What's grip got to do with it?

By: Amanda McCracken

It's leaf-crunching time on the trails, so get out on those colorful paths of red and gold. But be sure you have the right trail shoes to help you stay upright and navigate obstacles. Wet leaves and mud can be slick and rocky terrain create foot bruising and instability. But just how do you pick the best trail shoe? Consider grip, stability, breathability, forefoot protection, and (of course) comfort.


The tread on the bottom of a shoe's sole provides two types of grip to help you maintain contact with the terrain whether it's loose gravel, mud, or boulders. Macro-grip (large grooves in the sole that create “lugs," or deep indentations) help your feet grab the terrain better (like teeth). Micro-grip (smaller grooves that create a pattern the same way scoring clay helps it stick together) work like an adhesive. If you're running hard packed terrain, light-weight trail shoes with some grip (like the Brooks Cascadia) are sufficient, but in muddy or snowy conditions, shoes with a larger “waffle" lug profile are necessary. Looking for the best of both of both worlds, cushion and grip? Consider the Adidas Outdoor Response Trail shoe</> and Hoka One One's Torrent. They offer significant grip without sacrificing the extra cushion you may want on rockier surfaces.

Stability Finding the balance between stability and agility is tough because, usually, you sacrifice one for the other. Wider shoes with significant lugs on the bottom are more stable, but tend be heavier and more clunky. Lighter shoes that fit like a glove provide you with agility for pin point accurate steps, but you lose stability.

The lighter the shoe the more quickly you are likely to have to replace it. Professional trail runner, Penelope Freedman says she tends to get the most mileage out of La Sportiva Bushido trail shoes.

“Dry windy weather blowing razor sharp sand like that in Colorado where I train can put a tremendous amount of wear and tear on shoes alone," she says. However, the high frequency welded ripstop upper material, and the Dual-Density FriXion in the sole, make the Bushido shoes hard to destruct.

Professional trail runner Andy Wacker recommends a lower heel-to-toe drop ratio (the distance between where your heel and your toes touch the ground) to lower your center of gravity to feel and adapt your feet to the uneven ground. Ballerinas wear flats rather than heels for a reason—the lower your heel is to the ground, the less likely you are to roll your ankle. This cuts down on falls that send you sailing down a trail with outstretched arms like a noticeably ungraceful superman.

While minimalist trail running shoes are popular (light weight with small heel-to-toe drop ratios), physical therapist and trail runner Heather North suggests a shoe with at least 4mm of heel-to-toe drop. “We see many patients coming in with lower leg irritation," she says. "Even though you are running on uneven surfaces, a shoe with a 0mm drop puts you at significantly more risk for calf and achilles injuries." But if running in trail shoes that give you a barefoot feel (like the Merrell Trail Glove 4 E-Mesh) is your jam, just be sure to gradually build your mileage in them.


You're not the only one on the trail that needs to breathe well. Having a shoe with good ventilation is important to cut down on blisters and keep your feet dry and warm. Look for shoes with a moisture-wicking lining and plenty of breathable upper mesh (like the Vasque Trailbender II).

And don't forget, maintaining the lifespan of that breathable material is a runner's responsibility. A little mud on your running shoes reminds you of your inner grit, but what do you do when your beautiful new trail shoes are caked in two inches of mud and reek of creek? Hose them off outside (or in the bathtub), and let them dry in the sun. Never throw them in the washing machine or keep them wrapped in a plastic bag.

“Consistently soaked material breaks down the foam in the midsole which can lead to injuries," says Wacker.

Forefoot Protection

Another great reason to wear trail shoes instead of road running shoes is the added forefoot protection in most trail shoes. North says she treats a lot of ultra-running patients for bruised toes, torn ligaments in the ball of the foot, and nerve damage. A rubber toe cap not only keeps your socks dry longer, it also protects your toes from bruising when tree roots or rocks trip you up. Wacker likes the cap in the Nike Wild Horse<./a>. A good rock plate in the midsole can protect a runner from rocks that bruise or stab the sole of the foot.

"You might lose a little flexibility, but you will maintain healthy feet for many years to come," says North, who loves the responsive New Balance Summit Unknown. It's light but also has a protective rock plate, which is a life saver on tough terrain.


Don't get caught up in having a shoe that addresses all of your foot or gait particularities such as whether you pronate, have a high arch, or tender soles. If you choose a shoe for rugged terrain with aggressive grip and a stiff rock plate, but it feels like you're wearing a ski boot on your foot, reconsider. Current research, North says, suggests that choosing a shoe based on how comfortable it feels on your foot is most important to avoid running-related injuries. In fact, North often buys men's trail running shoes to give her some width for thicker socks and swollen feet.

When it comes to fit, shoe companies tend to design lasts (the foot mold) to fit particular shapes. Freedman recommends trying on a lot of shoes before making a decision. Salomon shoes, like the Sense Pro, work great for people like herself with a slender high-arched foot. And Altra shoes, like the King MT, tend to work better for people with wide flat feet as they have a deeper toe box (also great for those whose feet tend to swell).

Final Advice

Ultimately, the best trail shoes are the ones you don't even realize you're wearing. That might mean stiff stable shoes that protect your feet from bruising or nimble shoes that feel more like a sock liner and you feel every rock below. Consider the five factors outlined here and prioritize which features matter to you most.

Lastly, run locally, and build your miles slowly.

“You don't have to start at level 100, going kamikaze down a mountain screw field," says Wacker, who's gone “kamikaze" down mountains around the world. Discover your own environment, but stay grounded while you're out there.

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