Ultrarunning is all about spending a lot of time on your feet. And failure to look after feet is one of the biggest reasons behind people DNF’ing an event (did not finish), so choosing the ‘right’ running shoes for an event can be one of the hardest and most stressful decisions to make.
Trail shoes tend to be expensive, and choosing the wrong one can be painful (physically and financially!). So where do you start? Although there will always be a little bit of trial and error, considering the following should help you narrow your choice a little. We would really advise visiting a specialist store and trying on a range of shoes, physically trying a shoe means you will get a better sense of how it feels. Do your research (of the event and shoes) beforehand so you will be going in as an ‘intelligent customer’, maybe even have a short list of what you think may meet your needs.
Size and Width – you’ll know if your feet are wider or narrower than average and whether you often are “on the edge” of shoe sizes. Bear this in mind then check out the online reviews of whatever you’re thinking about… you’ll find you end up ruling some out.
You definitely need a shoe that your toes don’t rub on, an easy way to check this is to check that there is still room when you crouch down on your toes.
What will you be running on? If you have completed your event preparation you should have an idea of the breakdown of road, trail, mud etc. Although weather (specifically amount of wet) can significantly change the characteristics of a course, knowing what the terrain is like is a good start. Clearly if you are completing a road or track ultra your footwear choice will be very different than if you are doing a mountain ultra. For most off-road Ultras your shoe choice is likely to be a compromise, especially for longer events which may cross multiple different areas (although on these you may get a drop bag option and even more complicating factors if you change shoes at a Checkpoint!)
Linked to terrain is how much protection you feel you will need from a shoe. For us this includes 4 key areas: toes, underfoot, ankles, and debris.
Toes. For particularly rocky or mountainous events you will want to consider a shoe that has good toe protection; many an event has been derailed by accidentally kicking a rock! For less arduous trails it’s less of a factor, but when you are tired you may still be dragging your feet and will want to protect your toes from the occasional inadvertent ‘stubbing’!
Underfoot protection is another factor. Whilst most shoes will have a ‘rock plate’ of some form it is still worth checking. It’s worth checking out reviews to see how much a pair of shoes will protect your feet. Some “racier” shoes don’t offer too much protection. Equally the amount of rubber between you and the trail is important. The longer a run the more likely it is your feet will get ‘beaten up’. Hoka have led with shoes with lots of cushioning but most of the brands are following the trend. For us anything over 50 miles and it is worth considering a more cushioned shoe; although you must train in them as they do take a little getting used to.
Ankles are often forgotten, but they can take a bashing especially on rocky or mountainous trails. Your options are either a low cut boot to provide some protection or a lightly padded gaiter that protects your ankles.
Gaiters? A shoe that integrates well with a gaiter might be useful to avoid getting too much debris in your socks over the course of the race. Debris can (and will!) lead to blisters if left. And the more times you stop to clear out your shoes the more time wasted! Gaiters can be simple lycra ones or (if you need to protect ankles) something a little more robust.
Although most people agree that drop is less of an issue for Ultra running it is still an important factor in choosing your event shoe. The drop of a shoe is the difference in height between the heel and forefoot. For example, when barefoot, the heel and forefoot touch the ground at the same level: drop is Zero.
There are hundreds of articles and as many schools of thought out there on drop and what’s best. However, what’s important to know right now is that changing drop too much can change your running style. And this in turn can lead to injuries that could have been prevented (especially lower limb).
Check the drop on your current shoe(s); you can google your pair and get the exact measurement. If you are comfortable with your current running style then you should try to ensure the drop of the shoe you buy is similar (plus or minus a few mm) to the ones you are currently wearing.
A lot of manufacturers offer waterproof shoes (usually Goretex lined). The problem with a waterproof shoe is that whilst it doesn’t let water in, it also won’t let water out! And let’s face it water can usually get in very easily!
What’s the benefits of a waterproof shoe? For an event that doesn’t have lots of river crossings, or an expectation of deep puddles they can keep your feet dry (and warm); this is especially true if your event is across grass where dew is likely. For winter events a waterproof shoe may keep your feet warmer, allowing you to effectively build a warm (but wet) layer just like in a neoprene wet suit. However, this can lead to submersion injury issues (aka trench foot).
The alternative is waterproof socks. These can be longer/higher and give much more protection from wet. But, be aware that waterproof socks are always thicker and that you may need to size up your shoes. Make sure you try your shoes on with the socks you intend to wear on your event.
Trails are uneven so you will want a shoe that feels ‘grounded’ and stable. Whilst most trail shoes are designed to be stable it is still worth checking how stable it feels. As your legs and feet fatigue you become more susceptible to rolling an ankle, the more stable a shoe the less risk there is of this happening.
MOST IMPORTANTLY – they need to be comfortable. Whatever you buy has to ‘feel right’. This is very subjective but it really is more important than brand, or colour or style…If a shoe isn’t comfortable it really isn’t going to help you train, or complete your event!
Yes, you may end up doing some trial and error. You may find your chosen shoe rubs in the wrong place or doesn’t have enough grip… but by thinking about some of the above before you buy you will give yourself a better chance of buying something at least useful. And if a shoe doesn’t work? There are a number of forums where you can sell them on to recoup some costs and, importantly, to give them a second life. Do not let shoes end up in landfill!
Brands we have been running in over the last couple of years include Scott, Inov8, Hoka and Salomon, all of whom provide great trail shoes. The world really is your oyster though.