Review Comparison of the Best Trail Running Shoe

Overall this shoe feels wonderfully comfortable – no pain. When running in them, I forget about my feet. And I forget about my shoes because they are doing their job and not interfering with mine. These shoes just simply feel right – a protective extension of my feet. They make running fun and feel natural. They inspire me to run fast. (Thanks to the RunBlogger for an insightful description of what a great running shoe feels like)

Following is a list of features and characteristics of this trail running shoe:

  • For a shoe that offers comfort and protection it is fairly light at less than 10 ounces for a men’s size 10.
  • It flexes very easy at the ball of the foot and is stiffer under the arch.
  • The upper is very soft in the forefoot allowing for easy flexing without creasing and pressuring the top of the foot.
  • The upper is stiffer and supportive in the rear of the foot to provide a secure fit and anchoring of the foot to the sole.
  • The upper fits snug, at the sides of the mid and rear foot.
  • The forefoot upper has enough room allowing the fore foot (toes and metatarsals) to spread and widen naturally upon foot fall without feeling constrained and tight.
  • There are no rough seams in the interior of the shoe causing irritation.
  • The upper material is very breathable, but does not allow dust and sand to penetrate.
  • The upper is hydrophobic and sheds waters.
  • When water does get inside, it quickly drains out through the breathable upper.
  • There is a stiff toe bumper protecting the toes from getting whacked when stubbing a toe.
  • The midsole is cushy, but durable. It is only thick enough to provide enough cushioning for a comfortable ride.
  • When the shoe flexes going uphill, the shoe does not shorten and leaves the heel and Achilles comfortable without contact pressure.
  • The mid sole is thickest at the middle of the foot allowing the foot to naturally strike the ground first on the outside of the middle of the foot.
  • The mid sole is slightly laterally convex and longitudinally convex. As foot strike progresses the foot gently and smoothly rolls slightly inward (pronates) putting weight onto the ball of foot and big toe preparing for toe off.
  • The shoe is built on a straight last and along with a laterally convex sole makes the shoe highly resistive to abrupt and catastrophic ankle rolls (twists) to the outside when landing on uneven terrain.
  • The Sole thickness tapers at the toe to protect catching or stubbing the toe and the sole thickness tapers at the heel to discourage the heel from striking the ground first.
  • The Sole thickness profile is thickest under the midfoot. There are no sole cutouts or odd features in the sole that catch debris and interfere with a smooth rolling foot strike.
  • The comfortable snug upper combined with a flexible cushy sole encourages a natural quick rolling foot strike making it downright fun to run.
  • The rockplate is thin and flexible but protects the foot from sharp rocks.
  • The outsole is made of a thin layer of sticky rubber for terrific traction.
  • The lugs on the outsole are outies that provide good grip but are spread far enough apart to easily shed debris (mud, snow, rocks) They are also only high enough to provide traction yet do not catch or interfere with the cushion or feel of the midsole.
  • The insoles or sock liners have a high friction surface that prevents the foot from sliding side to side or fore to aft inside the shoe.
  • The insoles are made of conformable closed cell foam that over time form fits the foot. The insole has a small ridge behind the toes to fill the gap between the metatarsal heads and toes. This gives the toes something to grip and prevents the foot from sliding inside the shoe.
  • The lacing system consists of conventional eyelets that go down past the instep towards the toes. This gives lots of lacing options for customizing fit and avoiding pressure points.
  • The laces do not stretch or give. They provide a secure consistent fit when tied. The laces are a bit course and have an oval cross section to prevent slipping and inadvertent untying.

Sounds Like a Great Shoe Eh?

The bad news is that this shoe does not exist. There are shoes that incorporate many of these characteristics. But no shoe I know of puts it all together.

So for any shoe manufactures out there – the market is wide open for a gimmick free trail running shoe that works! Right now the market may be flooded with a lot of trail running shoes. But there is always room for something better. Are the shoe manufactures of the world listening?

Here is a pictorial look at my current crop of trail running shoes. It is a reality check and illustrates what shoe characteristics work and what don’t. For those looking to make a shoe choice, perhaps this blog post will help you to know what to look for and what to avoid. (Click on the pictures for larger images)

Outsole Material and Lugs Designed for Traction

Nike Zoom Trail - Sticky Rubber Outsole

Nike Zoom Trail – Sticky Rubber Outsole

Sticky rubber. Need I say more? Is there any reason to have an outsole made of anything else? Durability perhaps, but, I would rather have a shoe work really well for a shorter lifetime than one that sucked and never wore out.

If you are a world class trail runner, you can get your shoe sponsor to replace the stock soles with sticky rubber ones (view 1:14 into the following video) Remember this guy? He lived in Bozeman for a little while but moved to Boulder Colorado for better weather.

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Brooks Pure Grit Straight Last and Slippery Outsole

Brooks Pure Grit Outsole

There is a lot of variation of lug design. Some lugs look like they would offer great traction, but for mysterious reasons, they just don’t. Looks aren’t everything. Obviously, the design team was creative, but someone forgot to actually test the shoes under real world conditions. Case in point is the Brooks Pure Grit. Looks good, but lacks traction. The new version addressed this flaw.

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Scarpa Spark Outsole

Scarpa Spark Outsole

In my experience, the type of lugs that seem to work the best and offer the best traction over a wide range of conditions are sharp edged square or triangular in shape such as those on the Nike Zoom Trail or the Scarpa Spark. They are tall enough to get a grip, but not tall enough to catch on debris or get broken off. They are spaced out just far enough to shed mud and debris.

(Note the curved (sickle shape) last of the Scarpa, probably the biggest drawback for running on irregular surfaces.)

Inov8 Outsole

Inov8 Outsole

The lugs on some models of the Invo8 shoes tend toward the other extreme. They are too high and too spread out and end up catching on rocks and tearing off.

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Skechers GOtrail Outsole

Skechers GOtrail Outsole

The Skechers GOtrail suffers from having large round lugs that act as part of the midsole. So the sole of the shoe is more a collection of grooves than lugs. The grooves or holes tend to fill with rocks, mud and snow.

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Hoka Bondi Outsole

Hoka Bondi Outsole

Hoka shoes have a soft compressible sole that conforms to the ground surface. This offers surprisingly good traction on dry surfaces even though their outsole is fairly smooth without much in the way of deep lugs. But on wet vegetation, (grass, leaves), mud or hard snow where lugs are essential for traction, Hokas are dangerously slippery.

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Montrail Rogue Racer Outsole

Montrail Rogue Racer Outsole

The Montrail Rogue Racers have small low lugs but their sharp edges offer adequate traction. Using a softer sticky rubber and making the lugs just a bit taller would give them superior gription.

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NB MT100 Outsole

NB MT100 Outsole

The NB MT100 offers poor traction at best. The lugs are lower (flatter) than the Montrail’s and more spread out.

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Nike Zoom Trail Outsole

Nike Zoom Trail Outsole

The Nike Zoom Trail’s outsole is an example of what works well in varying conditions. First off, the material is sticky rubber like that found on rock climbing shoes. The lugs are a good design offering good bite, but not prone to collecting debris and suffering from mud build up. There are also sipes or small grooves that give it some grip on hard snow and ice – kind of like a studless snow tire.

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Straight Last for Stability

Hoka & Skechers Straight Last vs Scarpa Curved Last

Hoka & Skechers Straight Last vs Scarpa Curved Last

On trails, a straight lasted shoe is more stable and less prone to an ankle roll than a curve lasted shoe. Supposedly a curve lasted shoe fits the foot better, but that is not my experience either. Maybe, I just have straight feet, but I find that in most curved lasted shoes, there will be more pressure on the outside of my little toe and excess material and space on the inside of my big toe. Having this extra sole ledge on the inside of the forefoot of the shoe gives leverage to an object in the trail that you step on underneath the inside edge of the shoe. This levers the foot over and since there is less material on the outside of the shoe to prevent the foot from rolling – it rolls over fairly easily.

For technical terrain, I like my big toe and inside ball of foot nestled up right against the shoe – kind of like a the feeling you get in a rock climbing shoe or pressuring the inside edge of a ski. A curved last interferes with this feel and control.

The Scarpa Spark has a lot going for it as a trail shoe, but it has a severely curved last. Look back at the picture of the Scarpa Spark Outsole above. With the Scarpa, it comes close to being a great shoe, but the curved last (and flat sole) makes it unstable and prone to ankle twisting rendering it a risky choice for rugged terrain. Maybe if you are duck footed with sickle shaped feet it would work for you, but for most people – no, not a good shoe for the Ridge Run.

Flexibility at Ball of Foot for Comfort and Performance

The human foot only flexes at the ball of the foot. That is also where your shoe should flex. The rest of the foot does not bend easily although it does flatten and spread out when weight bearing. Your shoe should mimic the foot and flex most easily at the ball of the foot.

A stiff flexing shoe feels harsh and interferes with natural running motion and toe off. When going up a steep hill, a stiff shoe puts extra pressure on the back of the heel and makes your calf work harder. The toes of the foot want to flex when going uphill and your shoe should accommodate this action.

A shoe that flexes in the middle instead of the toe, significantly shortens in length when going uphill. When the shoe shortens, it puts pressure on the back of the heel. The back of the heel is where the Achilles tendon attaches to the heel bone (calcaneus). The back of the heel can get very sore when going uphill in either stiff shoes or shoes that flex in the wrong place.

Skechers GOtrail Flex Test

Skechers GOtrail Flex Test

The Skechers GOtrail shoes offers good flexibility at the ball of the foot.

So does the Montrail Rogue Racer.

These are examples of shoes that have an easy flexing sole that flexes right where it should – at the ball of the foot.

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Montrail Rogue Racer Flex Test

Montrail Rogue Racer Flex Test

Compare the Skechers and the Montrail to the Hoka Bondi B that is the stiffest of all the shoes pictured here.

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Hoka Bondi B Flex

Hoka Bondi B Flex

The way I set these up for the pictures, I put the heel of the shoe against my knee and used one had to press on the toe to flex the shoe. I could barely budge the Hoka. Admit it all you Hoka One One super fans, the extra thick sole of the Hoka is partly a gimmick. You can accomplish the same amount of cushioning and the same cushioned feel with a lot less material. The drawback of the Hoka’a thick sole is that it makes the shoe stiff and awkward on steep uphills.

Brooks Pure Grit Flex Test

Brooks Pure Grit Flex Test

Not just flexibility, but where the sole flexes can impact the feel and runability of a shoe. The Brooks Pure Grit has an overall stiff flex and it tends to flex through the entire length of the sole instead of a more anatomically accurate flex of just at the toe. This makes it put pressure on the back of my heels as the shoe shortens going uphill.

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Newton Flex Test

Newton Flex Test

Many shoes have various contrivances or features in the sole that interfere with its flex. One such gimmick is the metatarsal pads in the Newton shoe. They create a hard stiff flat spot right where the shoe should be flexing. Instead, Newtons flex easily and unnaturally in the middle – right were the foot is the stiffest. The Newton also feels like there is a hard lump right under the ball of the foot. That is because there is a hard lump right under the ball of the foot! It hurts to run in these.

Newton Actuator Lugs Interfere with Flex

Newton Actuator Lugs Interfere with Flex

Yes, I realize that there are some people that enjoy running in Newtons and subscribe to the theory behind the technology of the metatarsal actuator lugs. When running in Newtons, I could not come to any working justification for the approach the Newton people took in their actuator technology.

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Nike Red Rocks Flex Test

Nike Red Rocks Flex Test

The Nike Red Rocks Trail shoes flex easily at the toes, but has a flat spot under the ball of the foot where the air bladder is. There is a hard plastic protection layer to showcase the air insert and protect it. This is also just a showy gimmick that interferes with the functioning of the shoe.

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Nike Red Rocks Air Feature

Nike Red Rocks Air Feature

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Nike Zoom Trail Flex Test

Nike Zoom Trail Flex Test

In an otherwise great shoe, the Nike Zoom Trail has a very stiff rock plate. This makes it a stiff flexing shoe especially at the ball of the foot. Yes, the rock plate gives it high marks for protection, but on long steep uphills this shoe will leave me with sore heels. Interesting how a shoe’s flex location or lack of flex can cause soreness in the heels. At first you would not think they were related.

Flexible Rock Plate for Protection

Science knows how to make flexible fabric that is bullet proof so shoe manufactures should be able to come up with a Rock Plate that protects the foot, but is still flexible. A hard nylon plate with flex groves would be a simple and inexpensive solution. I’ve actually taken a hack saw to the rock plate on a pair of Nike Zoom Trails to create lateral flex groves. It worked well. The rock plate still protected my foot, but the groves made the shoe flex much easier and run better.

Convex Sole for Performance and Protection

When running barefoot, my foot tends to first strike the ground on the outside of my foot. It feels like the whole outside touches down from the ball of the foot back to the outside of the heel. So it is hard to characterize it as forefoot, midfoot or heel strike. Immediately, after first contact my foot rolls inward (pronates) onto the whole foot and my foot spreads out absorbing impact. My foot continues rolling inward loading the ball of my foot and my big toe as it prepares for push off.

Any shoe that allows my foot to go through this gentle rolling contact feels good to me. A shoe that has a slightly convex or curved sole surface allows this motion. In contrast, a flat soled shoe interferes with this motion. A flat soled shoe feels clomppy or slappy. A flat sole shoe will even make a louder noise on foot strike than a curved sole shoe. When I say a convex curved sole shoe I mean one that looks rounded when viewed from the back (laterally convex). When viewed from the side, the toe and heel looked curved up just slightly. The amount of curvature does not need to be very much – just enough curvature to not be flat flat.

A sole thickness profile of thickest in the mid foot and slightly tapering at the toe and heel also promotes this gentle rolling foot strike. Simple bio-mechanics says that your foot will strike the ground first where the shoe sole is thickest.

A shoe with a sole that is thickest at the heel (high heel) will strike the ground first at the heel (heel strike). You can force yourself to land mid foot or fore foot in a high heel shoe, but this requires compensation and adaption to the high heel. For me (and I recognize others may have different preferences) a shoe that is slightly convex and thickest in the mid foot works well. It allows me to run relaxed without adjusting and compensating for the shoe.

Nike Air Terra Lat. Curved Sole

Nike Air Terra Lat. Curved Sole

On trails, another advantage of a laterally convex sole is that it makes the shoe resistant to ankle rolls (spraining an ankle). The Nike Air Terra is a good example of a shoe with a laterally curved convex sole.

More typical are shoes that are flat laterally or side to side, such as the Montrail Rogue Racer.

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Montrail Rogue Racer Lat. Flat Sole

Montrail Rogue Racer Lat. Flat Sole

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Breathable Upper that also Keeps Out Debris

Montrail Rogue Racer has Porous Upper

Montrail Rogue Racer has Porous Upper

Air molecules are very small, much smaller than dust and sand. So an upper that breathes well should still be able to keep out sand and debris. Last fall, I did the Moab Trail Marathon. The course traverses some very sandy sections in the Utah desert. My desire was to use my Montrail Rogue Racers for the race. The day before the race I did a little course reconnaissance and noticed my Montrails would fill rather quickly with sand requiring stopping and emptying my shoes. The Montrails are a nice easy flexing shoe and were my first choice for the Marathon, but the fact they were not impervious to sand had me worried.

Nike Zoom Trail with Sand Blocking Upper

Nike Zoom Trail with Sand Blocking Upper

So, I tried a pair of Nike Zoom Trails to see how they worked in the sand. Amazingly, they kept out the sand quite well. The Nike Zoom Trails are a stiffer and heavier shoe then the Montrail Rogue Racers and not my first choice for running a Marathon. Come race day, I ended up running in the Nikes and was glad I did. Over the entire race, I did not have to stop ever to empty sand out of my shoes.

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Grippy Formable Insoles to Prevent Foot from Sliding

Hoka, Brooks, Montrail, Custom Insoles

Hoka, Brooks, Montrail, Custom Insoles

The lowly insole can make a huge difference on how a shoe performs and feels. One of my biggest complaints are insoles that are low friction. Sure they make it easy to slide your foot into the shoe and put them on, but your foot will also have a tendency to slide inside the shoe when you don’t want it to slide. Such as when going up or down hills or traversing across a side hill. The Brooks Pure Grit has an insole with a very slippery surface.

Most Nikes and Montrails have a fairly grippy insole. The most grippy insoles have a rubbery surface. Some insoles I got from Zombro Physical Therapy have the grippiest surface I’ve encountered. When using them, it takes extra work to put your shoes on as your socks tend to pull and wrinkle when sliding on shoes. If you take the time getting your shoes on, you are rewarded with a footbed that grips your foot preventing it from sliding. The confidence this gives you on undulating terrain has huge positive impact on your running.

Grippy Nike Insoles with added Metatarsal Pads

Grippy Nike Insoles with added Metatarsal Pads

If I had my druthers, I would have a toe grip ridge or bump between the toes and the ball of the foot built into the insole. Overtime with use, as an insole compresses, this ridge forms. This ridge gives the toes something to grip and helps stabilize and keep the foot from sliding inside the shoe. I add a metatarsal pad on some of my insoles. This accomplishes two things, it help protect and cushion the metatarsals and it helps form this toe grip ridge.

Laces that Stay Tied and Customizable Lacing System

Shoe Laces

Shoe Laces

Laces aren’t that important are they? Yes, the wrong laces can ruin your run. The right laces will not be noticed. Laces need to have two characteristics. First, they need to stay tied. Second, they need to give consistent foot security, by NOT stretching over time.

I’ve seen some shoes come with laces that are total disasters. The laces in the Brook Pure Grit (top in the picture) have an undulating thickness like a string of sausages. In theory, they were supposes to stay tied. In reality, they tended to loosen and untie quicker than standard laces. Hard slippery surface laces also tend to untie easily. The best laces I have used have an almost coarse or grippy texture that does not untie easily. Flat laces tend to be more stretchy than laces with a round or oval cross section. Some laces are actually designed to stretch to accommodate swelling feet. Sounds good in theory. But on a trail where the terrain is undulating, a stretchy lace allows your foot to move around in the shoe – not a good thing. Blisters anyone?

My favorite laces have an oval cross section (bottom in the picture). They stay tied and do not stretch. They are fairly standard and come with a wide variety of shoe brands and models. Nike has used this type of laces for decades.

From my experience the lacing system that works the best, is the simplest. Just standard eyelets from the ball of the foot up to the ankle top. Loops are inferior to eyelets as they are more prone to failure, and do not accommodate customization as easily.

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About Bridger Ridge Run

The Bridger Ridge Run blog is an information portal for all those seeking to learn more about the Bridger Ridge Run event held every second Saturday of August in Bozeman Montana. This blog contains notifications about important registration dates and deadlines, history of the event, training advice and other stories and entertaining tidbits of information about the Bridger Ridge Run.
This entry was posted in Equipment, Shoe Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Review Comparison of the Best Trail Running Shoe

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great review man.

  2. Hello there! Do you know if they make any plugins to
    safeguard against hackers? I’m kinda paranoid about losing everything I’ve worked hard on.

    Any tips?

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