by T.J. Hoff
As new Adventure Racers enter the scene a common question we always hear is, “What shoes are best for Adventure Racing?” This is probably the most difficult question to answer because everybody is so anatomically different that it truly has to be an individual decision. What we can do, is provide information based on our own personal experiences in Adventure Racing to give the individual a starting point to help guide them in the right direction.
Adventure Racing is a little more ‘extreme’ than your normal trail run and racers need to understand the importance to taking care of his/her feet. Foot care is directly proportionate to the difficulty and length of a race. The longer the race, the more attention a racer MUST give to taking care of their feet. One can never be too prepared and should always have a foot care kit at each race.
When picking any type of running shoes, one should really try to understand what type of runner they are. Do they heel-strike, are they a mid-foot runner or are they on their toes all the time and a forefoot runner? They also should determine their pronation, do they over-pronate, under-pronate (supinate), or are they a neutral runner. This can all be figured out at a good running store where they have fitting specialist who will either use lasers, or videotape the individual on a treadmill.
Another factor to be considered when choosing shoes is the heel-to-toe drop. This is the difference in millimeters from how high the heel is off the ground compared to the toes or forefoot. Most common shoes range around the 12mm mark, but in the last few years ‘minimalist’ shoes have exploded in popularity which range from a 4mm to 0mm drop. Altras which is becoming a popular company in the ultra running arena touts their Zero Droptm technology and have a wide array of shoe types from casual to stability. One Adventure Racer has been quoted saying his Altras shoes are “Stupid comfortable”.
Also when selecting and trying shoes, a racer should consider some of the following:
- Weight – Studies have been done to show the impact of shoe weight over distance when running. That said one should realize that when a manufacture reduces the weight of a shoe, it is normally at the expense of some other feature. It may be the cushion of the sole, the integrity of the upper weave, or the comfort
- Water Resistance/Wicking/Breathability– With Adventure Racing anyone can bet that their feet are going to get wet at least once during a race. Knowing that, a racer should look at how a shoe resists water and compare that with how a shoe wicks away water as well as the breathability of the shoe. These are all lumped together because they are all somewhat related. Some trail shoes use Gore-Tex® which is generally heavier and though Gore-Tex® is breathable a person’s feet will still sweat in hot conditions and will probably not dry out as fast as a good breathable wicking shoe and sock combination.
- Tread/Lug Pattern – Another feature people should pay attention to when buying trail shoes is the Tread/Lug Pattern of the shoe. Adventure Racing has every type of terrain from desert sand to jungle mud. When trying out trail shoes a racer should test the tread pattern of a shoe and see how it works for them. Some shoes have a more aggressive tread pattern which could sacrifice comfort and others have a smooth tread pattern reducing traction and grip.
- Laces – One shoe feature that Adventure Racers commonly don’t think about is the laces of a shoe. Laces play an important role in regards to efficiency during Adventure Races. Multiple times throughout a race, racers will have to change between their trail shoes to their biking shoes which can really be a time suck in transitions. If the conditions are really muddy or frozen, it can be difficult for a racer to tie or untie their shoes when swapping them out. Solomon and Hoka have a quick-lace system which allows the racer to pull tightly on the lace and a clasp to stop the shoe from loosening. Some racers replace the traditional laces with Lock Laces. However, quick lace systems have their ups and downs. Some don’t tighten the shoe enough and some over-tighten the shoe and it’s hard for a racer to find the right comfort level with using them. If a racer does find them comfortable, they will increase their efficiency in a transition by a lot.
Some other shoes commonly seen in Adventure Racing are the Brooks Cascadia, which is probably the most popular trail shoe on the market, Salomon’s Mantra, XA, XT and Speedcross, and Hoka Mafate, Kailua (womens), or Stinson. Occasionally, you will see some Scott, and Netwons as well as many others.
Hokas seem to be popular with ultra runners and one teammate credits them to being “…injury-free since my miserable Summer of The Boot”. She goes on to say “One of the best things about using them is that they force a mid-foot strike, rather than my normal heel strike”. When describing the cushioning of a Hoka she says “I compare it to the first couple of runs on brand new running shoes, how they feel all bouncy and fresh. The Hokas feel like that all the time”.
Other racers have described the Brooks Cascadia as the “Best trail shoe on the market”. The Cascadia is Brook’s flagship trail shoe that has maintained its popularity with trail runners throughout its nine generations. They seem to really attract Adventure Racers so much that one racer has recently been quoted as saying “I have a pair of Cascadias that I want to love…but the drop seems too much for me”.
Ultimately, it really does depend on the individual and what works for them. The best advice that anyone can give a person asking about what shoes to wear for Adventure Racing should be, “Go out and try different shoes and see what works best”. Shoes are not cheap, so one may want to consider going to an online outlet store to buy a previous generation shoe at a discounted price, or even go into a local running store to see if they have a reduced rack. After trying a few pairs, one may find that they like a certain pair of trail shoes for dry conditions and another for wet or muddy conditions. It’s a trial and error effort that will determine what works best.