Five Tips for Choosing Trail Running Shoes

Five Tips for Choosing Trail Running Shoes

A guide from JackRabbit trail runner Casey Cook

Running on trails can be like a portal to someplace else—an escape to freedom, even if only for a while. Trail running offers a different sensory appeal than running on the roads, sidewalks and bikepaths of the city or suburbia. But because trail terrain varies so greatly—with hills and rocks and roots and gravel over a constantly twisting-turning route—it also offers a different physical experience as well.

Trail running forces your feet, legs and even your core and upper body to make constant adjustments. Softer surfaces decrease the impact on your joints, and the variable terrain works a much larger group of stabilizer muscles. And for those reasons, adding trail running to your training repertoire on a regular basis will make you a more balanced, athletic runner and reduce the risk of overuse injuries.

But because trails can vary so much within the same geographic regions, we checked in with Casey Cook, manager of Running Fit in Northville, Mich., to understand some of the key points to consider when buying trail running shoes. In addition to being a longtime runner and shoe-fitting expert, he’s also a longtime runner who has run trails all over the Midwest and trail running races from 5K to 50K.

Take to trails - with the right shoes


The first question runners often ask is: why can’t I just wear my road running shoes when I go trail running?

“You can use you road shoes on some trails, but it really depends on the trails you’re running,” Cook says. “Trail running shoes have been specifically designed to improve your experience on trails with traction, cushioning, durability and protection elements.

“It’s a great feeling when you feel the lugs engage with the trail and you’re able to climb up a little bit of a hill a little easier because of it. You can start to really understand the benefits of what a trail shoe can do for you. It just adds to the experience and puts you into a primal frame of mind and you get to have a little more fun with it.”


When customers come into the store looking for trail running shoes, Cook and his staffers typically start by asking them what kinds of trails they’ll be running the most. There are generally three types of trails: 1) smooth and mostly flat dirt or grassy routes without many obstacles; 2) rough and rugged trails with a lot of jagged rocks and roots; 3) and just about everything in between, including those that might include some smooth sections and some more technical parts.

They also ask how many miles a runner plans to run and how fast they typically run. “When you find out what kinds of trails they run and understand how they run them, you can help guide them into a shoe that’s appropriate for their needs,” Cook says.

“If they’re mostly running on smooth dirt paths or grassy knolls, then I’d set them up with something with a low-profile outsole. But if they’re running trails with more rocks and gravel, they’ll likely need something with better traction and protection. How much they need depends on how rugged the trails are.”

"A trail running shoe should fit snug around the midfoot/arch area and have a locked-down fit in the heel to avoid any slipping or shifting when you run over uneven terrain. Unlike the more snug fit of a road running shoe, however, you should consider a trail shoe with slightly more room in the forefoot of a trail running shoe to offset the angst of the inevitable toe-stubbing that happens, even on less-technical terrain," Cook says.

"Most trail runners and expert shoe fitters suggest at least a thumb’s width of space between the tip of your toes and the front end of the shoe. Be sure to try on several pairs of the same genre," he says, "because brands and models can vary greatly within the same shoe size."

“It’s about balancing all the different variables to figure out what works for that particular runner. It could the that there’s a shoe that’s good on paper, but if it doesn’t feel good for you it doesn’t mean anything.”

Like road running shoes, trail runners vary in midsole thickness and the amount of cushioning they supply.

There are trail running shoes with thick midsoles (Hoka One One Speedgoat, Brooks Caldera and Altra Olympus), there are minimally constructed trail shoes with only a little cushioning (Brooks Pure Grit, On Cloudventure and Saucony Peregrine) and there are plenty of models in the sweet spot in between (New Balance Summit Unknown, Brooks Casacadia and Nike Terra Kiger).

The amount of cushioning is really a balance between how much you want to feel the trail and how much protection and softness you want under your foot. More cushioning in a trail running shoe will help reduce the impact on the body, but less cushioning can allow a runner to be more footloose and fancy free and run a trail faster with more aggressiveness.

“It really comes down to whether a runner would rather feel the trail and have more proprioceptive awareness or if they’d prefer you prefer to have more cushioning and protection,” Cook says. “That relates to what kind of trails they’re running and how they’re running them.”

A new running shoe for every occasion


Trail running shoes vary greatly in the amount of traction they provide, Cook says. Some have outsoles with smooth, almost flat surfaces like a road shoe that are designed for milder, flatter and less technical trails. Good examples are the Altra Timp, Hoka One One ATR Challenger 4 and the Inov-8 Trail Talon 290.

At the other end of the spectrum are shoes with deep, knobby lugs that can dig into soft, wet surfaces or provide adhesion on rugged routes that might include big rocks, slippery gravel steep sections of mud or dirt. The Altra King MT, Salomon SpeedCross 4 and Saucony Xodus ISO 3 have some of the most aggressively lugged outsoles on the market.

"There are several key aspects of protection to consider when buying trail running shoes," Cook says. The first variable to consider is whether the shoe has a flexible rock plate built into the midsole of the shoe. A rock plate helps provide underfoot protection from sharp rocks or awkward foot placements on technical terrain. If you’re running rugged trails, it will help keep your feet out of harm’s way.

"When you wear that same shoe on soft, flat terrain, it will be overkill and might result in the shoe feeling a bit clunky and overbuilt. But keep in mind that some thickly cushioned trail runner shoes (like the Hoka One One Speedgoat and the Altra Olympus 3.0) don’t have rock plates because the combination of the thick midsole and outsole does the trick of keeping sharp rocks from poking at the bottom of your feet."

Most trail running shoes also offer protection by way of a reinforced toe bumper and abrasion-resistant sidewalls. “The more rocky and technical the trail, the more protective of a shoe you will want,” Cook says.


When it comes to kitting out your trail running adventures, we have you covered from head to toe. JackRabbit stocks a wide range of trail running shoes in a rainbow of colors from all the key brands like Inov8, Atlra, Salomon, On running, Hoka, Saucony and Brooks.  

Don't forget the clothing and gear though. If you're out on the trail, the chances are the weather and elements are out there too! Check out our trail running shop for everything from trail shoes, tights and pants, training gear, hydration packs and carriers, gels and nutrition, socks for trail protection (hello Stance!), and other key accessories to make your adventures on the trail all the more memorable.

You'll find free shipping on many of our items and key prices throughout the year so you can enjoy the outdoors on your terms.


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About Author

Melanie Mitchell

Transforming movement into adventure. Our Mission: To personalize the fit process, hand-pick the best products, and create unique experiences that grow active communities.

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