Trail Running 101: Shoes

Trail running is growing in popularity. But, with so many options, it's hard to know where to start! So, we turned to our community partner, semi-semi pro trail runner and favorite Kiwi, Jourdan Harvey to share his experience and knowledge...


Everyone knows you need shoes to go running. However, if you are starting out running and go to a running store to pick up some new kicks you may be overwhelmed by the hundreds of options available. Road or trail? Maximal or minimal? Heel drop? Pronation??! Toe box??!? Hopefully, we can help you out and demystify the art of choosing a pair of running shoes.

First of all, should you buy road shoes or trail shoes? When looking at trail shoes compared to road shoes, trail shoes will have:

  • More grip, usually provided by different styles of lugs on the sole. Some may have small metal studs too.
  • A tougher upper to withstand the extra beating they may get on the trail
  • May have less cushioning in the sole as trails are softer than asphalt
  • May contain a rock plate in the sole to protect from sharp rocks

If you are starting out running then I would suggest you get fitted out with a good pair of road running shoes, even if you plan to do trail running. Why? Most people will do the majority of their training mileage on road, so it is important to have a good pair of shoes that fit you well so you can best avoid getting injured while training.

There are a few people who can do most of the training on trail, if this is you then obviously it’s best to just get a good pair of trail shoes! If you have already been doing some running, maybe you have done a couple of 5 or 10km road races, and are looking to try out trail running I would suggest to get fitted for trail shoes to provide the extra grip you need for the trails.


Tip: When you go into a running store to look at trail shoes take your road shoes with you. This will help the staff find a pair of trail shoes that are similar to the feel you get from your road shoes. This is also a good chance to have an expert assess the wear on your road shoes.


 Example of a maximal trail running shoe.

Example of a maximal trail running shoe.

Maximum & Minimal Trail Running Shoes

Cushioning through the sole of shoes comes in different sizes and different materials. Shoes with a large soft foam cushioning are known as a maximal. We call the height of this cushioning stack height, i.e.the height of your foot from the ground.

On the other end of the spectrum, shoes with thin rubber soles are known as minimal. Extra cushioning can be helpful for certain injuries so if you have a specific recommendation then you could pursue a cushiony pair of shoes. Some people find the cushiony ride more comfortable.

If you are new to the trails I would avoid a maximal pair of trail shoes as the higher stack height can put you out of touch with the uneven terrain and may make you more prone to ankle rolls as you get used to trails.

Minimal shoes give you a good feel of the trail underneath your feet, and will generally be lighter than other types of shoes which can help you maintain your gait and running form. If this is something you are interested in exploring, you'll want to phase them into your training as the new style of shoe affect your running style and will probably require strengthening of certain muscles.

Switching To A Maximal Or Minimal Shoe

For example, if your training has a couple of recovery runs a week then you could do half of these runs in your minimal shoes and then switch to your normal shoes for the second half. Over time you can build up the time spent in your minimal shoes. You can supplement this build up with these exercises to build strength in the muscles required for minimal running:

  • Calf strength
  • Stability, strong foot
  • Hip thrusters

As far as trail shoes go, it’s taken me a loooooong time to figure out exactly what I was looking for. Most trail races I do are long distance, so I need some cushion underfoot, but don’t want to feel like I’m running on cinder blocks.  After MUCH trial and deliberation, I’ve settled on the Altra Lone Peak and couldn’t be happier with it. Plenty of aggressive tread for any manner of trails, lots of flexibility in the sole and upper to provide room for swelling, and you might as well be running on fluffy bunnies these shoes are so dang soft. - Meg Sawyer, avid trail runner/racer & Patient Care Coordinator at our Green Lake clinic
— Meg Sawyer, Patient Care Coordinator, Trail Running Bad Ass
Meg trail running

traditional running shoe

Heel Drop vs. Stack Height

Heel drop is the difference in stack height between your heel and the ball of your foot. The style of running shoe that has become very popular over the last 20 or so years (think a standard Asics or Nike shoe) will have a drop of between 7-12mm. This extra cushioning in the heel allows you to strike with your heel increasing your stride length. As it turns out, this isn’t our natural stride and puts a lot of extra stress on your legs leading to injury. It's best to run with a high cadence, striking with your mid to forefoot, under the center of mass of your body. Our bodies are designed for walking and standing, but when we run we want to keep that heel off the ground.

Think of a horse’s foot (hoof), the heel is nowhere near the ground. A lower heel drop helps this as it removes the extra weight from your heel so it doesn’t swing down as fast. A higher heel can also get in the way of letting you strike with your mid to forefoot in rough terrain. However a higher heel-drop can help when climbing, especially hiking, hills as it can reduce the strain you need to put through your calves. As with minimal shoes if you are switching to a low or zero drop shoe you will be changing your gait and running style. Do this gradually and supplement the transition with strengthening exercises to prepare your muscles for your new running style.

What Is Pronation?

Pronation is the amount your ankle to rolls when you strike with your heel. You can have a normal strike for which you would buy a normal shoe. If you under or over pronate you can buy shoes with different types of cushioning on each side to help correct your pronation. It’s best to head to a running store to get this assessed by the staff.

Tip: If you already have running shoes, bring those in with you because the wear pattern on your existing shoes is a good indicator of your pronation.

trail running shoes

Some shoes have a special, wide toe box. If you look at your foot, it’s wider at the toes and gets narrower toward the heel. Many shoes today are narrow at the toes. Your toes are great to help you balance and give some final push to your stride. A wider toe box gives your toes room to do their work. If you have a wider foot then it’s a good idea to try on a shoe with a wide toe box as you may find the shoe more accommodating for your foot shape.

In general, I recommend making as few changes as possible at once. If you are starting out running, training, or looking into trail running then you are already making a change to your lifestyle, and in my opinion, it’s always best to introduce change gradually. Most people will be familiar with a normal style shoe, even if you haven’t been running you probably have owned a pair of shoes like this for some time, also for those switching to trail you probably have a normal style pair of shoes. I think it’s best to go to your local running store and get the advice of the helpful staff to get the shoe best suited to your needs!

Who Am I To Be Giving You All This Advice?...

I moved to Seattle from New Zealand in 2014. While growing up I had done some trail races and Orienteering in New Zealand, but no long trail races. After spending a year in Seattle I felt obliged to start exploring the outdoors we have such great access to. With some motivation from Chris McDougal’s book Born to Run and the film “Unbreakable” I started to increase my training load, explore my local trails and get into the sport of ultrarunning. Early in the year I started working with Kinetic Sports Rehab to address tight areas in my legs that I didn’t want to develop into injuries. By working with Kinetic throughout the year, as well as doing my recommended home exercises, I was able to avoid any major injuries and increase my training load significantly on the previous year. I doubled my mileage and more than tripled my elevation gain. I completed my first three 50km trail races, averaging 5 hours per race and visited all the colors of the podium. With the help of Kinetic I have been able to change from a casual runner to an amatuer trail racer. I’m looking forward to what 2017 will bring.