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The Definitive Guide to Trail Running Shoes - Advanced Edition

man wearing barefoot minimalist trail running shoes blue orange black merrell trail glove vapor azani rapid racer

In the final installment of the definitive guide to trail running shoes, we present some of the more advanced factors that answer the same old question.

What trail running shoes should I buy?

To recap, the beginner edition is the simplest way to go about the decision, while the intermediate edition goes a bit deeper into the technicalities of trail running shoes.

This article is aimed at the more advanced runners who are already well into their journeys as trail runners and are looking at elevating their performances - or experiences - with something 'different'.

Barefoot or Unshod

While it's not really recommended for trail running - and certainly doesn't fit the scope of this series of articles - going barefoot has been proven to be extremely beneficial to your all-round development as a runner. And just to fit this head in the context of this article, running sandals are a good balance between pure unshod running and minimalist footwear.

Brands like Luna and Canyon are popular in the trail running community in India. Carrying a significant price difference between them, both brands claim long durable use and ability to navigate tough mountain terrains over hikes and runs alike.

Open running footwear is great for recovery runs and easy running between hard training sessions. These also give the most 'real' and natural ground feel, second only to running without any footwear. Whether these can be counted as trail running shoes or not, these should be in every trail runner's shoe cabinet.

man wearing running sandals barefoot minimalist open footwear canyon cliff trail running shoes standing on small pebbles
Canyon Cliff 2 running sandals (and chipped toenails flaunted with pride)

Minimalist and/or Zero Drop

The difference between minimalist trail running shoes and open footwear is that minimalist ones are still constructed as shoes. They simply come without any extras and will typically be characterised by a very thin outsole, no insole, a wrap (or burrito) fit, no arch support and extremely lightweight, almost like a sock. These are also available mostly as zero drop shoes for the best ground feel.

While not the most rugged, these still perform well on a variety of terrain. Because they mimic natural foot shapes and movements while giving just the minimal amount of protection, these minimalist trail running shoes can even outperform the regular shoes on rocks, offroad, mountainous and hilly trails. Jungle trails with thorns or gravel are probably the only Achilles Heel for these shoes.

It is also important to mention zero drop shoes that are not minimalist. Brands like Altra, Inov8, Hoka are known for their zero drop shoe models (Altra pretty much exclusively) which also promises a more natural running gait and form. However, these come with a rather maximalist stack (25mm+), which places them at the opposite spectrum of zero drop shoes.

Minimalist and/or zero drop trail running shoes can be a great bang for the buck if a running journey revamp is what you're looking for. India, unfortunately, doesn't stock many options here, so buying these shoes is the biggest hurdle.

unboxing trail running shoes merrell trail glove black vibram outsole
A fresh pair of Merrell Trail Glove 5 barefoot shoes with Vibram outsole

Carbon Plated Shoes

With the latest advancements in running tech for road and track running, 'offroad' and trail running shoes aren't far behind. Brands like Hoka, Saucony, Nike etc. are already flaunting their carbon plated line of trail running shoes on their racks. With decreased energy wastage being the key value proposition, these have already become a talking point in online and offline conversations and forums.

Who doesn't want better running economy, right? Who doesn't want better energy return? Who doesn't want the fast feel of road running and set the next CR on the favourite local trail?

There are significant advantages of using cutting edge tech in the form of trail running shoes. Proponents bet on the performance benefits that these shoes bring - not just during a run/race but also in recovery.

But the disadvantage? Just the one. The price.

Carbon plated shoes can end up costing 4-5x the price of conventional trail running shoes. While many runners might not mind it as a one-time purchase, but even as that, strategies around training, shoe rotation, repeat buying etc. will be a challenge. This will essentially end up reducing these shoes to 'special occasions' like your A race or a one-off FKT, thereby not really giving any long-term value. Add to that the fact that carbon is generally less durable than traditional shoes, which means the actual benefits will only be seen for 1-2 uses.

Also, if you're the kind who is out to enjoy the trails and not really looking at improving your performance and setting blazing fast CRs, these are probably not for you. However, there's absolutely no downside to trying these out in training or in races. The only aspect to be mindful of is how much of keys to your wallet are you ready to give.

So, What Trail Running Shoes Should I Buy?

By now, it should be clear that this definitive guide to trail running shoes is anything but definitive. This is for the simple reason that, unlike road running, a good pair of trail running shoes is the single most important investment we make as trail runners. It is also the single largest determinant of safety, security and comfort in otherwise harsh and unfamiliar conditions. It is, therefore, not trivia.

The beginner edition of this guide will give you a direct answer while the intermediate edition will give you points to consider. This series of articles is only aimed at helping you - a runner who wants to or has taken up trail running seriously - make the best decision(s) while buying your first, or next, pair of trail running shoes. There is no answer to the question, yet there are so many answers. It all depends on where you want your journey as a trail runner to take you. And as any trail runner will say, it's always the journey that's the destination.


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