The endless debate on trail running forums the world over… Which shoe, is for you? It is not as simple as matching the colours with your favourite kit. Whether you are new to trail, or a seasoned pro, this is an industry that updates and innovates regularly. Stay ahead of the trends and avoid the pitfalls with some insight from a few of the experts in South Africa.
Alex Hawkins from Altra South Africa says that those new to trail running often ask if there is a shoe that can handle road and trail, or they ask if they can run trail in their road shoes. How long the shoe will last is another burning question asked pre-purchase.
Truth is, most road shoes will handle gentle off-road running of the jeep track variety. But if you are running on anything more than some flat gravel, you’re going to want trail-specific footwear. Stability, grip and protection are just some of the reasons. As for how long your shoes should last… the variables here are endless. Heavier runners go through their shoes a little more quickly, and good old South African Fynbos does more damage than you would expect. So it depends on your running style, mileage and where you seek out your single track bliss.
Grant Byant, owner of RUN Specialist Store in the Cape interacts with newcomers on a daily basis. “The new or aspirant trail runner is often very conscious about colour, brand and recommendations from friends, as this is all the 'experience' they have to go on. We find that after a runner has done a few tough runs or begins training for their first race, and they have experienced niggles, pain or blisters, they tend to be less driven by colour and brand, and more open to buying on function. Most beginner runners also do not know exactly what they need in a trail shoe, as they have very little experience on various surfaces, so tend to go for a sturdy versatile trainer, and we see them shift into models more specific to the kind of trail they prefer once they are more confident on the terrain. Models like the Saucony Peregrine, Brooks Cascadia, New Balance 910 and ASICS Trabuco are extremely popular in store at present.”
Saucony Peregrine, a popular choice for fast technical trail
New Balance 910 - if you run in New Balance on the road, these could be a good choice for you
Kane Reilly from Salomon says that newcomers are usually looking for a shoe that will help them run comfortably on the trail, injury free. “Quite often a customer will have particular brand or even colour in mind when seeking out a shoe, a brand loyalty / colour preference that stands in the way of reason can sometimes lead to buying the wrong shoe. Big Steve, my boss, always says…”the best shoe for you, is the shoe that fits, and that you can afford”. From our Salomon offering we are finding that the Sense Ride is the most on point shoe for beginner runners and a shoe that would sit well in any athlete’s quiver. The Ride provides a great combination of protection, stability, responsiveness, grip, proprioception and weight. The overall design concept follows that of a more traditional road running shoe, with an 8mm heel-to-toe drop and a midsole containing “Vibe” technology. This shock absorbing material gives the shoe a smoother, softer ride than many other trail shoes.”
Salomon Sense Ride
Kane reckons there are some fundamentals to keep in mind when buying a pair of trail shoes. “If your current road shoes work for you, find a similar trail shoe. Doesn’t necessarily need to be the same brand, stick to a similar overall feel. To do this, compare level of cushioning, stability, flex or rigidity, “heel to toe drop”, overall fit and feel of potential trail shoe to your favourite road shoe.”
The running shoe industry is a tough place in terms of competition and market share. Runners have never been so spoilt for choice, but shoe prices have also sky-rocketed in recent years, making it a radical place to try to turn a profit. Globally, there are certain trends that seem to be fading out as new technology and design leads the way.
Grant, “We do see a trend away at large from barely there (minimal / barefoot) type shoes, back to more traditional models (albeit with lower drops), as well some people experimenting with more max cushioned options, like Hoka One.”
Alex from Altra agrees the international trend towards max cushioning never really caught on in a mass consumption basis here in SA, but also now seems to be fading internationally too, to a more medium-strong amount of cushioning.
Kane credits the Christopher McDougall best seller “Born to Run” with one of the biggest trends to hit running footwear. “You could say that over the past decade the general running shoe world has been shaken a couple times by radical trends. Most notably the minimalist and the maximalist movement.
"Born to Run” convinced runners that the most minimal approach to footwear was the way to go. With mixed success many converted from heavier, more cushioned running shoes into shoes with very little or no support. Fast forward a few years, and possibly some lessons learnt from the extreme minimalist approach, the birth of the maximalist movement where shoe brands built shoes to provide spongier rides.
The latest trend sits somewhere in between. Shoes that provide enough stability, protection and cushioning whilst allowing a runner to maintain their natural gait. “Proprioception” in footwear is a term that is being used in the industry regularly at the moment, a word that really summarises the idea behind the balance between protection, stability, movement and trail feel.
You could say the trend is to build natural shoes that do not seek to guide a runner’s foot strike and have a traditional approach to stack height and heal to toe drop.
Durably often comes to the forefront when discussing trail shoes, particularly in SA where our trails are HARSH on shoes; our vegetation literally has the ability to eat shoes. All the prominent footwear brands are continuously looking at way to build more durable shoes without sacrificing comfort and performance (if shoes where built with “Felly” uppers they’d last a long time…but there would be no breathability and the fit would be sacrificed). Adaptions such as single piece outer soles and strategically reinforced uppers are going a long way to combat wear and tear and keep shoes fresh for longer.”
Altra has brought some very distinctive shoe innovations to the table. “Obviously our standard foot-shaped toe box, as well as one piece toe-tongue construction. We offer an anatomically correct stone guard to encourage increased flexibility and independent flex, and a four point gaiter trap
We also focus on durability with increased TPU overlays and improved rip-stop nylon uppers.”
Across the brands, Grant has seen a few obvious innovations emerging. “Grippy outer-soles and lightweight shoes that dry quickly. Runners often inquire about waterproof shoes, but this is functionless in our climate and conditions, and would not allow water to escape or dry fast enough. Advanced rubber compounds like Vibram tend to give shoes enhanced grip and durability in wet conditions, while 'rock protection plates' assist in protecting the foot, and distributing the pressure. Most brands are now moving away from stitched panels and moving into heat bonded panels, which reduce friction, chaffing, and make the shoes more comfortable to wear while reducing weight. New midsole compounds also reduce weight, increase cushioning, and add more protection.”
Before You Swipe Your Card
So what kind of conversations should you be having whilst investing in a pair of trail shoes? First up, head to a specialist store where experts can take a look at your running style, and chat you through the options. Let go of previous brand perceptions and be open to matching a shoe to your overall running requirements.
How much cushioning do you need? This is normally formulated according to a runner’s weight, biomechanics, type of trails used on and mileage planned for the shoes. Simply the midsole stack height in mm is not enough information to go by, as midsoles are made out of a number of different materials with different geometers/density (basically how spongy or hard a shoe is). Also, what heel to toe drop are you used to and if you are looking to change, how much at a time? If you are making a change, do so gradually to avoid injury. What kind of outsole do you need for the trails that you run? Soft trails (think wet and muddy) vs hard trails (think jeep track, hard single track and rocks) require different uppers and outsoles (grip) and a shoe designed for Soft ground VS Hard ground will be designed accordingly.
Kane elaborates, “There exists a kind of sliding scale in the trail running shoe world. On the one side you have high performance weapons, on the other side the supportive and durable work horse. Think of a Ferrari and a Hilux.
A high performance racing shoe will give you maximum performance in the form of being lightweight, highly response (reactive to your foot movements and to the trail surface) and make use of the most grippy rubber compound on the outsole (the stickiest grip is usually not the longest lasting).
On the other side of the scale a shoe that is designed with the intention to provide support and longevity will be slightly heavier and often have a more solid feel trail feel, with a large amount of protection.”
Variety certainly isn’t an issue in South Africa, but the right shoe will make or break your trail running journey, so spend your cash wisely.
Throw back to a Trail Shoe 101 video that we produced with RUN Store
Words by Kim Stephens