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ULTRA RUNNING | 12.05.2020 | Veronika Wasza

Trail running shoes: These shoes can take you off-road

Perfectly fitting shoes are the holy grail for every trail runner. But, what really is the difference between a “normal” running shoe and a trail running shoe? Do you need a different model for long distance vs. shorter distance? What should you consider when making a purchase? To answer all of these questions, we turned to two DYNAFIT athletes: Ultrarunner Hannes Namberger and Mountopia winner Veronika Heidrich.

Road running shoes vs. trail running shoes

With a “pavement only” shoe, cushioning, drop and push-off are the focus, since feet, knees and joints must be well-protected from the hard impact from asphalt.


Cushioning: How much cushioning depends on a multitude of factors: a runner’s weight, their training level, and the distance the runner wants to cover. Particularly for long-distance running or ultras, (where the distance will be more than 50k) many runners prefer cushioned shoes in order to keep the stress on their feet to a minimum.


Drop: Most road running shoes have a higher heel. The height offset between the forefoot and heel is called “drop.” This is applied in a targeted manner to protect the foot and shortened calf muscles from overloads and inflammation. A drop that’s too high can negatively influence a running style, and in particular with forefoot runners, can lead to an unnatural posture. The choice of a proper drop is very highly dependent on personal factors. That’s why there are special road running shoes with pronation control for runners who tend to over-pronate – which is when the foot rolls inward upon landing and push-off.  This promotes a balanced, even and protective roll-through.

In a road shoe, cushioning and foot roll-through and push-off are the focus, while for trail shoes the emphasis is on support and grip.

For trail running shoes, the focus is on optimum support and maximum grip. With that being said, below are a few features that make trail running shoes better for trails than pavement:


Sole profile: To be able to run securely on rough, uneven, wet and muddy surfaces, you need a sole that offers reliable grip and has good traction. By having an outsole with these properties, the tread can transform the power and strength of the running gait into forward acceleration.


Cushioning: More cushion on your trail shoe is there to give you a softer and longer run. The softer midsole with trail shoes gives you more stable footing and a lighter landing for your knees and feet.


Drop: For trail shoes, drop is typically (but not always) lower, since a higher heel can increase the risk of an ankle sprain. For challenging trail runs with varying terrain, most trail runners look to shoes with a lower drop to be able to be closer to the ground.


Materials / features: Trail running shoes differentiate themselves from normal running shoes by the materials they are made from. We all know that trails present us with various obstacles, like rocks, twigs and mud – which means the upper material has to be significantly more durable. In some models, a waterproof membrane is added to keep feet dry in snow or moisture. In addition, most trail shoes feature an integrated fabric lace cover or lace pocket at the tongue to prevent tripping and falling on the trails. A toe-bumper is a basic feature that is also found on many trail running models, as it protects the forefoot upon impact with roots, rocks and other trail debris.


Comfort: When it comes to ultrarunning, overall comfort in your shoes is an important component.

Trail running shoes: Overview of different models

From mountain sprinter to ultrarunning shoe: DYNAFIT models Sky Pro, Feline and Ultra 100.

These days, there is a wide selection of different types of trail running shoes to choose from. When choosing which model to purchase, you need to make sure that the shoe fits well, you need to have an idea of how and where you are going to use the shoe and what type of terrain will you be running on. We recommend trying the shoes on and trying them out if you can! Models differentiate themselves in outsole features, drop, fit, weight and cushioning properties – so find the fit that works best for you.

The drop in most running shoes is between 4 and 10mm. For shorter distances on demanding terrain, most runners lean towards a lower drop because they remain close to the ground and maintain good ground feel. For long-distance runs and ultras, most trail runners prefer a higher drop, more in the range of 8+/- mm. For less experienced runners, a higher heel offers numerous advantages, while pro athletes even in ultra-races often start in a shoe with a less pronounced drop for an aggressive grip.

Comparing DYNAFIT soles: Sky Pro, Feline SL and Ultra 100.

Mountain sprinter vs. comfortable all-rounder: DYNAFIT Feline Up Pro (4mm drop) and Trailbreaker (10mm)

When it comes to cushioning, trail runners have a wide range of level to choose from. Cushioning is not to be confused with drop, as shoes with a low drop usually have some cushioning. The more trained a runner, the less cushioning is normally preferred.


When it comes to weight, trail runners also have a wide range to choose from. For example, sturdy trail running shoes for rough terrain often weigh more than a model that one would wear for an ultra-race.

The fit of trail shoes

Having the perfect fit for your trail shoe is critical. The necessary comfort and also the size of the shoe is dependent on the distance you will be running. For short trail runs, a shoe with a close fit is advantageous, your feet won’t move around in your shoe. However, when running over 30km, your feet tend to swell and you’ll want extra room in your shoe to keep your feet comfortable throughout the entirety of your run.

Tips from Vroni Heidrich and Hannes Namberger

But how do athletes actually handle this? What trail running shoes do they use on trails and on the mountain? We asked Hannes Namberger and Veronika Heidrich about this.


Veronika Heidrich is a passionate recreational runner who has already accumulated quite a bit of racing experience and has always loved to be in the mountains. A few years ago, at the Ultra Trail Lamer Winkel, she was bitten by the trail running bug and has been totally hooked since. The 32-year-old trail racer prefers trail races of 100k with several thousand meters of climbing. This year, she will take on a very special challenge: the Dynafit Transalpine Run where she won a starting position from the Mountopia Challenge.


DYNAFIT athlete Hannes Namberger is cut from the same cloth. His specialty is distances between 50k and 75k with 3,000 to 4,000 meters of climb. Earlier, the runner from Ruhpolding, Germany, was a ski racer before he discovered his passion for trail running at the 2015 Karwendelmarsch race. One of Hannes’ biggest running achievements was his win over the 75k distance at the Grossglockner Ultra Trail and a victory in the Transalpine Run 2018.

An ultra really demands everything a body has. The soul must therefore be well prepared to brave these stresses. Hannes Namberger

Hannes, what makes a good ultrarunning shoe to you? Is there a “perfect” drop for example?

Hannes running in the Grossglockner region

Table of contents

Special features of trail running shoes

Soles of trail running shoes

The most obvious feature of trail running footwear is the lugged outsole. On hard, rocky surfaces, (commonly found on mountain runs or sky races) an intelligent lug design is needed – one that ensures excellent grip and gives the runner direct feedback. On muddy, soft surfaces or in snow, the sole should consist of various zones in order to guarantee lateral stability as well as grip – similar to winter tires. For ultraruns on changing terrain, a sole that offers both solid stability and grip is of utmost importance. 

Drop in trail running shoes

Cushioning and weight of running shoes for off-road trails

In sum: There is not one perfect trail running shoe!

Options to choose from for trail and pavement shoes have grown exponentially over the last few years. We recommend that you take advantage of demos at your local retailers and try out as many styles of trail running shoes as you can! One model of a trail shoe may work great for someone, but not work for you. This is the only way you will figure out what style of trail or pavement shoe will or will not work for you. 

How many pairs of running and trail running shoes do you two actually own?


Vroni: Oh, man, that’s really a good question. Several! I’m thinking a rough estimate would be maybe about 20-25. In my defense, I was lucky to be a part of some gear-testing, which is where a couple of the pairs came from. Out of all the pairs I own, there are three or four favorite models that I use.


Hannes: About 15 pairs, which are all different models.


Which trail running shoes would you recommend for a beginner?


Hannes: A shoe with more drop, good cushioning and plenty of grip is really important for trail running beginners. I can in this case recommend my favorites, the Alpine Pro and the brand-new Ultra 100.


Do you prefer more of an all-round shoe or do you have a shoe specifically for each kind of trail running?


Hannes: These days, I use a different shoe for different types of races. For sky races or shorter mountain runs, I use the Feline Up Pro or, if there is still snow on the ground, the Sky Pro with a gaiter. For longer ultras, I usually wear the Alpine Pro or the new Ultra 100. If I’m really not sure about whether or not I need grip, and don’t want to forgo comfort, I run in the Feline SL. This shoe is the perfect all-around model, and well suited for both a trail running novice as well as for a pro. You really can’t go wrong with this model. It offers very good fit, an 8mm drop, and has very good grip thanks to the unique POMOCA sole.


What is your favorite shoe and why?


Vroni:  If it really only can be one, then I would likely choose a solid all-around model like the Ultra 100. It fits so comfortably and with its cushioning properties, it is suited wonderfully for long runs. The tread offers plenty of grip for tricky terrain and also for wet spots, but isn’t all too terribly beefy, so you can still run along longer fire roads comfortably. This shoe offers good, sturdy support and protects well from unintended contact with rocks and other things. It’s a bit of a jack-of-all-trades you can always rely on.

Veronika Heidrich (left) and her friend Manuela Diezinger, with whom she will team up with to compete in the 2020 DYNAFIT Transalpine Run

Which shoe models do you use in training and which in races?


Vroni:  I don’t really differentiate between training and races. It depends which shoe is best for the course, which one I prefer at the time, or which races are in the pipeline. For races, I always take two pairs along and spontaneously decide which one I will wear, shortly before the race starts. Right now, I alternate mostly between the DYNAFIT Ultra 100 and the Alpine Pro.


What should you pay particular attention to in the purchase of a trail running shoe?


Hannes: The size is essential. I run in shoes that are one size larger than my normal size, since my feet start to swell after 20k. To that end, a shoe should fit perfectly and should never cause any rubbing whatsoever. You discover this once you have run from about 20k to 30k in them. 


Vroni:  First, I think one should think about what distance and terrain they prefer to run the most. By deciding these two questions, you already have a predefined direction of what type of model you will be looking for. If you don’t really know which model fits your foot, you can go to demo events such as the DYNAFIT Trail2Gether where you can demo a variety of shoes in the great outdoors. Otherwise, I would recommend that you buy the shoes later in the day when your feet are already a bit larger. If in doubt, I would recommend sizing up a half-size larger so downhills are fun later.