Wondering what kind of shoes to wear to your first (or next) AR, and not sure where to start? We've got you covered with this detailed guide to the best shoes for adventure racing, designed to help you make sense of what you need, and how to choose the right pair.
As an exercise physiologist and self proclaimed running shoe nerd, a trivial, but common, social media occurrence that pains me is seeing new adventure racers ask for shoe recommendations from complete strangers on the internet.
(I swear, I am still fun to be around. Don't judge me by this one personality trait.)
I hate to see it because there are so many unique variables that contribute to what an individual athlete may need out of a shoe. What works perfectly for one racer, might turn into a complete shoe nightmare for another, even on the exact same race course.
So, rather than asking a stranger on the internet what shoe they prefer, use this guide to help arm you with the knowledge to seek out the best adventure racing shoes ...for YOU.
Chose the Best Adventure Racing Shoes For You with These 5 Tips
Having the right gear is paramount to a successful race day. Whether you are training for your first adventure race or your fiftieth, the following tips will help you understand all of the options and shoe choices available, so you can find the perfect pair of adventure racing shoes to help you reach the finish line.
1. Know Your Feet & Their Shoe Needs:
Let's get personal...with your feet. No two feet are alike, and foot shape, size, and movement patterns all need to be considered. And at the end of the day, an adventure racing shoe is useless if it doesn't fit your foot well, therefore, these are the most important factors to consider:
Neutral vs. Stability
Have you ever heard the term "neutral running shoe" or "stability running shoe" and wondered what that even means?
Pronation: In a normal running gait, a runner will initially land on the outer (lateral) to middle part of their foot. From there, the foot gently rolls in towards the medial (inside/arch) side of the foot, as well as forward towards the forefoot, then they will push off of their big toes and continue on. This is referred to as "pronation", and is a completely normal part of the running foot strike.
Runners with normal pronation typically find a "neutral" shoe most comfortable. Neutral shoes do not have any added support in the sole of the shoe.
Overpronation: Some runners find that their foot will roll significantly towards the medial side, either through a collapse of the arch, or a significant bend in the ankles, during the running gait. This is known as "overpronating", and is often alleviated by a stability shoe.
A stability shoe will typically have some sort of support, either in the form of a post or a firm piece of rubber or foam, in the medial side of the midsole (the big, thick piece of “cushion”). A stability shoe will also typically have a more structured upper (the fabric part) specifically under the arch of the foot on the medial side of the shoe.
Both of these features are supposed to help slow down the rate of over pronation, and perhaps provide a bit of support, and prevent premature breakdown of the shoe in the medial area.
Supination: Lastly, some runners land on their feet and roll towards the lateral side of their feet (the outside edge). This is called supination (or underpronation). Typically, these runners will also want to choose a neutral shoe. While the shoe will do nothing to slow down the rate of supination, a stability shoe could potentially make the runner supinate even further.
Pro tip: Not sure if you over-pronate, supinate, and need a neutral or stability shoe? Head to your local running specialty shop. The employees should be able to both perform a gait analysis as well as look at the wear pattern on your current running shoes, to determine what sort of shoe is best for you!
Heel to Toe Differential ("Drop")
The term "heel drop" became mighty trendy somewhere around 2011, when the book "Born to Run" was released, and suddenly everyone became obsessed with barefoot running.
The heel drop of a shoe measures the difference between the stack height (or, the total amount of shoe material between your foot and the ground) of the heel compared to the forefoot.
For example: if you are barefoot, there is zero cushion under your heel, and zero cushion under your forefoot, therefore, "zero drop".
There are endless arguments - both on scientific and anecdotal levels - as to what sort of drop is "best". All of that aside, it is important to know that going from a higher heel drop to a lower (or zero) heel drop can put excessive strain on the achilles tendon, and cause injury.
So, be aware of what you are currently racing and/or training in, and avoid making an immediate, excessive change in heel drop.
Your running or hiking shoe size is not the same as your dress shoe or casual shoe size. It is generally recommended that your running/hiking shoes are about a half size up from your day-to-day shoe.
This extra room not only allows for the natural movement of your foot and splay of your toes during each foot strike, but it allows room in your shoe to accommodate for possible swelling. Swelling of the feet is a common occurrence during longer distance endurance events, due to the repetitive impact and force placed upon your feet.
Feet come in different shapes and sizes. Some people have narrow feet, some people have wide feet. Some people - like me - have a combination of both: a narrow heel and a wide forefoot.
Shoes also come in different shapes and sizes. Some brands offer both traditional width shoes, wide shoes, and narrow shoes.
Further, even among traditional width sizing, not all shoe brands are shaped quite the same. Some are notoriously narrow (I'm looking at you, Salomon). Others are known for their wider forefoot area (hello, Topo).
Having a shoe that is too narrow for your foot can lead to discomfort, hot spots, or even painful blisters. Having a shoe that is too wide for your foot can cause your foot to slide around inside of the shoe, which can lead to...you guessed it: discomfort, hot posts, or blisters.
2. Know the Different Types of Shoes
Now that you understand what sort of fit you need in a adventure racing shoe, let's talk about the more broad shoe options.
Those coming into adventure racing from a trail or road running background may gravitate to running shoes, whereas those coming from a hiking background may gravitate towards boots.
There isn't necessarily a "right" or a "wrong" when it comes to the type of shoe you wear, as long as it's comfortable and works for you. Here are a few things to consider regarding the types of shoes you may wear for adventure racing:
Sneaker vs. Hiking Boot
Since adventure races often take place off-road (and more often than not, off trail), it makes sense that some people may consider wearing a hiking boot instead of a traditional sneaker. There are, of course, pros and cons to both options:
- Pros of Sneakers:
- Lightweight, may result in less fatigue over distance compared to heavy boots
- More secure fit / less clunky feeling compared to boots.
- Significantly easier to run in.
- Made with softer materials, allowing for more natural movement within the shoe.
- Pros of Hiking Boots:
- More durable
- May provide more ankle support due to higher collar
- Typically made of firmer, more protective materials helping to prevent stubbed toes
Coming from a running background, I personally can't imagine racing in a hiking boot. However, there are many adventure racers (far more experienced than I) who do choose to race in a hiking boot. As with anything, this is a personal choice based on what works for you.
Road Running vs. Trail Running
If you've decided to race in a running shoe, now you'll need to decide if you want a road running shoe, or a shoe designed for a trail runner.
- Pros of Road Running Shoes:
- Typically lighter weight than trail running shoes
- Tend to be available in a greater range of fits and styles.
- Pros of Trail Running Shoes:
- Grippier, more aggressive tread to help prevent slipping on trails
- Made with more durable fabrics to withstand rips or tears from rocks, roots, etc.
- Often have a thicker outsole and/or a rock plate to help protect your feet
3. Consider the Race Course:
The type, terrain, and distance of the adventure race course you will be racing on will greatly affect your shoe choice. Consider the following:
What Type of Terrain Will You Be Racing On?
Consider the actual terrain you'll be covering on foot during your race.
Will you be participating in a short, urban type of adventure race? If so, your normal road running shoes should be sufficient.
The majority of adventure races are held off-road to some extent, in which case a trail shoe should be considered. But, not all off-road terrain is the same.
For example, here in coastal South Carolina, we have a lot of sand and swamp. It can be gnarly and slippery, but there isn't a lot of climbing, even on single track trail. So an overly aggressive trail running shoe with a firm rock plate might be overkill.
On the other hand, if your course covers rocky or scree covered trails and steep terrain, you might want a more aggressive trail shoe or boot.
Many races contain a combination of all types of terrain, in which case an all-terrain shoe, or a less aggressive trail shoe would be a great option.
Pro Tip: If you're not sure about the course, check out the race website, or look for past race reviews. While the nature of adventure racing is that there is a lot of "unknowns", typically the race director will let you know if you're going to be covering beginner friendly terrain, or more advanced, rough terrain.
How Long Will You Be on Your Feet?
The longer you are on your feet, the more important shoe consideration becomes.
If this is your first adventure race, and it is a short course event, you can likely get away with whatever you have in your closet that you have already been training for.
For a longer course, you may want a more cushioned shoe, and one that is more specific to the terrain.
However, a heavier shoe requires more energy expenditure over longer distance. Therefore, it's important to find the right balance between a lightweight shoe, and one that will remain comfortable for covering long distances.
For multi-day events / expedition races, you may even want to consider bringing multiple pairs of shoes to keep in your bin at transition zones. This will allow you options based on terrain, or even your personal comfort needs over much longer distances.
The weather conditions during your adventure race, as well as the time of year the race is held, are also factors that may affect your shoe choices.
During the hot summer months, a lightweight shoe will allow your foot to breathe, preventing buildup of moisture. Excessive moisture can result in chafing, hot spots, or painful blisters.
During the winter months, a heavier shoe may help keep your feet warm. Further, a larger shoe may give more room for thicker socks, if needed.
If it's raining or wet, a trail shoe with greater traction will help keep you on your feet, and reduce the risk of slipping on mud or wet leaves.
4. Will You Be Wearing One Shoe for All Disciplines?
Will you be wearing one shoe for the entire race, across every discipline? Or will you have a different shoe for biking (such as an SPD shoe for clipless pedals), and maybe even something different for water/boating events?
When I first started adventure racing, I wore the same shoe for all disciplines. Coming from an ultrarunning background, I was a big fan of wearing Hoka One One trail running shoes. However, I found that the maximal cushion of Hoka's felt incredibly awkward on the bike, and didn't grip as well to my mountain bike pedals as I hoped.
So, I had to find something that worked equally as well on foot, on the bike, and in a boat. (And incase you are wondering, the Altra Lone Peak was ultimately the all-purpose adventure racing shoe for me! They are lightweight shoes with great ground feel, and excellent traction.)
Now I will either carry or keep my MTB shoes in my gear bin to change into at the transition area before a bike leg, allowing me to choose more running/hiking specific shoes for the rest of the time on my feet.
5. Training Considerations:
Racing aside, it's important to consider what shoes you'll be training in.
If you plan to do all of your training in conditions and on terrain similar to what you'll be experiencing on race day, then a single pair of shoes will work.
However, many of us (myself included) have to put in training hours in places like paved neighborhood roads, or even on treadmills. In that case, you may want to consider having multiple pairs of shoes to fit your training needs.
As a long time endurance athlete, in addition to my adventure racing shoes, I like to have different shoes for trail and road training runs, and even different pairs for long runs versus shorter, faster training runs (<10 mile run).
Now, I recognize that multiple pairs of shoes may seem excessive, and unnecessary for newer athletes, and I definitely understand. However, I share to demonstrate that it's not unheard of to have a wide variety of different shoes based on your specific training needs. You don't need to necessarily find a "one shoe that fits all".
More Adventure Racing Shoe FAQ's
But wait, there's more! Here are a couple more frequently asked questions about adventure racing shoes:
Do You Need a Waterproof Shoe for Adventure Racing?
Often people initially think waterproof shoes are ideal for any sort of off road sport where your feet might get wet (and in the sport of adventure racing, you're almost guaranteed to have wet shoes and/or wet feet at some point). In reality, waterproof shoes aren't a great idea for adventure racing.
If you step into water that is deeper than the height of your shoe (such as crossing a stream or getting out of a kayak or canoe), water will flow in from the top of your shoe.
The nature of the non-permeable fabric of waterproof shoes means that this water is now trapped inside of your shoe. Not only can this trapped water become uncomfortable, but it may put you at greater risk for developing a hot spot, painful blistering, or simply uncomfortable, pruned feet.
In regular running shoes, the water will typically drain out through the more permeable fabric of the shoe, aided by the pressure of each running foot fall.
How Often Should I Replace My Shoes?
Unfortunately, running shoes do not last forever, and therefore, running shoes should be replaced approximately every 300-500 miles. The mileage will vary based on a number of factors such as:
- Materials the shoe is composed of (light weight shoes will typically break down faster)
- Weight of the athlete (heavier athletes will place more force on the shoe with each step, resulting in faster breakdown of the shoe
- Running gait of the athlete (for example, someone who severely overpronates may breakdown the medial side of a running shoe faster than someone with a more neutral foot strike).
- Where you store your running shoes (extreme heat and extreme cold can affect the durability of the materials in the midsole and outsole of the shoe).
People will often look at the tread of a running shoe to try and determine if it's time to replace the shoe. However, it's important to understand that over time the materials in the midsole of shoe start to break down as well.
As the shoe begins to break down, it will not only feel less comfortable, but may change the amount of support it provides your foot. Over time, this could actually affect your running gait, which can lead to pain and even indirectly lead to injury as your body tries to overcompensate for the change in running form.
Therefore, simply having decent tread on the bottom of your running shoe does not necessarily mean the shoes are still in good condition.
Do I Have to Break In my New Shoes?
Many years ago when the upper of running shoes was primarily composed of leather, there was a "breaking in" period of a new running shoe. It would typically take a handful of runs before the leather became less stiff, more comfortable, and fit an athlete's foot better.
Today, the majority of running shoes are made of synthetic materials that fit comfortably right out of the box, with no "breaking in" period necessary.
That said, switching from one type of shoe to another may cause some discomfort, especially if there is a significant change in heel to toe drop (as mentioned earlier).
Therefore, it's always recommended that your first few runs in a new pair of shoes are over shorter distances, to ensure they fit well, and do not cause any physical issues.
Other Helpful Posts:
If you're new to the wonderful world of adventure racing, you may find the following posts helpful!