How To Choose Trainers For An Ultramarathon

Written By Sam Heward

Sam is one of the Ultra X Co-Founders. If he's not actually out running, chances are he's busy writing about it (or plotting Ultra X strategy!)

12 November 2020

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When signing up for an Ultra X, or indeed any ultra marathon, you will most likely be presented with a mandatory kit list. This can be somewhat daunting if it is your first race. However, as you will quickly discover, when it comes to running ultras success is as much about having the right kit and good admin as it is physical preparation. You literally cannot be too organised!

There is a minefield of information out there and so it can be tricky when deciding what to pack (and indeed what pack to even start with!). As such, over the next few weeks, we’re looking at some of the important kit required for ultra-running events (with a focus on Ultra X races) in the hope of answering some of the most common questions we receive.

This week, we focus on an important one – the running shoe or trainer. For ultra runners this might just be the most important kit decision you make – the primary weapon you take to battle. Your shoes can be your best friend or greatest enemy, so much so that the most frequent reasons for a dreaded DNF in Ultra X events are foot or blister related.

However, there is good news! Selecting trainers does not need to be over-complicated. Comfort is always king and if you have a pair of trainers that you are comfortable running in at the moment, there is no need to reinvent the wheel just because you are running a little further.

Here we consider some of the key considerations when choosing your trainers for an ultra marathon:

Surface

Although you would be hard-pressed to find a lengthy run that does not combine both trail and road to some extent, the first choice you must make is which kind of shoe your needs require.

Whereas shorter distance events tend to be based close to large populations and as such are usually on roads or tracks, ultras tend to take place over vast, rural areas: mountains (like Ultra X Mexico), national parks (like Ultra X 125 England), and deserts (like Ultra X Jordan). As such, going for a trail shoe might be necessary.

Trail shoes are generally designed to prevent foot rotation injuries over control of pronation (the degree to which the arch of your foot collapses upon impact). Regular road running trainers will tend to be lighter weight, less sturdily built, and have less tread or grip. This does not necessarily mean they won’t work for your ultra (for Ultra X Sri Lanka or Jordan for example, road shoes are okay), but for events where good grip is vital you will want a pair of trail shoes.

Furthermore, large sections of ultramarathon races may take place on stony, rocky ground. Trail shoes typically have more hardwearing outsoles to protect your feet from sharp rocks, but many road shoes can be suitable. Just make sure you consider avoiding models that have an obviously soft outsole.

Size

Seems simple right? Same as any other shoe… hold your horses.

Depending on the ultra you are planning on taking part in you may want to size up. Your feet are likely to swell over the course of a long race and the last thing you want is the fit to be too tight. Unfortunately, this is not an easy thing to estimate without experience – go too big and you will also get movement inside the shoe which WILL cause blisters. Here are our recommendations:

  • Aim for a generous toe box where your toes can move freely, and you don’t feel the front of the shoe or get any rubbing on the sides of your big or little toes
  • Ensure you have a thumb nail’s width to a thumb’s width of space between your longest toe and the front of the shoe when wearing your intended race socks, stood up and with your shoe laced up properly with your heel well secured towards the back of the shoe
  • Have a snug fit around your heel and mid-foot to prevent your foot from moving sideways, up or down, or back and forth inside the shoe
  • Most importantly, it needs to feel comfortable when you put it on!

Bruised feet are a common problem in ultras, as such it can be worth picking a shoe with plenty of cushioning underfoot for a more comfortable race experience. That being said if you are used to running in minimalistic footwear, or are a seasoned runner, just make sure your shoe will work for you on the race terrain. Some trail shoes have rock plates in the bottom, which may well be a good option.

Stack and offset

It seems like a minor decision, but when you plan to spend mile after mile with a pair of shoes it’s one worth asking: how much lower do you want your toes in relation to your heel? With each stride, shoes with less of a drop encourage you to land on your forefoot or mid-foot, whereas a bigger drop is ideal for striking with your heel. When choosing your shoes for an ultra, keeping to a similar style to that which you usually run in will be your safest bet.

Toe protection

Rocks feature in many ultras and even the most beautifully co-ordinated of ultra runners will likely kick them, especially as you get tired. This can become very painful and result in blue toenails and/or bruised toes. Therefore, it is worth considering what protection the toe box offers and pick a shoe that has some reinforcement around the toe area. Most trail shoes will offer good toe protection.

If you enjoyed this article. Please check out others in our kit series:

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