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What to Look for in Trail Running Shoes: A Buying Guide

What to Look for in Trail Running Shoes: A Buying Guide

When you are out at the store looking for regular running shoes, the criteria are quite simple. You know exactly what to look out for, and there are countless choices too. However, when it comes to trail running shoes, things are quite different. For this reason, knowing what to look for in trail running shoes is important, especially if you are a beginner.

Since trail running involves you running on uneven paths, with a ton of obstacles likes sharp rocks, inclines and declines, water puddles, muddy roads, and several others, it leaves you susceptible to a lot of injury in comparison to a regular run. It becomes imperative to have shoes that do an excellent job in protecting you and your feet on such a run.

If this is your case, then our detailed guide on trail running shoes will certainly prove to be beneficial to you.

What to Look for in Trail Running Shoes?

Other than the obvious—that is, choosing a pair that has a perfect fit—there are a couple of key considerations that are essential when you are selecting the ideal shoes for trail running. These are:

  • Tread

The tread on a trail running shoe is far more aggressive than a regular running shoe. In fact, this is one of the biggest differentiating factors between them. When the lugs, or the “cleats” on the outsole, are deeper and are spaced wider, they will offer the runner better traction. This is especially the case if you are running on a path that is quite muddy.

That being said, deep lugs that are about five to seven millimeters in height, tend to be quite uncomfortable if you want to run on pavement or a path with firm dirt.

So, if you intend to run mostly on trails that are hard-packed or if you intend to use your trail running shoes on regular roads and trails, then look out for shoes with a shorter lug, around two to four millimeters. The lugs should be spaced more closely too.

On the other hand, if you intend to walk or run on a path that has a lot of pebbles or is a rocky trail, then look for trail running shoes that have the phrase “sticky rubber” mentioned in its description. This is a special kind of rubber that offers an improved grip in the rock.

  • Rock Plate

You will find that quite a few trail running shoes feature a nylon shank or a rock plate that is built into the midsole of the shoe. This helps protect your feet against any rock bruising.

Wearing this kind of trail running shoes makes sense if you intend to run on rocky or gravel and technical trails as it provides you with inbuilt protection. However, do note that the rock plate will add weight to the shoe. So, unless this feature is something you definitely need, do not be bogged down by this unnecessary weight.

  • Cushioning

Cushioning is an important aspect of absolutely any kind of shoe. The right kind of cushioning ensures how comfortable the shoes can be. In recent years, the cushioning of all kinds of shoes have seen quite a bit of change.

Trail running shoes have different kinds of cushioning based on the kind of trail running. Ideally, choosing a shoe with more cushioning makes sense if you plan on running on trails as well as roads, or primarily on trails that are hard packed or running long distances.

If you are slightly on the heavier side, or if you struggle with joint or knee pain, then opt for a pair of trail running shoes with more cushioning as they will do a good job reducing impact.

Trail running shoes with less cushioning are ideal if you will be running on softer and smoother trails, primarily running shorter distances or simply prefer a shoe that is nimble and offer a more closer-to-the-ground feel.

  • Heel-to-Toe Drop

This aspect of the shoe has become very important over the last decade. The heel-to-toe drop, which is sometimes even referred to as just drop, will describe how many additional millimeters of cushioning is present in the heel part of the shoe in comparison to the toe.

A 10- to 12-millimeter heel-to-toe drop is considered to be the usual difference. This offers more than enough cushioning to the heel, which makes this ideal for runners who tend to heel strike. Heel strike is an act of landing on the heels first when someone walks or runs.

If the drop is lower, the shoe will promote more of a midfoot strike. This is considered to be a lower impact stride by many than a heel strike. Do note that if the drop goes even lower, that is between zero to four millimeters, then your Achilles will have to work more. For a newbie, this will need an adjustment period especially when you run uphill.

  • Waterproof Feature

Certain trail running shoes are available with waterproof features. They will often be demarcated by the letter “GTX”, which stands for Gore-Tex. Other trail shoes will have features such as integrated gaiters, which will help fend off snow, rain, and mud.

Ideally, waterproof shoes are perfect if you mostly live in areas with cold or wet weathers, where it consistently snows or rains. In any other situations, these waterproof trail running shoes can be an overkill.

Waterproof membranes, even if they are labeled as “breathable” hardly allows for ventilation at all. So, if you live in a hot climate where it rains only for a few months a year, then it is wise to choose shoes that are airy and have a mesh so that it can dry quickly.

Do note that if water or snow does manage to enter a waterproof shoe, such as when you are crossing through a creek, it will completely get trapped inside the membrane. In such a case, you can consider pairing your waterproof shoe along with a trail running gaiter. This will prevent the water or the snow from seeping in at the shoe’s collar.


The five key considerations that we have mentioned above are what to look for in trail running shoes. As you may have figured, there are several varieties in trail running shoes too. This article will certainly help you understand which shoe will suit you the most on the basis of several aspects. Make sure you choose the right pair to have a smooth and comfortable run.

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