Elements of the Perfect Trail Running Shoe

Written by Bruce R. Copeland on November 16, 2009

Tags: biomechanics, forefoot, gaiter, heel, pronation, running, shoes, tarahumara, ultrarunning

For years I’ve been deeply dissatisfied with most available trail running shoes. Several weeks ago, I read “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall—a fascinating and highly entertaining book about the Tarahumara Indians and ultrarunning in general. McDougall’s book reinforced many of my complaints with commercial trail running shoes, and helped to focus my ideas about what a perfect trail running shoe really ought to be.

I recognize that feet come in a variety of shapes and sizes and that not every trail runner (or road runner) needs or wants the same thing. On the other hand ultrarunning is all about pushing boundaries, and where our feet are concerned, frankly many of us need to push the boundaries a bit further. There is a widespread misconception that characteristics like arch height/strength, tendency to supinate or pronate, etc. are dictated primarily by genetics. This is not really true, as any serious cyclist who started with ‘flat feet’ knows. It is perfectly possible to build and strengthen your arch, and doing so leads to feet that are more ‘neutral’. Unfortunately the current emphasis on running shoes that provide motion control, stability, and cushioning simply serves to perpetuate weaker feet. I’m not suggesting that every trail runner throw out their shoes and run barefoot (even most primitive human cultures wore some type of foot protection). Nor am I suggesting that ultrarunners quit using their favorite shoes for longdistance races. I AM suggesting that we would ALL be a lot better runners if we spent the bulk of our time training in shoes that provide external protection, but minimal internal support.

Shoe manufacturers have been putting ever increasing effort into engineering shoes that have all kinds of special arch support, pronation control, heel cushioning, and counters to protect against ankle rolls. At best this makes our shoes unnecessarily heavy (and expensive); at worst it prevents our feet from developing the strength and proper biomechanical performance we need. Proper running biomechanics means our feet strike ground on the forefoot at a position under the approximately vertical line formed by our torso. Done correctly, there is no need for ‘engineering’ in the heel of a shoe, and there is minimal need for forefoot cushioning because the foot strike itself is relatively light. Moreover if the forefoot of the shoe has sufficient room for us to move our toes around, there is little need for any kind of pronation control. Our feet will naturally pronate the appropriate amount.

So here is a list of characteristics and features I believe an optimal trail running shoe should have:

  • moderate width heel (maneuverability)
  • moderate to minimal heel height (reduced weight)
  • minimal to moderate sole thickness (stability and reduced weight)
  • minimal cushioning
  • reasonably wide toe box (runners should be able to move toes apart)
  • light forefoot strike protection
  • minimal to moderate arch
  • some toe protection
  • relatively lower heel cuff (avoid unnecessary achilles irritation)
  • gusseted tongue
  • gaiter hooks at front of the laces
  • a surface to mount hook velcro for gaiters 2/3 of way down back of heel

A small amount of heel counter is probably OK (many ultrarunners DO in fact heel strike while power hiking uphill). Shoes should hold up for at least 500 miles (preferably 1000).

These specifications still leave ample room for shoe manufacturers to differentiate themselves and compete. We runners presumably do not all agree about what we want in the way of a shoe upper. Some probably want uppers that breath better, others probably want uppers that do a better job keeping out sand, snow, etc). There is a lot of room for innovation and engineering when it comes to lacing, shoe weight, and sole traction.

It’s time for all of us to start pestering running shoe manufacturers to produce trail running shoes that provide us with what we need, and not with what we don’t need.