On buying trail shoes

As I prepare to take my mom, Liz, to buy her first pair of trail shoes, I thought I’d revisit this most frequently asked question – about buying trail shoes. Is there a ‘best shoe’? What should I look for? Where can I go to look for them?

I wrote this piece on “What trail shoes to buy” some years ago – I’ve embellished on this below.

First, road shoes are fine for your first short trail run but thereafter trail shoes are better. Road shoes are made from a softer sole compound so they get shredded by rocks and also their upper is more maleable and not as supportive. It’s made for straight-line foot placement. So, when you step squiffy on a rock, the upper goes one way and sole goes another with foot shifting inside = twisted ankle.

There’s no best trail shoe. Your shoe choice depends depends on which model most suits your feet. What is good for your friend may not work for you.

Take your socks with you when you go to buy shoes; you must fit shoes with the socks that you prefer to wear. You may like cushion-foot socks but the ones they have at the store for you to use may be thin socks. You won’t get the right fit.

And, on walking into the store, keep an open mind. Ignore brand name, colours, appearance and styling of the shoe. They all look the same when covered in mud. Different brands and models have different shaped lasts (the shape for your foot). Some are good for broad feet or narrow feet or low arches or high arches or wide toes. Ignore the brand name, price and model – it is not important. My favourite trail shoe is a hard-to-get, lower-down-in-the-range shoe; I prefer it to the models higher up in the price and technology offering.

Don’t be fixed on being a certain size shoe. I’m a size 7 in normal fashion shoes, a UK8.5 in most all of my trail and road shoes (Adidas and Asics) but I’m a UK8 in Salomon Crossmax and UK7.5 in Hi-Tec Infinity. Ladies, try on mens shoes too. All of my shoes except for the Salomon Crossmax are guys shoes. Start with your usual size and try the half sizes or full sizes around it for comparison and to be sure you’re getting the right fit.

Shoes that are too big will see your heel lifting out of the cup, your foot sliding forward-back in the shoe and your toes slamming against the toebox. BAD. Too small will also mean hammered toenails, swollen feet, blisters and discomfort. Your big toe (or second toe, if it is longer) shouldn’t be touching the front of the shoe. Then, move your foot forward in the shoe so that your toes are right up at the top. Put your finger in behind your heel and see how much space there is here. You should be able to get your finger in – should be snug – not tight, not roomy.

What you’re looking for in fit is the following:

First, a good foot-in-feel. When you first put your foot into the shoe does your foot feel comfortable? At home? Remember to tie the laces properly. If you’re feeling any tight spots, squeezing, lumps or bumps, it is not the shoe for you. Shoes do not need to be worn in. It should feel right immediately.

Wiggle your toes. How much space is there in the toebox? Lots of air above your toes (step forward and bend toes – does the fabric of the toebox bunch over your toes?) Or are your toes a bit squished by the narrow fit?

Heel cup is another important one. Does the back come up too high and dig into your Achilles? Do the sides catch your ankle bones? When you walk in the shoes (put on both shoes and walk around) does your heel keep lifting out of the heel cup?

How does the shoe fit around your arch? A space below/around the arch makes an opportunity for movement and friction. I like the shoe to fit snuggly around my arch so that my foot doesn’t move around. This is a personal preference thing really.

Once the fit is good and your feet feel at home, them compare other elements – especially where there is more than one pair that you like.

Trail shoes should be neutral – though there are some anti-pronation / motion control types…). If you think about it, when you run off-road, your feet and ankles move left, right and all directions. You don’t want to prevent this so neutral is fine even for people who wear anti-pronation shoes on road. If you’ve got weak ankles – strengthen them with proprioception exercises and watch your foot placements. You’ll gain strength from regular off-road running. If you’ve had fractures, sprains, strains and operations, you also need to do the strengthening exercises but will probably require a brace or strapping initially. Speak to your physio or biokineticist. Twisted ankles are not the result of pronation vs neutral shoes; it is because of poor proprioception, weaknesses in the supporting structure and bad foot placements.

Compare the weight of the shoe to another. A person weighing 60kg will suit a lighter shoe than a 90kg runner.

Check out the lugs (tread) under the shoe. Does the shoe have flat tread, like a road shoe, or bigger lugs like a mountain bike tyre? For the most part it doesn’t matter too much, especially where you’re running on a variety of surfaces (dirt roads, rock trails, forest floors),  but generally you need some tread for grip and a smooth, flat sole just won’t cut it.

The upper… you’ll find a bunch of materials here that give the upper structure and support. It is way more firm than the upper on a road shoe and the fabrics used will be more abrasion resistant. If you run beach or sandy areas, favour shoes with smaller ‘holes’ in the fabric.

Look at the tongue. Is it sewn in with a ‘catch’ for trail debris like grass seeds and sticks? (this feature is kinda irrelevant if you run with gaiters). Is there a thing on the tongue to thread your laces through so that the tongue doesn’t move all over? How padded is the tongue? Does it put pressure on the top of your foot?  A different lacing pattern can help here although a really puffy tongue is unnecessary.

And then look at laces. Look at how far the holes go up – you generally don’t want laces too high, working into the bend of foot-shin. This can cause inflammation in lower shin because it restricts movement of the joint. Remember you can lace your shoes any way you want to so just check it out. Also look at the lace ‘eyes’. Are they fixed securely? Are they made from metal that can rust? And look at the lacing material. If the lace is a round cord, it will come undone, even with a double knot. Try it and see how securely it knots. A number of trail shoes like Salomon and Hi-Tec have easy-pull lasing systems. Many love ’em; I prefer normal laces where I can adjust the tension across the top of my foot or change the lacing pattern. If my feet swell, I like to loosen my laces in places. You can’t do this with quick pull.

Consider your socks. Cushion-foot or thin socks? Again, this is personal preference but it will affect the size of your shoe so take the socks you prefer with you when you try on shoes. As with running, you need the centimetre between top of big toe and toebox.

So where do you go to try on shoes? Well, there’s no one-stop shop really so you have to try a number of stores.

Cape Union Mart, Cape Storm, DueSouth, ME Stores (in the Cape), Outdoor Warehouse, Sportsmans Warehouse, Trappers Trading plus independant  outdoor and running stores also stock trail shoes now too.

Brands, in alphabetical order, are Adidas, Asics, Hi-Tec, Inov-8, Merrell, Montrail, New Balance and Salomon. Quieter brands include Brooks, Columbia, K-Swiss, La Sportiva, Puma and Timberland. I don’t think that Nike nor Saucony still offer their trail range in SA.

Ultimately, specs and technology and popularity mean nothing. The only thing that counts is that the shoe feels right to you.