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Trail and fell running footwear: a guide

Illustration by Glenn at Eleven.

There are two broad categories of off-road running:

  • trail – using paths and tracks to enjoy scenic runs in the country
  • fell (meaning barren hillside), which involves taking direct lines across open country.

In reality there are many areas where you can mix the two. Whether you opt for trail or fell shoes is up to you.

Trail shoes (pictured left)

  • depth of cushion
  • wide tread for friction against flat paths and tracks

Trail shoes are like road shoes with a slightly deeper tread on the outer sole, which provides a non-slip quality on loose or damp surfaces, like mud, sand or gravel. Specialist brands like Salomon or Inov-8 produce sticky rubber outsoles that really cling to wet rock, reducing the risk of slipping. With plenty of midsole (the shock-absorbing foam between you and the ground) and broad studs, trail shoes offer friction against flat surfaces but enough depth to grab the ground when it becomes softer. The uppers might be waterproof, water-repellent, or allow water in and straight back out again. Comfort is still a priority in trail running, and shoes are often quite plush, allowing runners to spend hours on their feet while covering long distances.

Fell Shoes (pictured right)​

  • lower profile
  • less cushion/greater ground feel
  • studs for traction on steep ground

Fell shoes are designed to provide function over fashion and can feel uncomfortable when compared to their trail counterparts. Stiff and with less padding, they allow you to feel exactly what's going on underfoot. They might include hard plates down the length of the shoe, for protection from jabs. This stiffness also provides power when pushing off against jagged obstacles, or clawing across hillsides at an angle. The grips are a lot more aggressive, with deeper, narrower spikes: much better for penetrating mud and wet grass, but offering less traction on anything flat. The expectation with fell running is that you'll be heading up, down and diagonally across the country's open moorland (fell running being a largely British pastime, thanks to our right to roam and the lack of giant predators).

Best of both
Just as there are areas that offer a variety of trails, trods (well-used single track) and open moorland, there’s footwear out there that combines comfort and traction. Look in specialist running shops for off-road footwear, including door-to-trail, trail, ultra-distance, fell and even obstacle course shoes. If you intend to get the most out of off-road running and explore a variety of terrain while staying in one piece, it may be worth building up a collection of footwear that'll cover you for each of your pursuits.

Written by Chris Hough


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