Choosing the right Cross Country Shoe

Consider the answers to the following questions: On what types of terrain do you foresee using the shoes? How many miles do you want to get out of the shoes? How much can you afford to spend? What distance are you likely to run in the shoes? Are you a woman and, if so, do you prefer a "woman's" shoe? Do you need special support or stability built into your running shoes? Likewise, do you need additional cushioning? Do you have odd sized or shaped feet? Are you a particularly light and nimble runner who prefers more agile footwear? Do you need a shoe that breathes especially well or, conversely, do you favor a waterproof shoe?

Identify yourself as being a certain "type" of trail runner. Once you are able to categorize yourself as, for example, an "ultra" or half-road/half trail" or "Gazelle" or "extreme off-trail" runner, you will be a more informed and rational trail shoe shopper.


Knowing the likely surface of your running will help you determine what kind of outsole, or tread, you should have. If you are likely to be running primarily on paved surfaces with only a small percentage of trail running, then perhaps you needn’t look at “trail” shoes at all, especially if you are particularly fond of the smoothness and lightweight qualities that are offered by a road shoe. Alternatively, many shoe manufacturers make hybrid shoes that are, for all intents and purposes, road shoes with a beefier outsole, toe bumper, and earthier colorways.

Buy a more aggressive outsole if the majority of your runs are on single track, sand, scree, ice, mud, gravel, rock, and other challenging off-road surfaces. In general, the more gnarly the terrain, the more traction you will need. Keep in mind that softer outsole materials convert to better grip on rocky surfaces, but that those materials will wear more quickly than harder carbon rubber treads. Trail shoes will often have two or three “durometers” or hardness of outsole materials in different parts of the outsole to maximize traction and durability.

Look for more durable shoes if you plan to or need to get a lot of training or racing miles out of your trail shoes. Ironically, the related concern of how much you can afford to spend runs parallel to the mileage question because it often the case that lower-priced shoes have longer lives. This is usually the case because the pricier shoes have relatively complex support systems and/or are constructed with cushy midsoles that break down or get compacted over time. The relative stiffness of the midsole is the most important consideration in selecting a shoe that will endure over the miles. The stiffer the midsole, the longer the shoe will retain its original cushioning. Those needing more cushioning not only have to pay more for each purchase, but they also have to make more frequent purchases.

Ask yourself how far you are likely to run on any given outing because that will help you with choosing the right footwear. Cross-country runners will gravitate to lighter shoes with very aggressive outsoles and minimal support or cushioning. Trail ultramarathoners will want shoes that give plenty of support, breathe well, have midsoles that remain consistent over different types of surfaces and in different weather. One thing ultrarunners might neglect in purchasing their shoes is the almost inevitable expansion of their feet after hours of running, especially at higher altitudes. Many experienced ultrarunners buy shoes that are at least a half-size larger that normal.

Buy gender-specific shoes if you’ve had bad luck as a woman purchasing shoes that are designed primarily for men, with “the other” sex a mere afterthought in selecting shoe colors. Several manufacturers have acknowledged this deficiency and cater to female trail runners with specially engineered shoes. Some women’s trail shoes are even manufactured on a woman’s “last” or foot shape

Know your needs. Those who need special support or stability built into their shoes will have to be more selective when shopping for trail footwear. That also applies to runners in need of additional cushioning or who have odd sized or shaped feet. Different manufacturers are known for accommodating certain types of feet and some companies offer trail shoes in a variety of widths. An alternative is to try socks of different thickness or amounts of padding built into them. Some sock manufacturers have incorporated new materials into the footbeds and others use wool with knit-in padding. If you use orthotics you will need to make sure that the shoes accommodate them.

If you have hot feet and need shoes that breathe well or that have more ventilation, you should look for trail shoes with lighter mesh uppers and that have no or minimal leather or synthetic overlays. Conversely, if you are likely to be running in wet climes, through morning dew, or in mud, slush, puddles, or other wetness, you may favor waterproof shoes. Keep in mind, however, that a shoe with a waterproof barrier is likely to retain any moisture or condensation that builds up inside of it. An alternative that often prevents blisters is to wear a highly breathable mesh trail shoe with a pair of wool socks and to run through water crossings with an “easy in, easy out” philosophy.