How to choose your next pair of trail run shoes

Running shoe expert Grant Bryant is the owner of RUN Specialist Store in Cape Town. His insights will help you choose the best shoe for your needs, and save some cash too.

Choose shoes the smart way. You’ve done your homework – asked your running partner’s advice, googled, chatted around the braai. Now it’s time to buy the actual shoes.

How to choose shoes Grant Bryant TRAIL 36
The Brooks Cascadia 14 in action.

What do you need to consider? This is probably one of the most challenging issues that shoe experts need to address on a regular basis. There are so many driving forces influencing peoples’ decisions. Some of them are vitally important to the biomechanics of the individual in specific circumstances, and some have no real effect at all, but to the person buying the shoes they have an influence. How do we deal with guiding people though the process to end up with the correct pair of shoes?

These are my thoughts, information, and guidelines, but remember that there is never a one size fits all approach to running footwear. I encourage you to fit, feel, and try.

Choose shoes wide narrow
A comparison in shape between two brands. The one on the left has a wider, more stable base, and a wider arch, compared with the one on the right which is slender fitting with a narrow arch. The wider one is better suited to someone who has a lower flatter foot. If a flat-footed runner used the narrow comparison model, their arch would bulge over the mid foot.


First, we need to establish the history of the individual: past training experience, injury history, past footwear, as well as current and future goals. These are all vital in footwear selection.

Remember that you may be fitter and stronger than you were 10 years ago, or conversely, you may be under-trained, overweight (who isn’t after lockdown?), or you may be running faster times, slower times, more distance.

All these factors change regularly, so why are you wearing the same type of shoes you wore 10 years ago? Regular reassessment means you will get the best shoes for your current needs, not the needs you had 10 years ago.

Biomechanics to help choose shoes

Biomechanical factors are crucial: foot shape, size, width, height of bridge, and compatibility with running style. Does the shoe accommodate orthotics if needed?

Choose shoes that hold the heel and mid-foot and allow the forefoot to splay naturally, as this allows ideal proprioception and normal foot function inside the shoe. When we have someone complaining about a burning sensation in the forefoot, it’s normally a width-related issue.

Choose shoes short lugs deep lugs
A comparison of lug-length on two models of the same brand. One has shorter, flatter lugs, better suited to harder, dry, compacted terrain. The other has long protruding lugs, spaced far apart to prevent clogging in wet muddy terrain.

Where are you running?

Terrain and race factors are important to consider. A 5,000m athlete running in a barely-there racing flat might be able to run in those shoes for a long slow run. A faster athlete might be comfortable in a plusher shoe for a recovery run, but the long distance athlete wouldn’t necessarily use the barely-there shoe on the track. They would require a shoe with more structure, cushion, and support as they are less adapted to the track. A minimalist shoe may not work with their specific needs.

The same idea applies to runnable and technical trail, or hard ground and soft ground. We regularly see people buy inappropriate shoes for the terrain they run on. It’s understandable, but they do not always understand the consequences.

When training for an ultra in winter in wet, muddy, slippery forest trails, the needs of the shoes differ from that of when you run your race in summer in hot, dry, rocky terrain.

Long lugs penetrate softer surfaces and enhance grip, while on hard dry compacted surfaces longer lugs cannot penetrate the surface and therefore reduce grip (and often wear quicker).

This is important to remember for someone who is less confident, or requires additional grip.

The Brand Idea

Design philosophies of the various shoe brands also play a part. The shoe is designed to cater to a specific type of athlete, on specific terrain, running ideal mileage (race distance and durability), with a specific foot shape, and offering a specific level of support.

Often people choose shoes based on colour, or based on brand reputation. While the brand might be excellent, using a product for something outside what it was created for, means that it may not function well. It might wear down or break sooner than it should have.

Another risk is that the shoe may not work with your specific biomechanics, and lead to injury.

Light cushioned choose shoes
A comparison between a lightweight trail shoe and a maximalist cushioned trail shoe. One is low, fast, and agile, the other is the opposite. But the maximalist shoe offers more protection and comfort, and is suited to long outings on runnable terrain.

Special shoe just for you

Other peoples’ opinions in terms of brand, experience, and recommendations are always fantastic. Never disregard them. Experience from other people is valuable information.

However, remember that the shape of your foot, your height, weight, goals, injury history, and biomechanics are all different from others, including your partner and family. What works for one person will almost surely not work as well for another, which is why there are so many shoe brands on the market!

The shoe that fits your foot, your needs, your biomechanics, and your wallet is the brand that is best for you, not the one that fits someone else’s foot.

Brand and colour are probably some of the most challenging ones to deal with. While certain products may have a reputation in the marketplace that they are superior, the reality of the situation is that if they do not match the shape of your foot, or are inappropriate for the distance you plan on running, then they shouldn’t be a consideration.

Do not ever choose shoes based on colour. I have been to the finish of many races, and nobody looks stylish. Nobody cares about the colour of your shoes. You shouldn’t either.

shoe last choosing shoes
This shows two shoe lasts. A last is the device that determines the shape of the shoe. The fact that every shoe will have its own unique last, dictates that all shoes will fit differently.

Review bias

Online reviewers and bloggers are also often a place where people go to get the latest shoe technology and reviews. But be cautious, as the reviewer’s opinions are subjective!

They may absolutely hate a shoe and give it a terrible review, but because their likes, needs and wants are different to yours, it might be the ideal shoe for you and you might love it!

Never let the opinion of an online review stop you from trying on a shoe. Allow your foot and needs to determine the next pair of shoes.

Buy for you

Personal preference is the ideal way to buy your shoes. You need to find out which shoes meet the technical requirements of the race that you aim to take part in. Determine that they have the structure that you need and prefer, that biomechanically they suit your level of strength or competence, and that they fit your feet.

Remember that everyone’s preferred level of cushioning and support is subjective to their abilities, style, and preferences.

Try multiple shoes from various brands and the ones that fit the best are your new training partners, regardless of brand, colour, or style!

Grant Bryant has over 10 years experience in the technical running shoe industry, including managing some of the best specialist stores in Cape Town.

Find him on social media

This article was first published in TRAIL issue 36.

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