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Choosing the Best Trail Running Shoes

Dr. Feldman's expert advice on how to choose the best trail running shoes

Choosing the Best Trail Running Shoes


While you may read about all the amazing features the different shoe companies promote to help sell their shoes, the single most important principle to remember when buying a shoe, any shoe, is that it must fit! 

None of the special features of a shoe, the construct, sole, materials, etc, matter if the shoe doesn’t fit. When running trails you will often get small pebbles, sticks, sand or gravel inside your shoe, so if the fit is too snug or tight, these nuggets of nature will have a much greater chance of causing irritation and pain.

Additionally, streams and water are common in the woods and if your socks get wet, that too can lead to significant blister formation. In fact, the mere presence of a blister is a great indicator of poor shoe fit.

Choose comfort
The discussion here can go in several directions, but since this is a “best” blog, then I will stick to what, in my opinion, is the best trail running shoe to select. To keep it simple, the very best trail running shoe is the shoe that is most comfortable and doesn’t cause any blisters, hot spots, loss of toenails, chafing on the heels or soreness in the ball of the foot. 

While what we are after is simple, how to get there is not so simple. As every human foot is a little different, and most shoes are made fairly similar, it means that IF your foot isn’t shaped like the shoe you wear, you could have problems. And when stuck in the woods, problems are best to be avoided!

Flat trails
In choosing, the first thing to consider is what type of trail you will be running. If it’s a fire road or rail trail or smooth gravel path, absolutely ANY shoe will do. Road shoes are made of highly durable materials these days and will tolerate softer terrain and some rocks and sand as well as any trail shoe out there. Plus, newer generation trail shoes are made so light now, that oftentimes you can use the trail shoes on the roads. 

When I made the switch from traditional to minimalist footwear many years back, I was so comfortable in the original Altra Lone Peak (I put almost 800 miles on them!) that I wore them on every run including a PR (personal record) at the time at the Providence (road) marathon. 

Newer Altra Lone Peak 6

Rocky trails
As the terrain changes to more rocks and roots and steep ups and downs, that’s when the features of trail specific shoes become necessary. In the Northeast, thanks to the last Ice age retreating about 10000 years ago, we have rutty, rocky, granite-laden bumps of earth (mountains are found more north and out west, but we have hills here) that can be particularly hard on the bottom of our feet.

Shoes that have specialized rock plates built into the sole or as an insert into the shoe can help tremendously with distributing the pressure of landing on small rocks and roots that would otherwise dig and bruise our delicate feet. 

If you are a fair weather runner and not running steeper or rocky terrain, then any trail sole will likely do. However, on wet days or if you plan on running on wet rock from time to time or have to scale up and down rocky faces, having thicker (typically vibram) soles with lugs on them can help immensely. 

If you are looking at two different shoes that otherwise look similar, the one with the thicker sole will be better on the slick stuff. Additionally, many of the better trail shoes come with clips and velcro connectors for Gaiters that will prevent the sand, sticks and rocks from getting inside the shoe during your run.

Actual fit vs. Perceived fit
As with any shoe however, the single most important aspect is the actual fit, as opposed to the perceived fit. If you are someone who likes tight shoes, ties the laces snug and doesn’t feel comfortable unless your foot is being squeezed, then I can tell you with 100% certainty that your shoes are too small. What most people rely on to determine fit is “feel,” which is an entirely different animal. 

Feel is what you are used to and what seems right. If you are used to something too small, then it feels right. You can get away with this for an occasional 30 minute trail run, but it won’t work if you find you love trail running so much that you start scouring the internet for trail ultramarathons! What will work best is when the Fit matches the Feel.

I like to remove the sock liners from the shoes and stand on the sock liner and see how the shape of your foot matches the shape of the shoe. It’s a game you may have played as a kid; put circle shape block in circle shape opening, square shape block in square shape opening and triangle shape block in triangle shape opening.

Play the same game at the shoe store. Square shaped foot goes into square shaped shoe. Make sure your toes have a little room in the front and be absolutely certain the big toe isn’t hanging over the sock liner at all.

Support and Cushioning
Shoe companies also spend a lot of time explaining the support, cushioning or all of the extra wonderful features a shoe has and why you should buy it. I think it should be kept a little more simple than that. If you like something soft, go with more cushion. If you like something firm, go with something stiffer.

Almost all modern trail shoes are lightweight, so there is little difference between the shoes that are soft vs. stiff.  If you find a shoe that is too heavy, it should be avoided if at all possible (unless it happens to be the only one available that seems to fit). 

Heavy shoes create quicker leg fatigue and leg fatigue leads to not lifting your feet enough after a while. And not lifting your feet enough is a great way to find a root with your toes, end up on your face, twist an ankle or break a bone.

Heel elevation
Shoes, like people and feet, come in all shapes and sizes. I personally like the foot shaped shoes like Topo and Altra, but there are so many other brands out there. These shoes vary in softness and stiffness and stack height (that’s the thickness of the material between the earth and your foot) and drop.

Drop is the elevation of the heel relative to the ball of the foot. Every Altra is 0, meaning without heel elevation and what I would like to call barefoot-like. Topo has options that range from 0 to 3 mm to 5 mm.

When running terrain that has a lot of ups and downs (i.e. not flat), the drop will not matter as much as your body and feet are constantly changing positions relative to the ground.

But in general, if you are someone who LOVES to be barefoot or wear flip flops all the time, then go with a lower drop shoe. If you have a stiff ankle or stiff hips, then perhaps something more than 0 should be better. 

Traditional companies like New Balance, Saucony, Brooks offer some excellent trail running shoe options as well and if you have no problems ever while wearing these brands (Asics too), then you should do fine in any of them. Companies like Montrail, Salomon, Inov-8 have been known for their trail shoes. 

Hoka has created an amazing niche for themselves on the roads and in the trails, and in fact they were my shoe of choice for my first Leadville trail 100 (Gaviota). It all comes down to trying on the shoe, seeing what FITS and then determining how it FEELS to you.

New Hoka Gaviota model

Pay attention to the little things
Lastly, some pearls to help with prevention of blisters and foot problems that go beyond being in shoes that fit. Wear quality socks that aren’t too tight. I always go just a shade larger with socks to help prevent nails from loosening and lifting (at least those nails that I have left - I’m really trying to “sell” you on trail running, right?).

If you are training for a long run on trails (marathon or longer), then don’t ever stop to remove a small pebble or stick from your shoe as it will serve to toughen up the skin (only during training and ONLY if it’s not creating a sore). Avoid shoes that are too big and too soft as the extra “squish” will lead to extra blisters even if you’ve been running for a while.

Pick up some blister prevention products to rub over the prominent areas of the foot before putting your socks on. Don’t be afraid to skip lacing over bumps on the foot and/or going to elastic laces that will stretch with the foot as your foot can swell with running.

And lastly, strengthen those toes and that arch by doing toe exercises and walking barefoot whenever you can. If you can’t be comfortable walking barefoot, then perhaps trail running isn’t going to be for you.

Nature will make you smile and make you feel at peace and the clock always seems to disappear while amongst its beauty. I hope this helps your feet while you find joy in your running.

Best of luck, and reach out to us if you have any questions or need further help.

Read also: 6 Runner Approved Tips to Start Trail Running


Dr. Neil Feldman Dr. Neil Feldman is a Podiatrist at Central Massachusetts Podiatry, in Worcester and Westborough. As an ultramarathoner, runner and triathlete, he loves to help his patients remain consistent with their regular activities, assist in getting patients back to health and dedicates himself to patients achieving their goal events and races from walking the Camino de Santiago, to a first 5k run, to Ironman to a 250 mile run…and yes, that’s a thing!!

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