Trail running shoes have just come on the scene in the last 20 years, making them a newbie in the running world. For those who want a shoe dedicated to the rigors of running on the trail, you can find one that will meet your needs based type of running you do and weather conditions they are most often used in.
This type of shoe tries to mimic the movement of a barefoot while offering some protection from rocks, sticks, and other obstacles. They have 0mm heel, which means wearers will walk and run closer to how they would barefoot. Many runners like this type of shoe for their long-term foot health but they are not ideal for rugged trails.
Low-profile trail runners have a low heel-toe drop, usually between 0 – 6mm, to mimic a natural stride. Their design is largely based on the same principle as minimalist shoes that overly structured shoes can get in the way of the natural movement of the foot while running. The difference between low-profile and minimalist shoes is that low-profile offer a little more support and protection that a minimalist shoe while still allowing a natural running gait.
Traditional running shoes, those used on and off the trail, generally have a heel-toe drop between 6 - 14mm. While controversy surrounds whether or not the extra heel padding is necessary or even healthy for running with the correct stride, this is the style and build of shoe that most people are used to using. The vast majority of trail runners fall into this category but have what are called shanks or plates in them to prevent bruising of the foot from trail debris. Shoes specifically marketed as trail runners will also have a wider toe box, heavier tread, and more durable uppers to accommodate the rigors of running on a trail.
This is a relatively new category of trail running shoe that focuses on providing maximum impact absorption. The design incorporates large amounts of foam padding between the foot and the ground. They are best suited to ultra-running, long trail runs, or for older runners who need the extra padding for comfort.
There are many aspects of a running shoe that are important and they will be discussed here. But before you can truly choose the right trail runner it's important to examine what kind of runner you are and the intent behind the shoe.
For those that intend to use one pair of trail runners for the majority of their runs, the support and protection you find in a traditional trail shoe will probably be sufficient because it will offer you a familiar fit and protection from the terrain. If you do a lot of sprints and short trail runs, a lightweight minimalist shoe may be right for you. If you do long runs and do most of your running on rugged terrain, you may want to consider a maximalist shoe that will give you extra cushioning and support to prevent injury.
The fit of the shoe will make more difference than any other factor. Your trail runners should be snug without being tight, rubbing, or pinching any area of the foot. There should be room to wiggle the toes so as not to bruise toenails. You may choose the most highly recommended running shoe but if it doesn't fit your foot well, you may end up with blisters or an injury anyway. It is important to find a shoe that is comfortable and works well with your foot structure and running style. There are three basic foot structures high arch, neutral arch, and flat arch. There are some shoe manufacturers that make shoes that accommodate these different arch structures. These types of shoes are usually labeled "stability or motion control".
This is most important for those that will be running races or who want to do speed work on the trail. Minimalist shoes will be the most lightweight but there are traditional trail runners that provide extra protection are still considered lightweight.
Lugs are the traction on the bottom of the shoe. For better grip, look for shoes with deep spaces between the lugs. This becomes especially important on rocky terrain and provides the extra grip you need. If you run in wet, muddy conditions widely spaced lugs will help prevent mud from becoming caked into the bottom of your shoes, causing you to lose grip.
Some shoes come with a waterproof liner that is helpful if you frequently run in wet conditions. In hot, dry climates, shoes without a liner will dry out faster.
Saucony has a long-standing running tradition. Their Peregrine 5 is a common top contender for best trail running shoe. It is a low-profile design that gives you the grip and protection you need while still being responsive to trail conditions. The Excursion TR8 is another favorite trail runner from Saucony. It has a traditional design but still remains lightweight.
Hoka is one of the few makers of a maximalist trail running shoe. Their shoes have foam padding between the foot and ground making them good for those who run ultra-distances or long trail runs. They will keep your foot protected and comfortable for hours.
The Bushido is a favorite of many runners that are looking for a low-profile shoe with great traction.
Other noteworthy brands that make quality trail shoes are Nike, Salomon, Brooks, and ASICS.