used:

  • Due to this, it is not easy to find a trainer that fits everybody and every situation.
  • This is compounded by the vast selection of brands, models and types.

Here we are going to help.

Different types of terrain, different requirements.

Type of athlete

Before explaining the different types of trainers according to their category, it is worthwhile remembering that each runner is different.

You will have to adapt the categories that we will present to your style and capability according to your:

  • 1. Technical and physical fitness level
  • 2. Weight
  • 3. Foot Shape

1. Technical and physical fitness level

Anyone who dominates less technique, who like to run more relaxed and less seriously, will probably prefer trainers for marathons and ultras, independent of which distance or type of run.

As we will later see in more details, this type of trainers are designed for more stability when we are tired, so that we do not have to be constantly conscious of our stride, and have more protection and cushioning.

If we are going to choose shoes that are reactive and lightweight, designed for short and quick runs, we should bear in mind that possibly their characteristics could run against us end up penalizing us as our technique and fitness level is ready for the reduction in protection, stability and cushioning that they offer (independent of the distance). If this is the case, it is better to try models more in line with our technique until we find the best balance between capabilities, safety and comfort.

It is not bad to remember that the most technical and lightweight gear is designed for professional athletes, with the highest level, whose technique in well above average.

2. Weight

This is something we should bear in mind: anyone who is big with a high weight mass, needs more cushioning than someone who weighs 60 kilos, as a result it is better to avoid lightweight reactive models, independent of the type of activity planned.

Each person has to know their needs according to their build, but anyone who weighs more than 75-80 kg, it is good to move up a step (later we will explain what we mean) when choosing footwear for running in the mountains.

3. Last

This is a very personal question, and each person has their foot a certain way. Trainers that fit like a glove for one person may be torture for another.

Sometime the choice of trainer has more to do with fit on our feet than any other variable in terms of type, etc. One thing is clear, the trainer that we are most comfortable with, that is the one for us.

Close to the summit of Tendeñera, 2.800m high: technical mountain terrain.


Within each type of trainer (reactive for short distances and, protective and cushioned for ultras, etc), we can find different types of soles for different types of terrain.

Although they are all multi-purpose and work well most terrain, some are more orientated towards mud or soft terrain while others are more focussed on rock, etc.

These days it depends more on the geometry than the number and depth of the lugs: it could be that a trainer orientated towards soft ground has fewer lugs than one orientated towards hard surfaces.

Each brand uses its own rubbers. Some are grippier, others less grippy. It is also the case that some rubbers will be more grippy for one type of runner, because of the way they run and step, and others will be better for others.

The softer the sole, the better the grip, but at the expense of durability. This is why, in addition to protection, softer soles are usually found in shoes for shorter distances and harder soles in shoes for longer distances.

It can be simplified by saying that, in general, all the leading brands comply with the quality of the rubber of the sole and with the requirements that are demanded of it, and that whatever it is, it will not give us any problems. In recent years there has been a mini revolution with the arrival of the compound for Trail Running shoes soles Vibram Megagrip. Different types of soles are made from it.

Salomon remains a general reference, with its own Contagrip soles. It has quite a few different types, and in this article, Salomon Contagrip soles; all compound types and geometries and how to identify them, we explain how to identify them by the code of the shoe.

The brands which work with tyre manufacturers to produce their soles are very interesting. For example, Mizuno uses Michelin soles, with compounds and design from the French brand, with excellent results.

Another brand that uses "tyres" is Adidas Terrex, which uses Continental compound and design for its soles, with exceptional grip on wet and slippery terrain.

Types of trainers. A one way staircase

With their slight variations and intersections between them, we can divide mountain running shoes into 4 major groups, from shortest to longest distance:

  • 1. Trainers for Cross and Vertical Race
  • 2. Trainers for Half Marathon
  • 3. Trainers for Marathon
  • 4. Trainers for Ultra distances

With regard to this classification, the following rule applies:

  • The shorter the distance, the more reactive and technical: less protection, balance and cushioning.
  • The longer the distance, the more protection, balance and cushioning: less reactive and technical.

One way staircase?

Yes. Because it is a staircase that, for most people, is upward but not downward.

Let's imagine the ladder: the first step at the bottom is the cross country shoes; the second step is the half marathon shoes; the third step is the marathon shoes; the last step at the top is the ultra trail shoes.

We can climb the ladder, and run a race with the shoes on the top step:

  • A short and fast race with half, marathon, or ultra running shoes
  • A half marathon in marathon or ultra shoes
  • A marathon in ultra shoes.

As we said, there are those who, due to their type of constitution or running style, need greater stability, cushioning or protection, and choose the possibility of climbing one or more steps on the ladder.

But running the stairs downhill is not at all advisable. Running an ultra, or a marathon, in cross country shoes does not seem like the best idea, and we will pay dearly for it.

It is not only a question of comfort and safety: if we choose a shoe that -supposedly- will help us to improve our times, but it stabilises and protects us less than we need, we will probably end up losing more time than we gain, due to the added effort we will have to make.

1. Trainers for Cross and Vertical Race

A very specific category, for technical distances between 5 and 10 kilometres.

Not to be confused with the popular races that are run over this distance. We are talking about very technical races, aimed at pros and very advanced amateurs, with technical terrain and constant ascents and descents.

This type of events and runners require a lot of reactivity in their shoes, a lot of terrain sensation for the trials, through which they go at high speed. And this can only be obtained by lowering the profile a lot, which also gives us the necessary stability to go at that speed on such unstable terrain.

When it comes to vertical runs...the specialisation is even greater, because these shoes can do without the protections. Only very vertical terrain is climbed.

This type of very specific shoes are not recommended for longer distances, nor for runners with unrefined technique.

2. Trainers for Half Marathon

This is the category with the most races on the calendar. They are those races between 10 and 35km.

Due to the type of shoes that these races require -balanced and versatile- the average amateur, the one who trains and runs regularly in this type of distances and/or shorter distances, unless he/she is looking for something more protective due to his/her constitution or technique, will be able to choose his/her shoes in this segment.

They seek a balance between lightness, cushioning, reactivity and stability. Looking to go as fast as possible, but without ever getting out of control; with a feeling of terrain, but with the security of not hurting ourselves.

Our advice for this range?

Choose shoes with medium or low profiles, and with protective accessories, such as toecap and rock-plate well finished. Most runners don't have the technique of a pro to think about where we place our foot in each step if we go fast, and these elements will balance us and will help us a lot to not worry about our stride.

3. Trainers for Marathon

Undoubtedly, it is the ultimate category, to which every runner aspires.

Here the distance is between 30km and 60km. It starts to be a lot of hours of strides, and we need more protection. We become more dependent on cushioning and stability to be able to maintain a steady pace and not let our legs fail us at the arrival of the dreaded "wall".

We will look for shoes with medium profiles, with some stability system incorporated and an upper that is more comfortable, even if we penalise a little in weight.

The first compromises begin to show in these shoes: less sense of the terrain, more stability; more protection – more weight.

There are runners of shorter distances, or training, who choose them. Because, due to the way they run, the cushioning and support they receive with them compensates the loss of reactivity and sensations.

4. Trainers for Ultra distances

Just a few years ago there were few who ventured into this type of event; today there are few who do not aspire to be a finisher of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc or the Gran Trail Aneto-Posets, at least once in their lives.

An Ultra is something very serious, not only because of the distance, but also because many of them venture into terrain reserved for those with experience in mountaineering and alpinism, both in technique and in orientation, in experience with weather changes in altitude, etc.

It requires a lot of training, and getting the right equipment. It is a category that, at its minimum limit, is 60km, but usually well over 100km.

We are looking for comfort, cushioning and a lot of stability. This helps with the stride when the body and strength fail. This is achieved by external chassis, very oversized and even oversized midsoles and extra comfort, such as highly padded gaiters or inner socks.

The North Face has launched this season the very interesting Vectiv system. By means of three-dimensional stability plates it has achieved ultra shoes with very high reactivities, combining the best of both worlds.

In other words: they are suitable for those who are looking for reactivity in an ultra, as well as for those who prefer the protection and performance of an ultra shoe in a shorter distance race or outing, without giving up the necessary reactivity for shorter races.

In this article, Vectiv technology from The North Face: efficiency turned into footwear we will explain how it works.

The shoes of this group are much more resistant, and with toe reinforcements. When you have been 80 kilometres on bad terrain, and due to tiredness, it is normal to "kick" all the stones that we find.

This type of shoe doubles quite well as a trekking shoe, and it is not uncommon to see people wearing them on trails and in the mountains.

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