What to consider when choosing your next pair of off-road running shoes

Dearly beloved runners,

Today’s sermon is less of a rant and more of an education in what to consider when choosing your next pair of off-road running shoes. So, if you’re in the market, sit down with a cuppa and let me pass on my knowledge of nearly 40 years of running over fields, fells, tracks, moorland and mountains.

1) Go to a decent running shop

Firstly please, please please go to a decent running shop wherever and whoever it is. You can read all manner of reviews online and in magazines but the people raving about particular brands and models don’t have the same feet, gait, speed, etc as you do. Funnily enough when I put on a pair of Salomon SLabs on my feet, I still can’t run as fast as Killian!

The only way to see what shoe fits you is by trying them on and maybe even by testing a pair. (Look out for shoe testing days at your local running store).

Buying £100 worth of running shoe in your regular size 9 off the internet to find out that your feet have grown or the sizing has changed on your favourite shoe is why there are so many nearly new shoes on eBay!

2) What surface do you need them for?

Okay - now we have that nonsense out of the way, the next thing you need to ask yourself is what surface do I need them for? Are you running on road, hard trails, soft tracks, mountains, muddy fells, coastal path or maybe you want a shoe to do all of the above?

Some shoes have aggressive lugs to bite into soft mud and stick to technical rocky ground.

Some shoes have aggressive lugs to bite into soft mud

Others have less aggressive tread for harder trails but may be just as grippy on rock, etc.

Less aggressive tread for harder trails but may be just as grippy on rock

Both of the above can obviously be used on whatever type of terrain, but you wouldn’t be getting the best out of either if you ran on surfaces they weren’t designed for.

Wearing the ‘lugged’ one on road for example would not only bruise your feet, but also reduce those lugs to flat soled dancing shoes in a few miles!

There are shoes which can be used on all surfaces but are ‘jacks of all trades, and masters of none’ such as ‘road to trail’ shoes.

3) How far and at what speed are you running?

Next thing to consider is how far and at what speed are you running? A lightweight racing type shoe will give obvious advantages over short distances, where speed is the key. In this type of run, or more likely a race, the runner is going to be up on their toes.

Cushioning and protection are less paramount in this case. If the terrain is soft then this type of shoe can also be used for longer distances where grip and not protection is more important.

Below is a perfect example of a racing fell shoe with good grip but little if any cushioning, therefore completely inappropriate for long/ ultra trail running on hard trails, but great for short and soft stuff.

racing fell shoe

For longer stuff and then potentially slower paces, cushioning and protection are more appropriate.

The photo below shows the polar opposite to the previous shoe. Note the index finger pointing to the difference in stack height, ie the depth of cushioning on the sole as compared to the fell racing shoe!

depth of cushioning on the sole

4) What drop do you need?

This leads on to the next question you need to consider: what level of ‘drop’ do you require? Often called differentiation, drop, in essence, is the difference in stack height from the heel of the foot to the ball of the big toe. This can vary from around 10mm to 0.

Zero drop promotes a more natural running style and more mid to forefoot running.

Heel striking is common among many but generally inefficient when running. This style requires a level of drop and cushioning and is the most common.

There are many books and studies on ‘barefoot running’ and if this is something you want to try, bear in mind it takes a period of transition of up to 3 months.

To that end don’t go and run 20 miles in a pair of zero drop shoes if you have never worn them before! Again not to labour the point but go and try some on in a shop!

5) What is your foot shape?

Okay - so next is foot shape. Everyone’s feet are different in height, width, length of toes (number of toes! 😉) and while one shoe might fit your mate's foot like a glove, they probably won’t fit yours at all. Some shoes are renowned for their narrow fit, and others advertise their ‘natural toe box’ shape.

Check out the next photo.

Both are the same size shoe, the left one being a precision fit and the right one a wide toe box. And it’s not just the toe box where width differs, the heel and arch parts of a shoe also differ... so guess what?

Yes that’s right, go and try some on in a shop!

6) What lacing should you use?

Some have traditional laces, some have traditional laces in a irregular lacing pattern, and others have speed or elastic quick laces as shown in the photo below.

elastic quick laces

Working out what’s best for you can only be achieved by trying on a pair. For my part, I prefer traditional laces as they can be modified accordingly to your foot shape if needed.

7) Colour?

What about colour? Really? Okay so some folk like to be colour co-ordinated but if you find the perfect ‘Cinderella’ fitting shoe then surely that is better than refusing it because it doesn’t match your socks/ shorts/ cap/ hair band?

8) Cost?

Cost is an obvious consideration but most shoes are roughly the same price give or take. Just be warned that the more money you spend, doesn’t necessarily mean a better shoe. Far better would be to spend money on a shoe for all occasions, if affordable!

This blog should arm you with enough information to take to your local face to face store. If you still intend to buy off the internet, then go do so now, and please never moan about the fact that there are never any good independent shops around when you need advice on kit!

Mind how you run,


#offroadrunning #runningshoes #ColinKirkPotter