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ULTRA RUNNING | 25.04.2019 | Veronika Wasza

Ultrarunning challenge: What shoes works the best?

Perfectly fitting shoes are the holy grail for every runner. For everybody who prefers on-foot adventures away from asphalt streets, the choice of a proper shoe is even more important. Ultimately, feet need good support, particularly on challenging terrain, so you can really give speed it up and not get injured. But really is the difference between a “normal” running shoe and a trail running shoe? Do you need a different model for long distances compared to shorter runs? And what footwear is best suited for your first ultrarun? To clarify all of this, we turned to two DYNAFIT athletes who really must know the ins and outs: trail runner and sky racer Pascal Egli and ultrarunner Hannes Namberger.

Road running shoes vs. trail running shoes

Trail running shoes are subject to totally different challenges than a classic running shoe, which is best for use on the road or on paved trails. In a pure road shoe, cushioning and foot roll-through and push-off are certainly the focus since feet, knees and joints must be well-protected from the hard impact forces from asphalt. To that end, the question is, how much cushioning really makes sense, which depends on a multitude of factors – a runner’s weight, general training level, and the distance to be covered. To that end, there are models with very cushioning and others with quite minimalist cushioning. 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 feet to a minimum.

Furthermore, most road running shoes have a higher heel. The height offset between 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, lead to an unnatural posture. It’s vital to point out that 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 over-pronate – when the foot rolls inward upon landing and push-off. This counteracts a “sag” to the inside of the arch that is too great and can thus lead to an overload of ligaments and tendons. These types also promote a more even, balanced and mild 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.

In contrast to that, trail running shoes in first order focus on optimum support and maximum grip. To be able to run securely on rough, uneven or wet even muddy surfaces a special “set of tires” is demanded. These wrap around the foot well and securely and offer reliable grip. At the same time, outsoles should also feature good traction properties – in other words, an appropriate tread can transform the power and strength of the running gait into forward acceleration. Pronation control is unnecessary for alpine use since running technique off-road is generally much more active. And because the surface as a rule is uneven, that makes compensating for rolling inward illogical in this case. Also, cushioning in trail running shoes is less pronounced to offer the specific benefit of better and more direct ground contact. Drop is also normally less too since a higher heel can negatively impact sure-footedness and can increase the risk of an ankle sprain.

Precisely for challenging trail runs on challenging terrain, most trail runners look to shoes with a lower drop to be able to be closer to the ground. On the other hand, when it comes to ultrarunning, the issue of comfort gains a much stronger focus. As a novice, one should therefore pay particular attention to a comfortable shoe for this discipline. In addition, trail running footwear differentiates itself to traditional running shoes in the materials used. Since they have to endure a bit more, the upper material is significantly more durable and sturdier. In some models, a waterproof membrane also is added to keep feet in snow or moisture reliably dry. Most trail shoes also feature an integrated fabric lace cover or lace pocket at the tongue to stow laces so as to prevent potential trips and falls when on trails. A high-cut toe cap also is a basic feature on many models since it will protect the forefoot upon any impact with roots, rocks and other trail debris.

Overview trail running shoes

From mountain sprinter to ultra runner: the DYNAFIT Feline Up, Alpine Pro and Ultra Pro models.

These days, there is a large spectrum of trail running footwear for various uses. Aside from the distance to be run, what is also especially a key criterium is the surface. Knowing this, you can better narrow your choice of the appropriate shoe before you start trying them all on. Various models differentiate themselves above all in outsole features, drop, fit, weight and cushioning properties.

Sole profile: The most obvious feature of trail running footwear is the more or less much more deeply lugged outsole. Depending on the surface underfoot other characteristics are demanded. On hard, rocky surfaces, as 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 desirable sole on the other hand is very durable, and it offers both solid stability and grip. In general, a softer rubber material is best for wet surfaces.

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

Comparing DYNAFIT soles: Feline Up Pro, Feline SL and Ultra Pro.

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

Cushioning: When it comes to cushioning, various trail running models also differ strongly from one another. Cushioning is not to be confused with drop. Even shoes with a low drop usually have some cushioning. Trail shoes that are designed specifically for long distances and ultra, feature as a rule more cushioning as those for mountain sprints. Whereas here again: The more trained a runner, the less cushioning is normally preferred.

Weight: When it comes to weight, there is again a big difference. Sturdy Alpine Running shoes for rough terrain often weigh in a little heavier. In ultraruns, one notices over the distance every little gram too much. Thus, the weight factor gains high significant especially for long distances.

Fit: A perfect fit is the holy grail. Only when a shoe fits really well and doesn’t rub or cause pressure, is a run really fun. The necessary comfort and also the size of the shoe is to that end again dependent on the distance to be covered. For short, spritely trail runs, a straightforward shoe with a close fit is advantageous. For ultrarunning, in contrast, comfort is the real focus. In addition, you should never forget that feet over distances of 30k or more also usually swell a little. Meaning you should never in any situation buy an ultra shoe that is too small, in particular so your toes don’t bump into the front on downhills.

There is not ONE single perfect running shoe for ultra distances!

All of these points show one thing clearly: There is not ONE single perfect trail running shoe for short distances or ONE shoe for the ultra. More so, a variety of factors play a role to finding the right model for you. One thing is certain: You need to take some time and choose your footwear for an ultrarunning adventure with a lot of thought. Essentially, the shoe must fit you perfectly and you must feel good in it. Depending on the characteristics of the terrain, one should choose a model with the corresponding appropriate outsole. For ultra newbies in particular, highly recommended as a rule is a little more cushioning. Particular attention should be paid to weight to stay as light as possible to save energy along the way. Important is at any rate: No experiments! You should only run your first ultra in shoes that you have already tested out and in which you really feel secure and do not cause pressure or rubbing.

But how do athletes actually handle this? What shoes do they use on the mountain? We have asked Hannes Namberger and Pascal Egli about all this.

Sky Runner Pascal Egli and ultrarunner Hannes Namberger

Pascal Egli is currently the best trail runner in the world. The 2018 Skyrunner World Series Champion has been trail running since he was 16. Mostly, the Swiss runner covers distances between 20k and 30k with approximately 2,000-2,500 meters of climbing. In particularly, technically challenging trails are Pascal’s favorite – snow, scree, ridge passages, or even talus slopes. The 30-year-old loves speed and knows what it means to do battle. He has proved that already by high-profile races like the Tromsö Skyrace (47k, 4,500 meters of climbing) or the Mt. Elbrus Race with a finish line at 5,640 meters.

DYNAFIT athlete Hannes Namberger is cut from the same cloth. His specialty: distances between 50k and 75k with 3,000 to 4,000 meters of climbing. 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 last year. At the Transvulcania, the well-known ultramarathon on the Canary Island of La Palma, Hannes successfully nailed an outstanding eighth place in 2018.

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

Pascal: Right now, I have five different models. I actually run quite rarely on roads, but when I do, then with trail running shoes like the DYNAFIT Trailbreaker.

Hannes: about 15 pairs. They are all however different models.

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

Pascal: In training on the trail I like to run in the DYNAFIT Alpine Pro because it has good grip but still offers cushioning too. On the road or on less technical trails, I run in the Trailbreaker. For high-altitude outings – meaning on mountains between about 3,000 and 4,000 meters – I like to run with an alpine Gore-Text trail running shoe. In races, I run exclusively in the Feline Up Pro, in particular due to its weight and because of the good grip.

Hannes: In training I use two different models, the DYNAFIT Alpine Pro and the Feline Up Pro. In an ultra race, however, I only use the Alpine Pro, but in a shorter trail run then more the Feline Up Pro.

What is your favorite running shoe and why?

Pascal: My favorite shoe is without question the Feline Up Pro. It is light enough, has perfect grip thanks to the Vibram sole, and fits really well. I like to run in this one up to about a marathon distance.

Hannes: Totally without question, the Alpine Pro. This one has great grip on any surface thanks to the Vibram sole. In addition, it has ideal fit and offers protection for my toes from any injuries. Also, a drop of 8mm is ideal for the ultra distance.

No race is the same as another. What I find so fantastic about trail running is getting to know new cultures, landscapes and countries.

Pascal Egli

Based on your experience, how do trail running shoes for long and short distances differ?

Pascal: That depends on the runner. Personally, I use the Feline Up Pro not only for 10k runs but also for 50k runs because I want to be close to the ground with very little cushioning and want to avoid a lot of weight. But other runners like a more cushioned shoe for 40-50k distances. I have also actually run a flat race more than 10k on the road with this shoe.

Hannes: With various models you can better adjust to the respective conditions as with just a few pairs. I personally nevertheless use only two different models because I feel really good in these. For me, the comfort of the shoe is the focus since I usually am in the shoe a long time. Too, I run only in the mountains and never on asphalt which is also limited by my shoe selection.

Pascal, what makes a good trail running shoe to you? As an experienced Skyracer, at what distance do you change to a trail shoe?

Pascal: The optimum trail running shoe has good fit, a relatively soft sole, good grip and is light (less than 300 grams). In Alpine Running at high altitudes, it all depends on whether there is now or how cold it is. Of course, if the run is very technical (combined ice and rock), one has no other choice than to use a proper trail shoe because you must be able to wear proper crampons.  When there is less or no snow, then I run in really light trail shoes up to about 4,000 meters – That’s OK assuming the weather holds and you can be down off the mountain quickly.  But all of this holds true if you are confident on alpine terrain and can move relatively quickly. Otherwise, I recommend proper, warm trail shoes.

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: Fit, grip, drop and flexibility in the push-off. There is no perfect shoe in that sense. Essential is the size. I run in shoes that are one size larger than normal since my feet after about 20k start to swell. Otherwise, my toes bump on the front on downhills. To that end, a shoe should fit perfectly and should never cause any chafing whatsoever. You discover this once you have run from about 20k to 30k in them. 

Hannes running in the Grossglockner region

Dynafit athletes Pascal Egli and Hannes Namberger 

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Pascal Egli