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The do’s and don’ts when buying your first pair of trail shoes

Buying trail shoes is a multi-layered process that involves discussions, assessment and physically trying and testing a lot of pairs of shoes, amongst other things. That said, it’s easy to feel intimidated when you step foot into a store, so here’s a fool-proof guide of do’s and don’ts to consider when buying your first pair of shoes…

Don’t choose looks over function
“Choosing a pair of trail shoes based on the colour can have negative connotations,” says Grant Bryant of Run Specialist Store in Cape Town, “and can do actual damage to your feet and muscles.” When walking into a store to purchase a pair of trail shoes, you need to drop all fashion preferences at the door. Instead, hone in on the group of shoes that suit your running tendencies and style and go from there. Your shoes are the most important piece of gear and will make or break your running career, so leave fashion to H&M. 

Do try on more than three pairs
“Take time trying shoes on. Try at least three or four different types. Don’t look at the price, just try shoes on. Walk around in them; take them for a test run outside the store. Ask yourself if they rub anywhere, if there are any pressure points. Get a feel for the density of the shoe, is it very soft or too hard?” says Jayson Chin, orthotist prosthetist in Cape Town. All styles and brands have different features and design elements and will feel different on your feet. Always try on a range of brands and shoes and get a feel for each, take note of how your foot feels, how the shoes react to your stride and the comfort of the shoe, before narrowing it down to a final selection of two or three to choose from.

Don’t buy what your best friend of partner wears based on their experience
One of the most common mistakes the guys at Run see is people insisting on buying shoes that their partner, best friend of running buddy wears and enjoys. Here is the thing; your body, your muscles, your abilities as a trail runner differ entirely to that of the person trying to convince you to buy into their favourite brand. If you fall into this group of buyers, ask yourself if you and your friend have the same level of running experience. Then compare your body shape, size and weight. Any differences yet? Just because a shoe works for someone else doesn’t mean it’ll work for you! “If you try a shoe on and it doesn’t feel right, then trust yourself,” says Chin. 

Do come to terms with spending money
“A lot of first time buyers try to justify spending less cash up front and more later in their trail journey when they have more experience,” says Erin van Eyssen of Run. “We try to deter this, as often, new trail runners have slightly underdeveloped muscles and aren’t physically as strong as they can be. If you buy a cheaper, entry-level shoe, it may not have the support needed to guide you through the initial phases of your trail running, which may leave you injured or with poor experiences.” In short, save up for an extra month and buy a decent pair of shoes. It will preserve your body in the long run and build your running career as opposed to ending it before it starts. 

But don’t go for the most expensive pro model if you still need training wheels
“It happens often, people think they should start out in what the pros are wearing,” says van Eyssen. That is not necessarily the case however, and sometimes the most expensive product isn’t going to be the best starting point. The shoes that pros don at events are minimalist, with limited support. “Pro’s can handle lightweight, flexible styles because of their experience, their training and the fact their muscles are fine tuned to handle them.” Unless you train like a pro, consider something more suited to your ability level. 

Do be honest about the terrain you’ll be running on
“Be honest about the terrain you’ll be running on. If you’re just going off-road and plan to spend a lot of time on jeep track, you don’t necessarily need to buy trail shoes,” says Chin, who believes in these instances you can get away with wearing regular road shoes. Considering the environment you’re going to be running in may save you money upfront, before you take the plunge to more technical terrain. If you’re spending time on rocky or muddy terrain, watch the second  #AboutTrail video and learn about grip and lugs to ensure you buy the correct type of shoe. 

Don’t be a sucker to trends
When Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run rose to fame several years ago, barefoot and minimalist shoes became the rage. It was hard not to get caught up in the hype of it all. Now, maximalist styles like Hoka One and Altra Paradigm, with puffy, soft, thick soles designed to protect your feet from the very ground you were trying desperately to connect with in your minimalist shoes are in. So which style is better? “The pair that are most comfortable and suit your trail needs” says van Eyssen. The point: don’t buy into a trend, unless an expert, who has assessed you, tells you that you can handle the particular style. 

Find out your running style
If you are unsure of your running style, ask if the salesperson can do a basic gait assessment (if they haven’t asked already). Some stores are set up to do these on a treadmill, while sales assistants at other shops may watch you run up and down the street to get an idea of your running style and if you have a pronated, supinated or neutral foot-strike. “Pronation is a movement, and can only be assessed if the person is moving and running. You can’t rely on the ‘if you’ve got flat feet you pronate’ rule of thumb any more, and doing a stationary assessment is not enough,” says Bryant. If a sales assistant at a speciality store sees that your specific case is beyond their expertise and ability to assess, they will send you to someone like Chin, who can do a thorough test and send you back with a ‘shoe prescription’. 

Don’t buy the wrong size
“Black toenails from a 5km Parkrun mean your shoes are too small,’ says van Eyssen, “and it’s a common mistake we see often.” Be sure you get the correct fit by “taking the inner out of the shoe and placing your foot on top of it,” says Chin. “With the back of your foot about half a centimetre from the back of the sole, there should be a small space in front of your toes. Alternatively, try the shoe on and force your foot to the front, until your toes are touching. You should then be able to slide two fingers straight down the back,” says Chin. Having room in the front of your shoe is imperative to comfort when descending. You’ll suffer from black toenails and discomfort if your shoes are too small. 

Do take in your old shoes, if you have any
“If you are an existing runner, take your old shoes so that the sales assistant can see where they have worn down, what your soles look like and basically make an assessment on your gait,” says Chin. Of course, if this doesn’t apply to you, refer to ‘gait assessment’ in the paragraphs above. 

Don’t settle for anything but the best
Finally, don’t forget that you’re making the most important purchase of your trail running future and shouldn’t settle for a shoe you’re not happy with or uncomfortable in. Avoid this by either chatting to an orthotist to get an idea of what type of shoe you should be referencing, or by visiting a speciality store where the sales assistants are dedicated to fitting the correct shoe, as opposed to making a sale. 

Check out the latest #AboutTrail video featuring Grant and Erin discussing the common features of trail shoes. 

Special thanks to Jayson Chin and the guys from Run, Grant and Erin for their expert advice. 

Jayson Chin, of Jayson Chin and Associates, is a qualified orthotist prosthetist and has been practicing for almost three decades. His focus is split between athletes and patients looking for orthopaedic respite, fitting and rehabilitating amputees with prosthetics and managing a retail division of his practice, Medsport. His passion lies within enabling his orthotic and prosthetic patients overcome their physical challenges. His approach is progressive and he believes that the correct shoe will make a difference. He has three practices in Cape Town, Claremont and Vincent Pallotti Hospital, Pinelands. 

Grant Bryant and Erin van Eyssen, the masterminds behind the newly opened Cape Town specialist store, Run, have a reputation for knowing how to fit a pair of shoes. The two share a wealth of running experience and knowledge. At their new store, they’re not interested in marketing brands, pushing trends or pandering to your fashion tastes. They’re interested entirely in fitting you with the correct pair of shoes. Pop into Run Specialist Store on 7-11 Bree Street and pay them a visit.