Choosing the right shoe for the rough and rugged nature of the Ridge Run can mean the difference between success yea! and disaster ouch!
Article on Running Shoe Choice
Back in 2002, I wrote a technical article about running shoes. If you are interested in some background on shoe design, you can access the article here.
The gist of that article was to choose the most minimal shoe you can comfortably wear. Back in 2002, that was a rather heretical opinion as it was way before the current minimalist barefoot trend.
Tom Hayes wrote a rebuttal to my article. His rebuttal illustrates what was then mainstream thought toward picking shoes. He was an adherent to the myth of choosing a shoe based on your foot type. You can access his rebuttal here.
Fortunately, the running shoe mainstream has recently opened its mind to the idea of using more minimal shoes that do not interfere with the natural motion of the foot, regardless of your foot type. There is no and never was any science that supports the myth that a person who pronates should use a motion control shoe or a person with a high arch needs a cushioned shoe.
The advice to “choose the most minimal shoe you can comfortably wear” applies just as well when choosing a shoe for the Ridge Run.
Every foot is different and some shoes will work for you better than others. Make sure you test and try a bunch of different shoes to see what works for you. I have no allegiance to any particular brand or model. I have tried so many different shoes, I can’t ever remember them all. I’m a sucker for trying a new shoe or finding a cheap discounted shoe and giving it a whirl.
I’m an opinionated old cuss. The following are my opinions gleaned from years of experience running the Ridge and experimenting with different shoes.
What to look for in Shoes for the Ridge Run:
Most Important Qualities:
- Comfort – No Pain, Abrasion or Blister in a Multi Hour Long Event
- Protection – Protects foot from Rough Rocky Terrain with Cushioning and Features Like a Toe Protector
- Traction – Grips in Mud, Rocks, Loose Dry Dirt
To a Lesser Extent:
- Light Weight – Lighter Shoes are Faster and Produce less Fatigue
- Straight Lasted – Prevents Ankle Sprains
- Low Heel – Prevents Ankle Sprains, Lighter, More Natural Foot Position
- Flexible Sole – Less Work Going Uphill and Less Pressure on Achilles
- Convex Sole – Prevents Catastrophic Ankle Sprains
Let’s take a look at some actual shoes I own. Many of these I used in the Ridge Run. I’m going to look at 10 different shoes. I categorize 5 as thick soled, high wide heeled and 5 others I categorize as thin soled, low narrow heeled. The weights listed are for a single shoe in a men’s size 10.
5 Thick Soled, High Wide Heeled Shoes
This picture is a rear view of five different thick soled shoes. From left to right they are Nike Air Max, Nike Air Assail, Montrail Masai, Montrail Diablo, Adidas Brahma.
Nike Air Max, 12.7 oz
The Nike Air Max is a very thick soled highly cushioned shoe. My first Ridge Run in 1991 saw me wearing a pair of Nike Air Max. The 1991 Air Max was not much different than the 2009 model pictured here. My choice of this shoe was based solely on the recommendation of Alex Lowe, the second place finisher in the first running of the Ridge Run in 1985. This shoe worked quite well for me as it was very comfortable, provided adequate protection and decent traction. Its downside is its thick sole. Remember the thicker the sole the more prone the shoe is to causing a rolled (sprained) ankle on rough trails. Fortunately, the cushy soft sole does mitigate the ankle twisting tendency of the Air Max.
Nike Air Assail, 12.4 oz
The Nike Air Assail is like a trail version of the Air Max. I wore these shoes in the 2008 Ridge Run. They worked quite well providing the essentials of comfort, protection and traction. The sole is thicker than I would like, but thinner than the standard Air Max. A negative is that this shoe is on the heavy side compared to other Nike trail shoes.
Montrail Masi, 12.5 oz
The Montrail Masi is a thick stiff-soled shoe with a rocker sole. The rocker sole idea is to pre flex or curve up the front of the shoe. This concept supposedly prevents stubbing a toe and tripping. This is a novel idea and sounds good in theory. In practice, I find these shoes not living up to their reputation or theory. In fact they are some of the worst I have every tried. The rocker sole puts the foot in an unnatural position violating the comfort requirement. The thick sole and high heel makes spraining an ankle a near certainty. The stiffness and lack of cushioning makes my feet hurt after few miles of wearing them. I’ve included these shoes here as an example of trail shoe design run amuck and what to avoid.
Montrail Diablo, 12.1 oz
The Montrail Diablo has a wide high heel and a thick sole. I’ve had bad experiences with Montrail shoes like this model. They are notorious ankle twisters, fit poorly and their hard thick soles lead to foot pain. I foolishly took a pair of Montrail trail shoes as my only pair of shoes on a two week adventure to North Africa. My feet were so damaged after this trip that it was more than a year before I was able to run pain free again.
In 2000, I ran the Ridge Run in Montrail Leona Divides – a shoe similar to these Diablos but with a software upper. I twisted my ankles countless times during that race. My feet became so unstable, that I was reduced to a duck footed walk by the time I reached saddle peak. Those shoes nearly ruined my ankles. I now have to wear ankle braces.
I do not recommend any shoe that has similar qualities as these Montrails.
Ranting on Montrail
I’m going to go on a bit of a rant about Montrail shoes. Back in 2000, (11 years ago) I got a discount on some Montrail shoes with the condition that I would give some written feedback when testing them. My feedback explained that their shoes were poorly suited for fast running on rough trails. The high heel, curved last, thick stiff sole and soft upper made them extremely prone to causing sprained ankles. I suggested they create a shoe with a lower heel, a thinner more flexible sole, a straighter last and a better fitting more supportive upper. Their arrogant response to my review was to totally refute my suggestions and laugh my ideas away as way out of the mainstream.
Montrail shoes seem to be common prizes at races, so despite my abhorrence of Montrails and refusal to buy them, I have accumulated a few pairs over the last decade. I must complement Montrail on their generosity.
Recently, I noticed that they have jumped on the minimalist shoe bandwagon and have introduced more responsive, better fitting thinner soled shoes on some of their models. At this time, I have no experience with running in their latest efforts at a minimalist trail shoe, but I wish them success at improving their shoes.
Adidas Brahma, 12.6 oz
The last of the five thick soled shoes pictured is an Adidas Brahma trail shoe. These shoes have an extremely thick sole and high heel. This makes them terrible shoes for irregular rough terrain as they are guaranteed to cause severe ankle sprains. I ran a 50K run on dirt trails just north of San Francisco in these shoes. I ended up with very sore calves, unusual for me – perhaps their high heel made my calves work harder. Their design makes me leary to try them for the Ridge Run course.
Ranting on Adidas
It is tragic that Adidas shoes are now thick stiff flat soled junk. Because in the late 1990’s, Adidas had a product line called “Feet You Wear” that was way ahead of their time. My Ridge Run PR was set in a pair of Adidas adventure shoes in the “Feet You Wear” product line. They had a rounded convex sole that made it impossible to sprain an ankle in. They had a wrap-around protective bumper and highly flexible grippy sole, yet were no heavier than competing trail shoes. The upper supported and griped the whole foot. It was an ideal combination of qualities for the Ridge Run. In these shoes, I could run fast down rough rocky terrain with confidence that I would not sprain and ankle or bruise my foot on a sharp rock.
It is my understanding that Adidas discontinued the “Feet You Wear” product line; because customers said these shoes felt funny when they tried them on in the shoe store. They also thought the wrap around sole was ugly. The convex sole felt unstable when walking around on the flat floor in the store. It gave the same sensation of walking barefoot. And of course most people are not use to walking around barefoot.
5 Thin Soled Low Narrow Heeled Shoes
This picture shows 5 different thin soled trail shoes from the rear. From left to right they are a Nike Air Terra, Nike Air Zoom Trail, Merrell Sprint Blast, Inov Mudroc 290, New Balance MT101.
Nike Air Terra, 10.7 oz
I did the Ridge Run a couple times with these shoes back in the early 1990’s. They have a convex sole that helps make them stable on rough terrain and good at preventing ankle sprains. Other than that, they lack in some other areas such as cushioning, traction and protection. They are also on the stiff side for such a minimalist shoe. The second time I used them in a Ridge Run, I was left with bruised feet. Despite being talked into buying four pairs of these shoes back in 1992 by Tom Johnson the owner of the Athletes Foot in Bozeman (now long defunct), I have not had the courage to use them in the Ridge Run since. I still have one pair left that is brand new in the box!
Nike Air Zoom Trail, 9.8 oz
My last two Ridge Runs have been in this shoe. Other than the Adidas Feet You Wear Adventure Shoe in 1999, these are the best shoes I have used for the Ridge Run. They have nearly all the qualities to look for in a shoe for the Ridge Run. They are comfortable, protective, provide good traction and are light weight. The only change I would make to them would be to lower the heel slightly and make it a bit convex. Nike got it right with this shoe. In my opinion, Nike shoes have good quality of finish with smooth comfortable seam free interiors. A shoe similar to this is what I would recommend you seek in a shoe for the Ridge Run.
Merrell Sprint Blast, 11.7 oz
I have not done the Ridge Run in these shoes, but I have done a lot of training on the Ridge Run course in these. I set my fastest time from the M Trail Head up to the Summit of Mount Baldy in these flexible shoes. I’ve included them here to show an extreme example of a narrow convex heeled shoe. They lack the foot protection required for doing the Ridge Run. The out sole also lacks the traction required for the Ridge Run. They are surprisingly heavy for such a thin soled minimalist shoe. Their flexibility makes them feel lighter than they are.
Inov Mudroc 290, 10.1 oz
I’ve done the Ridge Run a couple times in these shoes. They are probably better suited to a less rocky course than the Ridge Run. They are light, flexible, thin soled and offer good traction. They are weak on protection and cushioning. They are also fragile. One traverse across the Ridge and these shoes will need replacing. The lugs on the sole get ripped off by rough rocky terrain like the Ridge Run. The quality control lacks on Inov8s. Some pairs I have had have some rough interior seams that cause abrasions and blisters. There is a lot of variation between pairs of the same model and even from the left to the right shoe in the same pair. So choose wisely between multiple pairs when trying them on at the shoe store.
Rantting on Inov
Their customer support leaves a lot to be desired. When Inov-8’s first became available in the United States, they told me if I wrote up a review of their shoes, they would replace one of my damaged pairs. I wrote up a review, but they refused to even respond or acknowledge that I had held up my end of the bargain. Not only did they not replace my damaged shoes, they never thanked me for the review. Nevertheless, the positive review I wrote is front and center for all to read on their company website. This type of lack of customer appreciation is insulting. I no longer use Inov-8s for the Ridge Run. There are better choices.
New Balance MT101, 7.4
I just bought these shoes so have no experience using them. I’ve included them here as an example of the latest in feather weight minimalist trail run design. Just looking at them, they are very thin soled and low heeled. They are the lightest trail shoe I have seen. They may be lacking on the protection factor for a rugged course like the Ridge Run. They do have some rough seams inside so they may cause some blistering and abrasion and lack in the quality control area. Look for an update once I get a chance to try them.
Please add a comment as to your opinions on shoes for the Ridge Run. Leave a comment describing your favorite shoe.