The Ultimate Guide to Choosing Ultramarathon Trail Shoes

Sophie Main Ultra X

Written By SOPHIE MAIN

Sophie is a Marketing Manager at Ultra X. If she is not crossfitting or on the hockey pitch, then you will catch her baking in the kitchen. She loves challenging herself, who knows she might end up running an ultramarathon.

1 February 2024

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Ultra X’s Shoe Guide for Ultramarathon Runners

When signing up for your first Ultra X event or an Ultramarathon, it can be daunting with the amount of information hurdled towards you from kit lists to itineraries of the different day splits.

Ultramarathon running events means spending a lot of time on your feet, on average a person will take approximately 10,000 steps in five miles, that is 10,000 shock absorptions and 10,000 initial contacts to the ground! Multiply these steps by the number of miles you will run in an Ultra X event or an ultramarathon, not to mention the miles you will need to put in for training. Now you can see why the right shoe is so important as it acts as your primary weapon you will need to have in order to conquer an Ultra X event or any Ultramarathon.

Fear not, our mission at Ultra X is to make the sport more accessible and as stress free as possible. We know that anyone is capable of completing one of our events and we are here every step of the way to ensure your journey will be a breeze, allowing you to get the most out of your experience. This is why Ultra X have created a shoe guide to explain how to choose trail running shoes that are right for you.

The Starting Point

There are literally hundreds of running shoe models about this day and age from road running trainers to trail shoes to racing shoes. They are all full of different features which sets them apart from one another, but the question is how do you know which one is right for you.

Ultramarathon running shoes are specially designed footwear intended for the unique and challenging demands of what you might face on an Ultramarathon race. An Ultramarathon involves distances longer than 26.2 miles (a marathon) and require some special features in running shoes to protect your feet and allow you to get to the finish line. We’ll explain the difference between trail shoes and running shoes below.

Every runner is different, so what might be perfect for one person, could be detrimental for another. So, finding the perfect pair is like finding Cinderella’s glass slipper. This does not need to be over complicated, just get a shoe which fits you! The worst thing you can do is not try the shoe on before buying them and just going off what shoe your favourite elite runner wears, or a shoe which looks badass or a shoe which your running partner or friend swears by. At the end of the day comfort is king. However, compatibility with your unique strides is just as important. Whether you are a forefoot striker, midfoot lander or heel striker, there will be your Cinderella fit out there waiting for you.

So, buckle up, or should I say lace up, as Ultra X are here to help uncover the secrets and features behind choosing the right ultramarathon shoe, so you can conquer every twist and turn the course may throw at you.

The Terrain;

There are many factors that influence which shoe might be right for you, from the property of the shoe itself to the race terrain and expected finishing time. Let’s face it, the wrong shoes on the wrong terrain could turn your ultra-adventure into a slip and slide comedy show.

With Ultra X events and any other multi-day ultramarathon events it would be hard to find a race which does not combine both trail and road surfaces to some extent. This is a crucial starting point for helping you choose the right trainer.

Unlike most 5k, 10k or marathons which are on roads or tracks, ultramarathons tend to take place over a variety of rural areas such as; mountains (like Ultra X Nevada and Slovenia), National Parks (like Ultra X Rwanda, England and Wales), deserts (like Ultra X Jordan or Morocco) and Volcanic islands (like Ultra X Azores). Due to the varied terrain of our events, or any ultramarathon, trail shoes will be necessary.

What is a trail running shoe?

Let’s dissect the anatomy of trail shoes as to why they will be the best for ultramarathon runners. From cushioning which will make you feel like you are running on the clouds to outsoles that grip like Spider-Man on a mission, we are breaking down the key components of a trail shoe to make them your most trusted companion during many miles which you will cover;

Stability & Durability

Trail shoes are built for endurance, providing the support and resilience your feet crave during those gruelling hours on the course. Unlike in road running, the pronation support is not a massive issue in ultramarathons as they are ran on uneven terrain your foot is always having to adjust to the surface. On average each foot strikes exerts a force about 2 ½ times your body weight. This is why trail shoes are designed to offer more cushioning and support to prevent blistered and bruised feet. This means that trail shoes tend to be a stiffer shoe, increasing the level of stability, giving you more confidence running over an uneven terrain, reducing the chances of sustaining an ankle rotation injury. However, this is where it gets tricky having too much stability can create a negative effect as it is giving you a false sense of what is actually going on underfoot, therefore making it feel less stable.

Due to the typical nature which is associated with Ultramarathons trail shoes are designed to get attacked by the environment around them. They are more resistant to rips, abrasions and other damage from rocks or sharp surfaces, due to their hardwearing outsoles to protect your feet. Therefore, making trail shoes more suitable for these varied terrains. Just make sure you avoid models that have an obvious soft outsole. If you are going to be running in a rocky location it is worth considering what protection the toe box offers and pick a shoe that has some reinforcement around the toe area to protect your toenails from bruising when you kick a rock. Again, with most trail shoes they will offer a good toe protection which is why it makes them so much better and more practical to wear compared to regular road shoes. Some trail shoes even have rock plates in them to add extra support on the rockier terrain.

Trail shoes are made of a more durable material, meaning that they are heavier and stiffer than your regular road shoes, so you will not be able to react as quickly to the changes in terrain. However, the benefits of the trail running shoes quickly outweighs this additional weight and stiffness due to the protection it provides. Remember at the end of the day it is not a sprint, it’s an ultramarathon. So, even though regular running shoes will be lighter and may cut it for a quick 5k, for pushing the boundaries and going the extra miles, you will need trainers which can keep up!

Grip

Trail shoes have deeper treads and are made of stickier rubber compared to road running shoes, giving you traction to conquer any terrain, allowing you to grip better on softer or uneven surfaces. This is an essential aspect of a trail shoe, as fills ultra runners with confidence by providing an aggressive grip allows the runner to feel more sure-footed during their runs reducing the likelihood of them sliding about.

Size

One of the most important aspects of choosing a shoe is the fit. It may seem obvious but if it does not fit and you do not like wearing it, then running will not be fun!

Many people ask: ‘should trail running shoes be a size bigger?’ A crucial thing to note is that when you are running the blood flow will increase to deliver more oxygen to the muscles, as a result the volume of the muscles temporarily expands. This is why you will want to size up 1-2 sizes when purchasing trail shoes or any running shoes, to avoid getting black toenails or cramp. However, sizing up too big is just as bad as having a shoe which is too small, and you could end up with blisters. Also, an ill-fitting arch can lead to more serious problems such as plantar fasciitis which is the inflammation of the fibrous tissue at the bottom of your foot that connects your heel bone to your toes. So here are the Ultra X’s recommendations for shoe size fitting;

  • Aim for a generous toe box. Your toes should be able to move freely, and you should not be able to feel the front of the shoe or get any rubbing on the sides of your big or little toes.
    • As a guidance wear your running socks and stand up in your shoes with your shoelaces tied up. You will want to ensure that you have a thumb nail width between your longest toe and the front of the shoe for the best recommended fit.
    • You will also want to make sure that you have a snug fit around your heel and mid-foot. This will prevent your foot from moving about inside the shoe.
  • Final thing to note that if you have any custom orthotics or insoles, you of course need to make sure the shoe is suitable for these.

Finally, just knowing the correct fit and size is not always enough, since shoe companies have different size standards for each measurement, making it vital for you to try on the shoes first. Here is a short list of the key brands and how they fit;

  • Brooks fit true to size
  • Asics and Nike can be narrow
  • Salomon fit long and narrow
  • La Sportiva fit short and narrow
  • Hoka can fit long and a little wide
  • Saucony normally fits wide

The Key Properties for the different race terrain;

  • On unstable or muddy terrain, you will be advised to have a more aggressive tread which has deep and widely spaced tread lugs so that the mud will not get trapped. You will also want a well-supported mid-sole to help you keep your balance with the uneven terrain.
  • For desert events such as Ultra X Jordan, regular road running trainers will be okay due to the soft sandy surface it is being run on. However, you will need to be aware that extreme heat can cause the midsole of the shoes to compress a bit more. Most trail shoes should be ‘safe’ in this regard, but if you are unsure then ask the retailer to speak to the manufacture if they can’t provide an answer.
  • On rough or rocky terrain, you will need a stiffer outsole for more stability and reinforced uppers to protect your feet from the stones.
  • On snow or ice, your shoes should have excellent tread with deep lugs and metal studs. Look for integrated gaiters and a waterproof membrane to ensure your feet stay warm and dry to avoid getting blisters.
  • If you will be running on a variety of terrain, you will want to consider a shoe that is versatile and lighter in weight with shorter and more closely spaced tread lugs. This will give you enough grip on most surfaces to ensure efficiency while making foot placement a breeze in the faster and flatter sections of the run due to the shoe being more flexible.

Summary of the benefits of finding the right shoe:

  • The right pair will reduce the risks of blisters, hot spots and other foot injuries, allowing you to focus on other aspects of your ultramarathon run such as the breathtaking taking views!
  • You will have support where it counts, whether this may be ankle stability on a rocky trail or arch support for the longer trail stretches. Finding the right shoes are your silent cheerleaders, backing you up when the going gets tough.

Now go find your perfect ultramarathon shoes;

So, there you have it, Ultra X’s ultramarathon trail shoe guideline. Ultramarathon running shoes are not just about aesthetics, they are about ensuring your feet are as joyful as you are post-race. Your shoes are the unsung heroes that will carry you to triumph. As the saying goes happy feet equals a happy runner. Also, remember that one size does not fit all, your perfect shoe is something which you feel comfortable in and the only real way to find this out is to test, test and test. So, go ahead, find your “sole” mate, and let the Ultra X adventure begin! Happy running!

If you enjoyed this article but are still unsure on which shoe to find, check out our other blog post on the top Ultramarathon running shoes in 2024.

From what running shoes should you buy, to when you should change your trainers and carbon plate technology, this discussion has it all! A must for all runners out there regardless of experience.

For any questions you might have for Emma, feel free to get in touch with her on Instagram @emmakirkyo.

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