Bored of pounding the pavements? The mental and physical benefits of trail running are astounding, with researchers finding getting off the beaten track lowers anxiety, reduces your risk of injury and forces you to use more muscle groups.
Yet before heading away from the well-trodden path, it’s important to ensure you’re kitted out.
What to look for in a trail running or off-road shoe?
On a firm, well-groomed trail, you might be ok running in your normal training shoes, yet add mud, moisture, rocks and vegetation and things can get a little trickier. Here’s what to look for in a trail running shoe:
- Look for a shoe with a low profile – the need for a thick layer of foam between your foot and the ground is negated when trail running, in fact, the lower the profile of the shoe, the more stable you’ll be on uneven ground.
- Grip is everything – without a good grip, you can’t run with confidence.
- There should be in-built protection – off-road running can be hard on your shoes, especially the upper. Look for rubber or nylon reinforcements around the toe box, heel counter and the bottom of the upper.
- Look at the waterproof protection – water will often be a problem on Britain’s trails and when it comes to trail running trainers, there are two schools of thought: the waterproof shell, which works well when splashing through puddles, but does not allow water to escape from the shoe. The second approach is more of a sieve design, with focuses on the belief that keeping your feet watertight is impossible, and focuses on drainage rather than protection.
What are the best trail running shoes on the market in 2020?
1.Best in test: Merrel MTL Long Sky
Weight: 280g (M) 230g (W)
Heel/toe drop: 11mm
Durability is an underestimated quality in a shoe these days; the word somehow suggests bulkiness or clumsiness, but the MTL Long Sky, designed for long trail runs, proves this doesn’t have to be the case. The Merrell Test Lab worked with elite ultrarunner Anna Frost to develop the shoe. Designed for rugged terrain, it features a combination of tear-resistant mesh with reflective details; an internal bootie to hug the foot snugly; and 5mm Vibram rubber lugs to offer grip and toughness. That grip proved its mettle through sludge in Epping Forest, wet rocks in the LakeDistrict and tricky single track in the Chiltern Hills. ‘Stability’, ‘reliability’ and ‘solid’ were all words used in the feedback and it seems the highest praise our testers could bestow on theLong Sky was that both their toenails and the structure of the shoe remained intact after many gruelling outings. A brilliant option both for trail-running newbies and experienced runners who are looking for shoes as endurance-focused as they are.
2. Brooks Caldera 4
Weight: 280g (M) 232g (W)
Heel/toe drop: 4mm
If the feedback from our testers is anything to go by, your feelings about this trail shoe will be nothing to do with your weight, its weight, the durability or any other technical feature – but, rather, whether you like a large wodge of cushioning foam. The heel drop is a low 4mm, so the foot lies reasonably flat inside the shoe, but the stack height [depth of the shoe from the top of the sockliner to the bottom of the outsole] at the rear is a good 25mm, which is fairly chunky. Some runners loved the sensation of bouncing along tracks without really being able to feel much underneath, while others bemoaned the lack of responsiveness, and one or two feared they would go over on their ankle if they slipped on a rock –very much a horses-for-courses issue. The traction is more than adequate on most surfaces, but suffers in really gloopy mud, and the water resistance of the upper is modest. This is best for runners who want plush comfort and a reliable all-rounder.
3. Columbia Trans Alps FKT III
Weight: 319g (M) 262g (W)
Heel/toe drop: 8mm
You'll find this shoe on the feet of many a runner at the UTMB. Given this is one of the world’s toughest races (traversing 166km of MontBlanc through three countries in one go), you’d think it would more than stand up to the rigours of the RW test team...and it did. It’s a splendid trail all-rounder with a lovely mix of bouncy cushioning and nimbleness. The 6mm outsole lugs performed well across every type of surface except one (a field full of cow poo) and several runners applauded the fact that you don’t have to lace them up tight to get a decent fit that doesn’t work its way loose. Tester Nicola Waterworth said: ‘I can be fussy about pressure on the top of the foot– this remained firm but light in feel and I didn’t experience any heel lift.’ If you don’t like even temporarily wet feet, these won’t suit, because the wonderfully breathable knitted upper does let water in – but they’re designed to drain again very quickly and not hold on to moisture.
4. Salomon Speedcross 5
Weight: 320g (M) 280g (W)
Heel/toe drop: 1omm
The best word to describe these off-road shoes is ‘aggressive’. The upper includes a gusseted tongue and a reinforced mesh, both of which aim to keep out debris – which they did very efficiently. Salomon’s Energy Cell+midsole provides high rebound and ample cushioning, allowing you to fly down descents. The Speedcross is especially cushioned in the heel – on its website, Salomon describes it as having a biomechanical fit for heel-striking – however, the shoe seems to have sufficient cushioning in the forefoot, as well. One midfoot-striking tester noted, ‘I felt the cushioning has greatly improved over previous versions of the Speedcross, especially in the forefoot.’ The fit has also been made a little more generous; previous versions were on the narrow side. Finally, the chevron-shaped outsole lugs are immense. They’re spaced far apart, which is ideal for shedding mud, and they extend to the tips of the toes and stick out the sides to give a greater sense of reassurance.
5. Columbia Montrail FKT
Weight: 305g (M) 248g (W)
Heel/toe drop: 8mm
The FKT is not earth-shattering and it might not have any game-changing new technologies, but it’s quietly impressive. After some initial tightness on the first couple of runs, the upper adapted to give a soft, snug caress around the foot and kept expanding slightly as testers’ feet did, meaning there was no pinching on longer runs. Wide-footed runners, in particular, loved it. The traction of the 4mm outsole lugs is extremely good and we found we could plough through pretty much anything on the trail without worry, especially as the shoe felt nimble enough that we could pick our way through overgrown single tracks. There are some areas to work on, though, mostly the upper – the dye ran into socks when the shoes got wet and the protection is not the best, with even a slight splashing enough to soak the feet, and the odd stick poked its way through the mesh. A good, basic offroad shoe for occasional trail runners looking to go door-to-trail.
6. New Balance Hierro V5
Weight: 324g (M)
Heel/toe drop: 8mm
When a shoe looks as natty as the Hierro v5, there’s a suspicion that more attention has been paid to its appearance than it has its performance. But after running in it, such fears are allayed. The Hierro v5 is best thought of as a multi-terrain shoe. Its Vibram outsole feels at home on the pavement, hard trails and even the sand. The only surface on which it is not good is thick mud. If you’re looking for a shoe for cross-country, obstacle races or technical mountain yomps, this is not it. For everything else, it’ll work a treat. This is a comfortable yet responsive, multi-tasking, multi-terrain marvel. If you have the confidence to pull it off, and pockets deep enough to pay for it, the Hierro v5 will not disappoint.
7. Salomon S/Lab Speed 2
Weight: 265g (unisex)
The S/Lab range of Salomon shoe are those that are designated for ‘athletes.’ That doesn’t mean only those who are paid to run for a living but for anyone who has reached the heady heights where the right gear offers them marginal gains. If this is you, rest assured that the feedback and knowledge of many of Salomon’s athletes including the King Of The Mountains, Kilian Jornet himself, has gone into the design of these babies, and the result is a shoe that allows you to pick your way along technical tracks at speed without having to worry about whether your footwear will keep up with the rest of you.
8. Inov-8 X-Talon G-210
Weight: 210g (unisex)
There are times on the trails when you want to bumble along with your head up marvelling at the scenery. And there are times when you want to put the hammer down, and crunch over and through anything in your path as fast as you can. This is a shoe for the latter times. It’s the lightest, fastest shoe that trail specialist Inov-8 has in its range.
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