How to Choose a Trail or Road Running Shoe
Insider Tips from a Tahoe Mountain Sports Runner
It seems like just a minute ago that I was new to running and asking anyone that would offer and opinion, “what shoe should I get?” And it is only now that I have started to hear others ask this and thought I should share my opinion on the topic. Anyone that tells you “you should definitely get the (insert brand and model number)”, you should definitely follow that advice with a certain amount of caution.
The reality is that there are many manufacturers out there that make a quality shoe and every person’s foot is different. And you will hate me for saying this, but it is very difficult for someone else to tell you what the right shoe for you will be. So with that buzz kill moment, I will offer the following as a guide to help you have an informed decision.
The Difficult Choice – Road or Trail?
This should be one of the easiest questions for you. Which are you going to run more of, pavement or dirt? Ideally, you would be getting both because I truly feel being able to run on both surfaces provides so many more options. The reality is you can (and I do) run trail shoes on pavement and road shoes on trail. It is just that you will be missing the cushioning of a road shoe for pavement and traction of a trail shoe for your single tracks. I’m over simplifying this decision – one shoe for each is best- but if you don’t want to buy two, there absolutely will not be any shoe police out there to give you a ticket. You also may find that you prefer one brand for trail and another for road as I did for the last couple years.
Shoe Width: Finding the Right Fit for YOUR Foot
Certain brands are narrower or wider so just because your running buddy swears by let’s say Salomons or Hoka, doesn’t mean that will be the right shoe for you. Everyone’s foot is shaped differently and you as a runner might change over time as your running style or the individual shoe models change over time. For me a certain brand of trail shoe was fantastic for performance, but the cost was a narrow forefoot area that caused rubbing and blisters/calluses. I tried another brand that was significantly wider, but lacked the secure feel of the trail (essentially felt like I was running in flip flops). So just like the 3 Little Bears, I eventually landed on one that felt “just right”. In a good fit, your heel should feel secure and snug with room in the forefoot for your toes to splay out.
Let Your Feet Breathe – Waterproof vs. Not
This is another area where each person can be quite a bit different. I have had a pair of Gore-Tex trail shoes for a year and a half now that have about 30 miles on them. I thought I was going to love having dry feet, but actually found that I’m better off with shoes that drain well and are more breathable. That said, I have friends that run in their Goretex shoes all the time and it never bothers them. I will probably steer clear of waterproof for my own taste, but there are a ton of options out there now.
What in the World is Drop?
What is drop? This common shoe descriptor refers to the difference in height between the heel and toe of a running shoe. The drop of a shoe is generally measured in millimeters and will typically range between zero, essentially a flat foot or level platform, to around 9mm for a shoe that has more thickness to the cushioning for the heel area. I have found that for my running form, a 5-7mm drop feels the most comfortable to me as I still have a tendency to heel strike, particularly descending on trails. Some folks naturally experience more of a midfoot or forefoot strike and they may be more inclined to run a near zero drop shoe. You’ll adapt to either platform, just know that during that transition period you may have some growing pains as you adjust. For instance, I recently switched to Topos and the lower heel drop resulted in really tight calves for the first few weeks. If you switch to a lower drop shoe, break it in slowly on shorter runs to let your body adapt.
How Much Cushion Do You Really Need?
More cushion is always better right? Well, that can depend too. When I first started running I really wanted as much cushion as possible. Made total sense since in early 2017 I was 45 pounds heavier than I am right now. I also had a very low running cadence which resulted in a high ground contact time. In short, a lot more impact and stress of the body. As my body has adapted to this “running thing” I have slowly been switching to a more dense foam so I’m not losing as much energy into the form as I’m running. Basically there is a trade-off with the amount of energy that is lost into the foam, but this should also be an area where you decide what feels right to you. Who cares if you might be a second or two slower per mile if you are getting injured from the platform you are using. Being able to run without injury is and should be the primary concern.
The Most Important Choice: Color Selection
I cannot stress this enough… This matters the least. I couldn’t care less about what my shoes look like. But I do recall my first trail shoes being obnoxiously red. I tended to appreciate the more subtle colors at the time. But now I kinda enjoy a little color explosion for my shoes. Especially for the trails, since they quickly get dirty anyways and the shock and awe quickly fades anyway.
Get Fitted by the Pros at Tahoe Mountain Sports
By now we know that it’s impossible to generalize on which particular trail running or road running shoe will fit you best. Everyone’s feet, running gait, and stance are completely unique. Now that you have a toolkit of what to consider when purchasing a running shoe, the next step is to get fitted by the experts at Tahoe Mountain Sports.
Here are tips for your running shoe fitting:
- Bring socks! Make sure you bring whatever socks you usually run in. This is important for fit and comfort.
- Test it out. Walk and run around the store when trying on a shoe.
- Remember that your feet will swell. Always buy shoes with enough room for inevitable foot swell. If your shoes just-barely-fit in the store, they won’t feel good after a long run.