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.
Many of the world's top distance runners – including those from Ethiopia and Kenya – run the majority of their miles off-road, often running only once a week on concrete. So even if you're training for a road marathon, there's plenty to recommend about getting off the pavement on a regular basis.
Before doing so, however, it’s important to ensure you're wearing the right pair of trail running shoes.
What to look for in a trail running or off-road shoe?
Consider the kind of trails you'll mostly be running on. Are these firm, well-groomed and mostly flat? If so, you might be okay running in your normal road-running shoes – particularly during the summer months – or a trail shoe with a less aggressive tread. If, on the other hand, you're likely to be running in thick mud, or over rocks and more technically challenging terrain, you'll want a shoe with bigger lugs to help with the grip. Here are some things 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. There's a balance, though: if you're running marathon or ultra-marathon distances off-road, the need for ample cushioning is crucial.
- Grip is everything – without a good grip, you can’t run with confidence. But what constitutes good grip will depend on the kind of trails you're running on. For hard, rolling trails, you won't need too aggressive a grip. For mud and rocks, look for a shoe with longer lugs.
- 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. This can help to protect against rocks and other off-road debris.
- 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. Most shoes follow the latter design.
- Budget/longevity. Like their road running counterparts, trail shoes vary greatly in price. When choosing a pair, think hard about what you require from the shoe, how often you'll be wearing it and whether you require a top-of-the-range model or reliable workhorse. Also, focus on longevity: shoes that will stand up to miles and miles of off-road running without wearing down will, ultimately, be better value than a less durable pair – even if they cost slightly more.
What are the best trail running shoes on the market in 2022?
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. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. Saucony Peregrine 12
- Type: Trail
- Price: £130
- Heel-toe drop: 4mm
- Weight: 275g (men), 235g (women)
The Peregrine 12 remains a shoe capable of performing well over a wide variety of distances and terrains. The handful of technical updates, alongside the reduction in weight, are welcome developments, as is the more vibrant colourways. For heavier runners, the new-look Peregrine could easily work on race-day – although the speed snakes may want something even lighter. As an off-road all-rounder, the Peregrine 12 is a smart choice for anyone looking for a single pair of trail shoes to answer all their needs.
7. Merrell Moab Flight
- Type: Trail
- Price: £110
- Heel-toe drop: 10mm
- Weight: 300g (men), 241g (women)
While Merrell is better known as a hiking brand, its running creds shouldn't be underestimated. Over the past few years, it's been pumping out a string of excellent, versatile trail shoes – and the Moab Flight is the latest example of this. Our testers called the shoe 'durable and robust, with a nice hugging fit'. Unlike the majority of trail shoes, it has a signficiant heel-toe drop (10mm), meaning it's also a good shoe for hiking. That's not to say it's overly clunky. In fact, our testers said it feels 'light on the foot', while it also scored highly in terms of looks, durability and comfort. In sum, an excellent shoe at a decent price.
8. Columbia Escape Pursuit
- Type: Trail
- Price: £63
- Heel-toe drop: 8mm
- Weight: 312g (men) 279g (women)
If you want a plush pair of entry-level trail running shoes, look no further than Columbia’s Escape Pursuit. Currently retailing at £63 (down from £90) in the UK, these are a comfortable way to tackle wilder paths at speed. With 4mm lugs, ample upper cushioning, showerproof mesh and a considerable heel-to-toe drop, Columbia has addressed all the key demands of the pursuit. They look good on, too. While outsizsed plates and fluorescent flourishes give some highly-coveted running shoes the look of Smurfs’ clogs, Escape Pursuit offer an understated black and red combination instead. So what’s not to like? One tester felt there is an excess of mid-shoe comfort. In other areas: the toe-box, the tongue and cuff, Columbia have got it right.
Columbia makes a virtue of an integrated midfoot lockdown system and put together with the drop and cushion, this enables the Escape Pursuit to insulate the foot over broken ground. At first it feels magical – a proper off-road vehicle – but some may start to hanker after a little less insulation and a little more connection with the earth. This is most true, our testers said, when ascending. ‘The sole shape propels well on the level but all that midfoot protection is not a boon for climbing,’ commented one.
9. Adidas Terrex Speed Ultra
- Type: Trail
- Price: £160
- Heel-toe drop: 8mm
- Weight: 245g
Adidas Terrex is the off-road branch of Adidas. One of its pro runners, Briton Tom Evans, was heavily involved in the development of this shoe, which has adorned his feet on various winning outings. Its designed chiefly for hard-packed trails, but its versatility was appreciated by our testers who said it felt ‘as comfortable and at home on road sections as it did on trail’. It feels quick, too, thanks to a midsole of a Boost TPU compound and Lightstrike EVA cushioning. Other plus-points include its sleek looks and excellent grip. A truly impressive trail shoe for those looking to move fast and light on trails.
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