How to choose your running shoes: trail running shoes

How to choose your running shoes: trail running shoes

Finding your perfect running shoes can be a rather long process and this goes for both, road and trail running. Today I will focus on trail running shoes but will do something similar for road running shoes too. Many steps are the same for both but obviously there are some significant differences because of the terrain and surface your running on.

Running shoes are a very personal choice and what might suit one runner might not be right for another. It took me quite some time and miles to find the right one I’ve come to love. Yes, there have been some along the way I favoured at a time but now, for what kind of trails and how far I’m running, I seem to have found the right fit. I have ‘worked my way up’, always buying the best I could afford at the time but it was, and still is, work in progress. So from my experience I’ve put together some rough guidelines of what I have learned and what helped me make my decisions.

1. Try as many shoes as you can.
I bought my first pair of trail running shoes in an outlet store and literally tried on 7-10 pairs until I made my choice. If you can get advise by qualified personnel take advantage of it. They can help you choose the right size, tell you if you need shoes that give you extra support etc. In the end choose the one you feel most comfortable in and in which you don’t feel as if your toes get squeezed on a longer downhill section. If the shop or even trail centre provides a test area take full advantage of it. Also let them check your pronation. If you overpronate, your foot rolls inwards more than then “ideal” 15 percent, if you underpronate your foot rolls inwards less than ideal. For each form of pronation there is a shoe that will support your foot the way it needs. 

When trying on shoes make sure you actually wear the socks you will be using when running. No point in trying them on in an everyday pair when your actually running socks are thicker or thinner.

If you decide to buy your shoes online, do your research. Read reviews from various sources and check how the sizing compares for other runners. If in doubt about the size get two pairs closest to your size with the plan to return one. Just make sure you check the return policy before you buy.

2. Be realistic about your running goals
So you have done your research and found a pair you really like? Make sure it’s actually fit for purpose and that you don’t get carried away. If you don’t intend to run an ultra marathon don’t buy shoes for extremely long runs but instead ones that are perfect for the length of your runs.

3. Cushioning or bare feet feeling
There is a trend towards less cushioning and minimal shoes, which means less ‘stack height’. There have been many studies to find out whether minimal shoes are better than cushioned ones but not definite answer can be given at this stage. Some people think a more natural feel is better but others rather have more cushioning. This is something you have to find out for yourself. If you want to try minimal shoes, make sure to take it slow and gradually start building up the length of your runs to prevent injuries.

My progression of trail running shoes

4. Lug size and depth
This is one of the differences to road running shoes – you have to know what surfaces you will be running on. Is it going to be mainly soft, muddy, uneven, slick or rocky? This will determine what size lug you need on the sole of your shoes. Short lug patterns are good for hard dirt, covered with stones. If you run mainly on muddy or soft surfaces a deeper lug will be better for you to give you that extra grip and dig in.

5. Waterproof
If you have a pair of hiking shoes they most likely will be waterproof. But what is good for hiking or walking isn’t necessarily good for running. Waterproof shoes can lead to your feet being wet from your own sweat because the waterproof membrane can’t let the moisture out. Make sure the membrane is breathable and good for letting moisture through. Exceptions might be if you run really wet, muddy or snow trails but personally I like to stick with waterproof socks in these situations.

6. Toe box width
Toe box is the front part of the shoe that houses your forefoot. Some people have wide feet, some narrow feet. Make sure you pick the right one for you. Also take into consideration that you might need bit of extra space when going downhill or running very long distances. I have had the case that I bought a shoe one size up just to make sure the toe box was right for me without the shoe being too big overall.

7. Weight
Weight will make a difference especially on long runs so make sure they don’t feel heavy or clumsy when you first try them on. If they don’t feel right in the shop it will only get worse on the trail.

8. Drop
Drop describes how many millimetres the sole drops from heel to toe. This is a also a very personal choice as it depends on running form and preference. Some people like a higher drop whereas others like it more flat. Try different models and see which one suits you best.

Overall I’d say, figure out where and what distances you are running, which shoes fit you best and then buy the best pair you can afford. A good shoe will pay off and keep your feet healthy and yourself less prone to injury.


The German half of Outdoor Kultur. When I'm not working as a graphic designer and illustrator to pay my bills, I can be found outside, rambling in the countryside, going for a run or enjoying my new found love for mountain biking.

Leave a Reply

Close Menu