What Shoes Do I Wear?

What shoes do I wear? I’ve been asked this so many times that I thought it would be helpful to finally publish some advice.

The short answer is that I wear a lot of shoes. I definitely believe in the minimalist approach to running. It just makes sense to train to run with good form, reduce impact, and learn to feel and adjust to the trail. But I also believe that shoes are extremely useful but should be selected based on comfort, protection, and function for the conditions you plan to run. I currently have 7 different shoes that I pick and choose from depending on what I plan to run or what mood I’m in. So I don’t think the new minimalist trend is going to put Runners Roost out of business any time soon.

Generally, the key features that I look for are:

  • Fit: I like a snug fit around the heel with a lacing system that locks the arch and heel back. But I like to have plenty of room in the toe box to allow for some swelling on long runs and to prevent my toenails from getting ripped off on hard downhills.
  • Flex: The forefoot should have a good amount of flexibility from heel to toe and side to side. Stability and pronation control are useless on uneven surfaces. Flexibility is critical to allow you to plant your feet exactly where you need to and then balance and adjust to the terrain. If I can’t bend or twist a shoe by hand, I won’t even try it on.
  • Traction and protection: Big tread lugs are great for soft, sloppy stuff. A less aggressive pattern with sticky rubber and more surface area is better for rocks and ice. The forefoot area should have some cushion and rock protection. I think minimalist shoes are great but you can’t run full speed down a pile of rocks without something protecting your feet.
  • Breathability and weight: Provided the shoe offers the right fit, traction, and protection, lighter is always better. Lighter shoes are easier to run in, are more comfortable in hot weather, and drain and dry quicker in wet conditions. Some of the new ultra lightweight trail racing shoes are pretty sweet at 6-8 ounces. But anything around 10-12 ounces seems fairly comfortable to me. If I was really that worried about a few ounces, I could probably leave my camera at home or just quit drinking beer and lose another 5lbs.

Unfortunately I still haven’t found the perfect shoe. But here are a few that I’ve used most often.

Montrail Mountain Masochist
I’ve worn the Montrail Streak for several years. While it’s not perfect and is a bit heavier than I would like it to be, I’ve relied on it to get me through several thousand miles of hard training and racing including five 100 milers. Unfortunately Montrail discontinued the Streak and replaced it with the Mountain Masochist. The Masochist has the same outsole, cushion, and rock protection as the Streak. The combination of the sticky rubber on the outsole, cushioned forefoot, and rock plate protection make this an ideal shoe for running rocky, technical terrain. The fit leaves a good amount of room in the toe box but keeps the heel locked in place with good arch support and snug lacing around the midfoot. This helps to keep your toenails attached running long distances and hard downhills. The Masochist is slightly heavier and stiffer than the old Streaks which was a real disappointment for me. They got me through the Bighorn 100 without any serious problems but I’ve since moved on to try other brands. But this would be an excellent choice for someone who wants to step down from a heavy, stiff trail shoe to a lighter, more nimble trail runner.

Montrail at Backcountry.com

Montrail at Altrec.com

La Sportiva Crosslite
This is a shoe that I really wish fit my foot better. In general, I think the La Sportiva shoes are well designed and are excellent quality. But the fit is very tight in the forefoot area which is great for short, fast technical running but not quite as desireable over long distances when you need a little extra toe room. I bought my pair a half size large which is a bit more comfortable but feels unusually long and awkward. For the next pair I buy, I think I’ll stick with my true size and use them for shorter distances when the tight fit won’t be an issue. At 11 ounces, this isn’t necessarily a lightweight minimal shoe but it feels much lighter than it actually is. Cushioning is minimal but adequate protection over technical terrain. If you wear extra gaiters, you’ll need to sew your own loop into the built in scree guard. The outsole has very aggressive lugs which provide great traction in soft dirt, grass, mud, and snow. But on hard rock and ice, they tend to slide like cleats. I wear these most often running in soft snow and mud through the winter. These don’t have any arch support built in so you may need to add your own insert if you need it. And if you are just starting to run in lighter, low profile shoe, it will take some time to get used to these.

La Sportiva at Backcountry.com

La Sportiva at REI

I tried Inov-8 for the first time this year and really like their product line. They have a ton of choices which is a bit confusing at first but really makes a lot of sense to let you built the right combination of features for the fit and function that you want. For fit, I prefer the comfort or endurance last which leaves a lot of breathing room in the toe box. Their racing or performance last is very snug around the forefoot similar to the La Sportiva fit. I also prefer the web lacing system which locks in around the heel and midfoot similar to the Montrail fit. From there you can mix and match outsole tread patterns, levels of cushion, and upper materials. These are all very minimal, flexible shoes. I tried the Roclite 295 and while it looks like a traditional shoe, it is extremely flexible. You can easily fold this shoe in half from toe to heel and twist the forefoot 180 degrees sideways from the heel. If you want to really feel the trail and strengthen your feet, these are ideal. I’ve run up to 40 miles in these on very rocky technical trails and while my feet survived without injury, they were completely beat and took a couple days to recover. These are OK for training in moderation but aren’t my first choice for a 50 mile or longer ultra. The sticky rubber on the Roclite 295 was almost too sticky and made for a jerky ride on steep downhills. And the lugs wear down extremely quickly. I took these up Long’s Peak and they had almost spiderman traction scrambling up and down steep rock slabs. But for everyday trail running, I would recommend their more durable endurance rubber outsole. Sticky rubber works best on a less aggressive tread that has more contact area to smear and stick. I plan to test out either the Flyroc 310 or Terroc 330 next to try for something more supportive and durable.

Inov-8 at Mountain Plus Outdoor Gear (They offer free socks and free shipping on all Inov-8’s)

Vibram FiveFingers
Yes I read the book. But I started running in FiveFingers long before Born to Run made these popular. Barefoot running isn’t anything new. Plenty of coaches recommend it and a lot of runners incorporate barefoot running into their regular schedule. I see it as a useful training exercise and not necessarily the lifestyle choice that the barefoot running purists make it out to be …I may write more on that topic later. But I really like my FiveFingers. Since I don’t have the dedication to barefoot running to put the time into building up callouses to be able to run trails completely barefoot, this is as close as I can get to barefoot running. They have just enough protection to keep thorns, sharp rocks, glass, and any other debris from ripping my feet to shreds but are thin enough that you can still feel every little bump in the trail. The fit can sometimes be a problem for people. Fortunately these fit my feet fairly well. But you have to try them on to see if they’ll work for you or not. And even though they are light and minimal, they really aren’t very breathable. It’s essentially a rubber glove covering most of your foot so on hot days, my feet really heat up and these can get pretty slimy and gross. If you plan to use these in cool weather, you should make sure you get a size that will fit Injinji toe socks. If you want to try these, plan on taking a very long time to condition your feet to run any normal distance. Unless you are fairly lightweight and have excellent running form to begin with, it’s going to take a lot of work and patience to use these. Barefoot running can help correct gait problems and improve your strength and form in the long term. But it’s not a magical quick fix that the barefoot evangelists would have you believe. Think of it more like 2 to 3 years of orthodontics. You’ll be better off in the end but the process is slow and possibly unpleasant and painful at times.

Vibram FiveFingers at REI

A few new models on my wish list:

New Balance MT101
The latest upgrade to the popular MT100 is now available. I haven’t found them online other than through New Balance direct but my local Runner’s Roost was able to order a pair for me. I had an opportunity to test a prototype last winter and am looking forward to seeing the final product. I’ll write a full review as soon as I have a chance to put some miles on them.

New Balance Minimus Trail
I had the opportunity to test out an early prototype last winter and will buy a pair as soon as these are available in March. These will probably take the place of my Vibrams for strengthening and conditioning. This shoe falls somewhere between a very minimal Nike Free type running shoe and the Vibram FiveFingers. It has a full outsole and upper like a regular shoe but there is virtually no heel or heel lift and no midsole cushion. The outsole is thicker than the VibramFivefingers giving more protection on rough trails and it can be worn with or without socks. So I expect that I will be able to get much more use and benefit from these year round than I do from my FiveFingers.

Montrail Rogue Racer
It looks like Montrail has finally come out with a promising trail racer that should be available early next year. At under 9 ounces, if they’ve kept most of the best features that I liked about the fit, flexibility, and protection from my Streaks, I definitely want a pair. Here’s a video of Gary Robbins demonstrating the Rogue Racer on some really gnarly trail. Looks like fun!

  • Joselyne Perry

    November 1st, 2010

    Hey Pete – it’s Joselyne from the trail running group. I found your blog through Nick’s blog – and I’m glad I did! This was really helpful, as I’ve been looking into finding some better trail shoes. I’ve been running in the Vibrams when trail and weather allow for about two years, and I recently bought a pair of Inov8 Talons which I know I will LOVE in snow and mud…but I’m still looking for that perfect all around minimal trail shoe. This gave me some great ideas of where to start!

  • Pete

    November 1st, 2010

    Hi Joselyne, I’m glad my info was helpful. I’ve tried on the Talons but the forefoot was way too narrow for me. I’ve run in deep snow and really soft mud in the Roclite 295’s and the they were a bit too flexible to really dig into the soft stuff. In really deep snow, the outsole would bend back on my toes as the snow compressed under my midfoot area so it wasn’t very comfortable. The Crosslites are much stiffer and have a really firm outsole for a more stable platform. The MT101’s are by far the lightest and even though they don’t have a lot of cushion, the rock plate protection adds some stiffness. The mesh upper is ideal for really wet conditions – I just wish they had a more aggressive tread pattern.

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