If you’re signed up to an ultramarathon, selecting the right trainers is key. This is true not only for the shorter, single-stage 50km events, but even more so for week-long ultras – the compound effect of consecutive days will take no prisoners.
In the lead up to the ultra, be ruthless in your quest to find the right pair of trainers. You’ll no doubt be clocking up many miles in training over a period of months, so there should be ample time to nail your choice. You’ll know what brands and styles of trainer work for you, but don’t be shy of trying something new should the rigours of ultra training be giving you any kind of pain, hot spots or blisters.
Regular road running trainers will tend to be lighter weight, less sturdily built, and have less tread or grip – not ideal for an ultra. So trail running shoes are built for the rigours of off-road and long distances, and will offer more protection and cushioning. Only an elite-level runner can get away with using a more regular road running style of shoe for an ultramarathon. Do also be sure to consider the nature of the ultra. Terrain may include soft sand, compacted gravel or rocky ground. You’ll also need to consider whether it’s likely to be more wet or dry underfoot, whether it’s a single or multi-stage event, and if you’re racing or just wanting to make sure you cross the finish line without emphasis on time or positions.
Below, we have compiled a selection of the best ultramarathon running shoes, across a wide range of styles. From the more minimal and lightweight options suited to a short, single-stage ultra, right through to those more cushioned and protective for week-long 250km and longer events across deserts and mountains.
Lightweight trail running shoes will start around the 250g mark, with the heavier ones coming in at around 350g. Ride heights should be considered – the thickness of the outsole at the heel and toe – the higher these are, the more cushioning you’ll have. But find the right balance as, if you’re too high, your centre of gravity is higher and there’s more chance to roll an ankle, or lose connection and feeling with the ground.
On average, ride heights are likely to be around the late teens for the toe end, and the heel around the early to mid twenties. Rock plates are a good feature to lookout for if you’re taking on a mountain or rocky ultra – they’ll make sure sharper stones or thorns don’t puncture through the sole to your foot. Fit wise, perhaps factor in a smidgen more room than usual – you’re going to be in these trainers for a long time, potentially in hot conditions, and feet will tend to swell – but this is very personal, so just be sure to put the training hours in to check.
All the trainers selected are for neutral runners with neutral pronation, and given that most ultras take place off-road, they’re specifically trail running shoes. Each of the trainers are also available in the women’s equivalent. We tested them all on a number of different surfaces: loose gravel, soft ground, compacted hard terrain and rocky trails, to bring you the best-performing pairs.
Columbia Trans Alp FKT II: £60, Columbia
Heel ride height: 18mm
Forefoot ride height: 10mm
These mid-weight trainers are very comfortable, and are nimble yet supportive. With their comparatively low ride heights, you’ll also feel better connected to the ground than with a lot of the other options. Do note the slightly larger drop of 8mm – suited to a more heel-striking style – although this does make them a good crossover option from road running shoes (these tend to have a larger drop). The cushioning located in the midsole offers good comfort, couple this with a sturdy and protective outsole with well-sized lugs (6mm) for grip when needed, underfoot is totally prepared for a wide range of terrains. They have a traditional tongue arrangement, and this is attached to the main upper, helping keep debris out. The mesh isn’t the airiest, plus there are numerous ripstop patches applied. These add durability, which is great, but breathability is reduced somewhat. However if you’re running on dusty/sandy terrain, this could be advantageous. They have a reinforced toe cap and heel for rocky, mountainous ground. There are new colours out in February so this pair is a bargain.
Saucony Xodus ISO 2: £120, Saucony
Heel ride height: 24mm
Forefoot ride height: 20mm
Saucony’s most rugged trail running shoes, these are a highly protective option with a super-resilient and grippy outsole with well-designed lugs – V-shaped, working well in both ascent and descent – rock plate and great protection on the heel and toe. They’re really comfortable and don’t feel too aggressive. Despite this, they don’t come in a cumbersome or overweight package, and with a 4mm drop, you’re encouraged to be light on your feet and forefoot strike. Although not waterproof, they’re one of the more durable to cross over for use in bad weather conditions. With these features, combined with a nice breathable upper, these are a great shout for long, multiple-day runs. It’s worth noting they’re not the roomiest in the toe box area, but all in all, they fit really well and are true to size.
Hoka One One Speed Instinct 2: £95, Wiggle
Heel ride height: 23mm
Forefoot ride height: 20mm
These are lightweight, very comfortable and great-fitting shoes. The Hoka brand is synonymous with oversized outsoles and huge cushioning – however this can be unwieldy, and create a disconnect with the ground and perhaps increase vulnerability to rolling an ankle on uneven terrain. However, this model offers a comparatively normal ride height akin to other trail running shoes. They are really well-weighted trainers, and with a low drop of 3mm, they encourage a forefoot strike. Lugs are sufficient, and we liked the neat, slightly elasticated laces and reflective patches. As they are lighter weight, the protection on the toe is more on the minimal side of things, and the heel cup feels marginally lower around the back of the ankle than usual, so bear that in mind if perhaps you tend to have a less accurate foot placement and are prone to bumping into rocks. All in all, though, these are really solid, nimble-feeling trainers.
Inov8 Trailroc 285: £140, Inov8
Heel ride height: 16mm
Forefoot ride height: 8mm
These shoes are made to eat up the miles on hard, dry and rocky trails. The feet feel really supported all around, while still having adequate room in the toe area. These lighter-weight shoes have a particularly low forefoot ride height of 8mm, and heel of 16mm (most usually have more than this under the toe), so they give a really planted and responsive feel. But far from feeling everything, the sole is carefully constructed to ensure you’re adequately protected – these are super-durable rubber with awesome grip, a rock plate to keep rogue sharp rocks at bay, and new midsole with 10 per cent more shock absorption – they maintain a great responsive feel with good cushioning. Also you have added protection at both the toe and heel ends. The uppers are a lightweight, breathable mesh, and there’s nothing fancy with the lace or tongue setup – sometimes simple is best.
Dynafit Feline Ultra: £86.95, Trek Inn
Heel ride height: n/a
Forefoot ride height: n/a
From the moment you open the box you’ll be lusting after these. They are exceptionally well built trainers with fantastic attention to detail in both design and materials. These heavier, sturdier and snug-fitting shoes also offer good protection on the toe and heel, while giving adequate space in the toe box. The outsole has generous lugs and uses a special Vibram compound providing great traction and protection on rocky terrain. They use a quick lacing system and place to tuck away the excess, although it is longer than it needs to be. The logos on the front and back are reflective, and the upper will keep rubble out while still offering good breathability. These are really protective trainers that offer good comfort, providing the perfect platform to cover long distances on uneven, loose terrain.
Salomon S/Lab Wings 8: £89.98, Wiggle
Heel ride height: 27mm
Forefoot ride height: 18mm
Less is more? From Salomon’s top S/Lab line, these are some of the most no-nonsense, minimal ultra-running shoes out there, and at 275g, they’re firmly in the lightweight category. So you won’t be surprised to hear there is no excess on the cushioning and material front – these are made for racing. However, be in no doubt, they’re built for the rigours of mountainous and technical trails, complete with their super grippy soles, although they’re not ideal when it’s wet and muddy. From the moment you put them on you know where you are; they’re minimal on the immediate soft cushioning front, but get going and you’re still well protected with forefoot cushioning, albeit with a pretty high drop. The inner system these use grips your foot snugly, but with its minimal construction, loose gravel may make its way in with the highly breathable upper material, and these do have an unnecessarily long toggle tightening wire that needs to be tucked away somewhere. They are ideal for a single-day ultra, up to 50km, particularly if speed is of the essence.
Scott Supertrac RC: £125, Scott
Heel ride height: 22.5mm
Forefoot ride height: 17.5mm
Designed as technical mountain shoes to be used for racing, these come in at a mere 250g and are the lightest in this line-up. With great ride heights and a nicely sized 5mm drop, they leave you feeling perfectly poised. Couple this with the radial lug design and Scott’s specially designed lightweight midsole with good cushioning – particularly at this weight – they offer surprising comfort and support that you might expect from a heavier, bulkier alternative. They’re a formidable choice for those racing for a position or in a one- or two-stage mountain ultra.
La Sportiva Akyra: £117, Wiggle
Heel ride height: 25mm
Forefoot ride height: 16mm
These are the trainers for you if you like ultimate comfort, and shock absorption, as your foot is cocooned snugly all around, and you’ll be good to clock up big mileage either while training, or on a multi-day ultra. They’re certainly not the lightest, but they are well-cushioned, have a protective outsole offering great traction, and a shock-absorbing insole. They also have welcome additional protection on the toe and heel. Despite all this, the three-layer seamless upper (keeping out debris) is pretty breathable, and they still maintain a responsive feel. They are very comfortable and versatile shoes, which would also work well if you might be walking quite a bit of your ultra.
Brooks Cascadia 12 GTX: £130, Brooks
Heel ride height: 27mm
Forefoot ride height: 17mm
The heaviest option in this line-up, these super-rugged trainers are packed with features. They’re also the only Gore-Tex option, so a great choice for wet, muddy or snowy conditions while still being breathable (interestingly, on the micro scales, a size 11.5 are an extra 45g per trainer for the Gore-Tex version versus with their non-waterproof twin). They’re armed with a heavy-duty rock plate, and have great cushioning to keep you comfortable for high mileage. With a high heel drop of 10mm, stability on technical trails is likely to be a little more challenging, but this also makes them a great transition shoe for those coming over from road running (where trainers tend to have a higher drop). You won’t be flying in these, but overall they’re very sturdy and well built shoes – they’ll keep you comfortable and well protected on long training runs, and would be great in multi-stage, wetter ultras.
The Verdict: Running shoes for ultramarathons
Selecting the right pair of trainers will be a very personal thing, and will also depend on the particular ultra you’ll be running. With all things considered, the Columbia Trans Alp IIs are very capable trainers with good all-round capability: they’re supportive and comfortable, yet lightweight and reactive – great for high-mileage training, and just the job for shorter or even longer multi-stage races. The only downside is their 8mm drop, which some may find too high.
Another great option would be the Saucony Xodus 2s: with a 4mm drop, great cushioning and protection, they are versatile and comfortable trainers for clocking up high mileage. If you’re racing in a single-stage race and looking for something more minimal, the Scott Supertrac RCs are very reliable and the lightest option, while the Hoka Speed Instinct 2s offer a super smooth and lightweight ride. For a two or three-stage event, the Inov8 Trailroc 285s are ideal, and for a week-long ultra, the Dynafit Feline Ultras and the La Sportiva Akyra shoes come into their own.
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