A Guide to Trail Running Shoes: Cutting Through Dogma

Choosing a trail running shoe is a personal exercise. It is something that must be approached with skillfulness, as each type of shoe imposes its form; and that form will cause certain restrictions and certain liberations. Because of this, it’s important that your shoe reflects your individual motivations, strengths & weakness, and goals. Your journey as a trail runner will continually evolve and reshape your situation, therefore it’s also important to be open and willing to change, as you see your evolution. However, it would be naive to think that your journey will only move up on the graph, as everything from injuries to just getting older will be constant challenges on your path to increasing your trail running ability.

Investigating the type of shoe that is going to be right for you, first requires a reference point. The best reference point for any situation is always the base of the situation; and the base of this situation is your barefoot. Is your foot strong? How dense is your foot’s tissue density? How healthy are your arches? What is the consequence of going barefoot?

The consequence of being barefoot is that you are fully exposed to the situation of the terrain. Every step when barefoot is a step into chaos, the unknown. Until you have taken, placed, and taken the next step you don’t know how uncomfortable, painful or soft each step will be. You may have some idea based on your seeing of the terrain, but you will not know until you take the step, and you will not understand the implications until you take the next step forward.


A shoe mitigates some of this chaos/unknown, depending on how minimal the shoe is or isn’t, giving you more or less predictability in each step. On each side, there is something gained and something lost, and you must find the right balance that suits your present situation and goals. This is the way of inventions and structures; they decrease the unknown of the wild, and in its stead is some degree of predictability, stability, and rigidity. So again, you must find the balance that is right for the situation.


Trail running shoes come in all forms. From supper cushioned like the Hoka where you might as well be wearing pillows on your feet to the Inov8 Trailroc 150’s that you could roll up and put into your skinny jean pockets. The main difference plainly being the thickness of the sole of each shoe and how much support the sole gives to the foot. Therefore, the consequence of using a minimal shoe is that, you must be very precise with each step you take and in choosing your line. Because a miscalculation equals sharp pain and possibly an injury. But then you also have shoes like the LA Sportiva Raptor, which I just call goat shoes because you can run over anything like a bull in a china shop, as there is a lot of sole, but it has very little compression, giving a very consistent feel in each step with little variability based on terrain.


Each of these types of shoes has a place as there are so many different types of runners each with their own situation and goals. And as trail runners we can all agree that the most important thing is to be out on the trail, in the way that keeps you on the trail year after year.


Constraints and Liberations of Different Trail Running Shoe Types:


*(“The Scale of Predictability” is simply how much variance of the probability distribution there is for every step in your stride and the sensations felt. Is it like having white bread or playing Russian Roulette? 1 being the least predictable and 10 being the most predictable) *


Barefoot (natures shoe) - Scale of Predictability = 1

Constraints:

  • You have to move slow as you need to be extremely careful

  • You can only apply a small amount of torque into the ground. As rocks on the trail press into pressure points on your foot and when you catch your weight and when your foot comes back into contact with the ground the rocks and roots can be devastatingly painful if you come down with too much momentum.

  • You have to be 100% focused on where your feet are landing and your geometry in relationship to the slop and your momentum. If you botch a step, the consequences can be severe and long lasting.

  • Going long distances is difficult because your nervous system gets tired of all of the impact on your feet, as you have more sensory nerve endings on your feet than anywhere else.

  • Can readily cause plantar fasciitis if overdone.

  • If there are cactus and thorns around you are in trouble.

  • Every step has a good chance of being at least somewhat painful

  • You need a very high cadence in order to run downhill, as you need to maximally minimize the momentum generated from gravity, mitigating your impact force.

Liberations:

  • Your toes can move freely

  • You feel the dirt

  • You feel free of society

  • You feel every contour of the ground.

  • Strengthens your nervous system

  • Strengthens your feet

  • Strengthens your ankles

  • Strengthens your knees

  • Increases the tissue density of your feet

  • High translation of torque from your foot to the ground

Minimal - Scale of Predictability = 2 - 3

Constraints:

  • You need to move slower and be more cautious

  • You have to be very careful when, how, and on what you apply the torque of your stride into.

  • You must choose your line, especially your decent line with a great deal of skillfulness.

  • High cadence is imperative when descending

  • Many steps throughout your run will be less than pleasant.

  • If you accidentally toe kick a rock you have almost no protection.

Liberations:

  • You feel almost every contour of the ground.

  • Your feet are light and can move very freely in space

  • Your ankles can articulate very rapidly

  • The rubber sole protects you from the sharpest edges of rocks, thorns, and some cactus.

  • The rubber sole gives some protection of the sensory nerve endings on the feet.

  • High translation of torque from your foot to the ground

  • Strengthens your nervous system

  • Strengthens your feet

  • Strengthens your ankles

  • Strengthens your knees

  • Increases the tissue density of your feet


Minimal Goat Hybrid - Scale of Predictability = 4 – 5

Constraints:

  • Feel less terrain details

  • You must be skillful in choosing your line

Liberations:

  • Good ankle articulation

  • The shoe is still relatively light, so you can move your feet quickly in space

  • You still receive some benefit of training the tissue of your feet to have increased density.

  • Good traction on rocks

  • Dulls the sharpness of rocks and other terrain features, so that you don’t clench your teeth in pain as much if you make a misstep.

  • You can put almost as much torque into the ground as you want on most terrain features.

  • This is the fastest shoe because of the combination of the lightness of the shoe with the protection provided by the sole.


Goat - Scale of Predictability = 6 – 7

Constraints:

  • Easier to roll an ankle, because the relatively thick sole of the shoe puts your foot higher from the ground.

  • If the shoe gets wet, it will take a long time to dry

  • It is more difficult to walk forefoot first when walking on flat ground

Liberations:

  • You can run over almost anything without it hitting a pressure point on your foot.

  • You can put as much torque into the ground as you want; which allows you to go as fast as you have the strength to maintain & endure.

  • If you accidentally toe kick a rock you have a good amount of protection.

  • Generally, good traction on nearly all terrain.


Pillow - Scale of Predictability = 8 – 10

Constraints:

  • Low translation of torque from your foot to the ground

  • May cause extra impact strain on joint causing soft tissue damage to the knees, hips, and lower lumbar

  • Heavy shoe that will slow the movement of the foot in space

  • Greatly decrease ankle articulation in relationship to the trail

  • Easy to roll the ankle, as the cushioned sole raises the foot relatively high from the ground.

Liberations:

  • You will almost only ever feel the shoe.

  • If you have planter fasciitis this shoe may be less painful to run in. However, you really should just fix your feet first before you continue your normal running routine.

  • It is more difficult to achieve a forefoot stride catch


I believe that it’s closed minded to get stuck on only using one type of shoe for all of your running purposes. As each type of shoes has pluses and minuses dependent on the situation of use. It’s like using the same screw driver for every type of screw. For me personally, I use each shoe type for a particular reason and that reason maybe different for my morning run than my afternoon run. I personally use three types of shoes: an extreme minimal shoe like the Inova8 Trailroc 150 or Merrell Vaper Glove 2, a goat shoe like La Sportiva Raptor, and the shoes I was born with, my bare feet.


The benefits of using different shoes for different training purposes is that you are able to work on specific aspects of your running practice that would be prohibitive otherwise. For instance, you can use a goat shoe to build up general leg strength faster than other shoes because you can apply as much torque into the ground as you want, with only a small risk of hitting a pressure point on your foot. Building the general strength of your legs is vital to your running practice, as you need the muscles to be strong enough so that you can jump with each step of your stride. Your achilles tendon and tendon sheath need to be strong and durable enough to handle the force of the torque generated from the jump and catch of the stride. Furthermore, your hip flexors need to be strong enough to facilitate generating torque in the inner hip rotation and transferring it into the ground, as this stabilizes the jump and catch. Your hip flexors are also where much of the directional propelling torque of the jump is generated from.


However, you are not able to build much foot strength or tissue density with a goat shoe. For this purpose, you need at minimum a hybrid shoe, but really a minimal shoe is best. A minimal shoe also forces you to practice your cadence and picking your lines with as much grace as possible, as you are always working to decrease impact force. Additionally, going barefoot 1 or 2 times per week on trail (most likely just walking if on trail) is a great way to build foot strength, toe dexterity, strengthen the stabilizing muscles of the ankles and knees, and increase tissue density. Going barefoot should be done cautiously, as you don’t want to overdo it; this also goes for training in minimal shoes. So, if you are tanning in your minimal shoes or barefoot, plan to go slower and not nearly as far. In time if you train consistently and reasonably when going minimal or barefoot, your speed and distance will increase. As an added word of caution, if you train irresponsibly in minimal shoes or barefoot expect to get planter fasciitis.


My personal shoe mix:

  • Minimal (Merrell Vaper Glove 2 or Primus Trail FG), Scale of Predictability = 2 – I use these to practice my technique, as the way you step matters a great amount. I like them for long and short runs, to build tissue density, feel light and connected to the ground as you feel almost everything.

  • Goat (La Sportiva Raptor), Scale of Predictability = 7 – I use these when I want to focus on generating torque into the ground for explosive power going uphill, when I want to play going downhill and not worry about every little rock, and when I am training clients as I can then focus my attention on my client and less on every stone on the trail.

  • Minimal Goat Hybrid (La Sportiva Bushido), Scale of Predictability = 4 – This is my main shoe that I use as it works well on so many levels. The Bushido provides just enough protection to allow me to put a good amount of consistent torque into the ground; while, still maintaining the ability to feeling the terrain well. They have low profile making it easy to achieve a forefoot stride catch on down hills, and they're light weight. Plus, they have excellent traction even on wet terrain, which is huge. All of this makes for a good all around training shoe that allows me a nice balance of torque generation, practice of technique as each step has painful consequences for missteps, and being a relatively quick and durable shoes with dependable traction. I really can't say enough good things about this shoe. The only improvement that could be made while maintaining its goatyness would be to put a zero heel drop on it.

  • Barefoot, Scale of Predictability = 1 – I go barefoot to feel free and to just feel the earth and everything it has to offer; the sharp stones, soft dirt, the cold of the river, and the heat of the sand. Additionally, I use going barefoot to build tissue density, foot strength, and nervous system durability.


Trail Running Shoe Recommendations:


Minimal:

  • Inov8 Trailroc 150 (no longer produced, but you can find them on amazon in limited sizes)

  • Merrell Vaper Glove 2

  • VIVOBAREFOOT PRIMUS TRAIL FG or SG

Minimal Goat Hybrid:

  • Inov8 X-TALON 212 or 225

  • La Sportiva Bushido

  • Salomon S/LAB speed 2 or sense 6

Goat:

  • La Sportiva Raptor

  • Inov8 MUDCLAW 300

  • Salomon S/LAB ULTRA

  • Salomon SPEEDCROSS 4

Pillow (only if you have too):

  • Inov8 PARKCLAW

  • Salomon SENSE PRO MAX

  • Hoka


To shoe, or not to shoe? Why not both :)

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