We focus on six main areas of testing (comfort, speed, security of fit, agility, responsiveness and protection) that we feel can wholly capture the purpose, feel and nature of a shoe.
This season we had nine testers from all over the country and a variety of running backgrounds. Some have been running for many years, some are newer to the sport, but everyone brings a shared goal of honestly and accurately testing each shoe. We strive for a wide sampling of runners. We have both men and women, elite athletes and middle of the pack runners, people from the Rocky Mountains to the desert in the South West to the East Coast. Having a diverse test crew is very important in order to get the most relevant information to the reader. If only one person or one type of runner reviewed the shoe, that would not be very helpful to the broader audience.
We require each tester to run at least 50 miles in each shoe. In addition to that we strongly recommend varying the terrain and running on single track trails, mountains, in the mud and rain, in the snow, on the grass, on the road, etc. We want to ensure these shoes are tested in the same way the reader will be running in them and so we try to put them through everything we can.
This year, as with every year, we strive for some continuity in the testing. Some testers come and go but the way we test each shoe stays roughly the same, that way it is easy to compare previous models of a shoe to the current version and know that they have been put through the same tests. We also try to focus on trends that may be emerging or continue to emerge. This year we continued to see brands making very comfortable shoes that are also very lightweight. Gone are the days were a lightweight shoe had to minimalist or harsh. There was a subcategory of race oriented shoes that were clearly made for race day and not much else. Not surprisingly, the brands that were able to strike that middle ground of comfort and race day speed were the highest ranked.
The North Face Flight RKT is the best all around shoe tested this season. It is light, responsive, fast and very comfortable. Unless you are looking for a technical mountain shoe, you will be hard pressed to find a better shoe than this.
The Inov-8 Trail Talon 235 is a no frills, lightweight trail shoe. It is fast, flexible and firm and will be a fantastic sub marathon distance race shoe. This updated version has a sock like fit that is very comfortable right out of the box. It has very little underfoot protection so it is best suited on buffed or non highly technical trails.
The Inov-8 X-Talon 230 is a rugged, go fast in the worst possible conditions kind of shoe. Hands down the best grip in this group thanks to its 8mm deep lugs. But also, one of the least comfortable. This is your shoe for mountain running, OCR, fell or snowshoeing. When grip and speed are at a premium, you can’t go wrong with the X-Talon 230.
The Topo Runventure 2 is a solid and comfortable trail runner that provides protection in rough terrain and outstanding comfort for longish days on the trail. Like all Topo Athletic shoes, the Runventure 2 is built to maintain natural running biomechanics, but can also accommodate traditional heel strikers or transitioning runners.
The Columbia Montrail FluidFlex F.K.T. II was the surprise shoe for this season. Surprisingly comfortable, light and cushioned, this shoe was one of the few you could train in everyday. But watch out as the midsole durability seems to be lacking.
With six criteria – comfort, speed, security of fit, agility, responsiveness and protection – we were able to take some of the most exciting lightweight trail runners and come up with our top 10. The North Face Flight RTK came out on top and was the most well rounded shoe. The biggest surprise shoe was probably the Columbia Montrail FluidFlex FKT II. It was not the highest scoring shoe in any category, but was right behind the Flight RTK in terms of being a solid all around shoe. The Inov-8 Trail Talon 235 was another surprise because the shoe was so fast. As trail running continues to explode in 2018, it is exciting to see new shoes redefining what a lightweight trail shoe can be. It was not too long ago that a lightweight trail shoe was synonymous with minimalist and uncomfortable for long distances. Now, we have shoes like The North Face RTK that is one of the lightest shoes available at 8 ounces but is comfortable to go the distance of a 100 miler. Some brands continue to stay in their niche, such as Inov-8, where they make similar shoes as they always have. This is not necessarily a bad thing but in some instances, like Columbia Montrail, they have used the same FluidFlex midsole with no change in the last several iterations of their shoes. Innovation is the key to success.
For the comfort category we mainly looked for cushioning, flexibility, upper materials and general fit. Comfort is a fairly broad reaching category that runs into almost every other category, for example, a shoe may be very fast, but if it is uncomfortable then you can’t run fast in it. The top overall performer was the new The North Face Flight RTK. This shoe utilized a knit engineered mesh upper which has been a new popular trend in road shoes. By adding some overlays it created a very comfortable, seamless and secure upper. It also had an incredibly cushioned, lightweight and responsive midsole. In contrast to The North Face shoe is the Inov-8 X-Talon 230 which was ranked as the lowest in comfort. This shoe has a stiff and thick upper and a harsh midsole. Most race oriented shoes, like the X-Talon, were ranked very low on comfort.
Generally speaking, most lightweight shoes are going to be faster than your average shoe, just based on weight alone. However, some are more race oriented than others. We determined if a shoe was fast by a combination of its responsiveness, grip, fit, “pop”, and a general “fast” feeling. Some shoes feel fast on buffed single track, some are fast on technical terrain. The fastest shoe for non-technical terrain was the Inov-8 Trail Talon 235. This shoe out scored all others, except the Inov-8 X-Talon 230. The X-Talon uses essentially the same midsole as the Trail Talon but with its 8 millimeter-deep lugs was able to handle the most technical terrain, where as the Trail Talon with its more flexible outsole and shallower lugs performed incredibly well on hard packed, groomed trails. Other top contenders here were the Brooks Mazama 2 and the Adidas Terrex Aggrevic Speed.
Security of Fit
For our definition, security of fit means how well your foot fits in and how secure it feels in the shoe. We are looking for how the heel fits, is the toe box too narrow, does your foot slide around while making hard turns, does the lacing system work well, and does it run true to size. We do our best to make our testing categories as objective as possible, but this may be the most subjective one. Since everyone’s foot is different, one shoe can fit someone really well and be the worst thing for someone else. That is why in our reviews of the shoes we try and make sure every tester’s voice is heard and we outline the good and bad of each shoe. We had several shoes this season that scored equally well in the category. The common thread running through all of them was how secure the midfoot felt and how well it prevented our feet from sliding around and how well the laces work in securing the shoe to the foot. Some poor examples of this was the Adidas Terrex Aggrevic Speed which did not have enough eye holes to evenly distribute pressure across the top of the foot or securely lock it in and the Inov-8 X-Talon 230 that had a narrow fit, but a very high volume upper that did not prevent the foot from sliding.
Agility is the shoe’s ability to cut back and forth to avoid obstacles and handle tight switchbacks. It’s a combination of grip and security of fit that work together to help you confidently carve up the trail. Typically the more race specific shoes were more agile shoes because they have a lower drop and lower profile which really helps with ground feel. A shoe that is more cushioned or comfort focused tends to be a slower shoe, with less aggressive outsoles and so agility is not as good, but also not as important. The most agile shoes were also our two fastest shoes, the Inov-8 Trail Talon 235 and X-Talon 230. They both offer incredible grip and are very agile due to their low profile designs. The X-Talon excels on very technical and soft terrain where the Trail Talon works best on hard packed trails.
The definition of responsiveness is how much energy the shoe returns with each foot strike. The level of responsiveness is typically based on the midsole material. Generally, a firmer shoe is more responsive than a plush, highly cushioned shoe. But with advances in midsole technology and new midsole materials shoe companies are starting to figure out how to make a shoe that is well cushioned and responsive. The best example of this is The North Face Flight RTK. It is firmer than a Hoka style shoe, but softer than a race day shoe and was tied for the highest responsiveness rating. Both Inov-8 shoes, the Trail Talon and the X-Talon, were rated equally high as the North Face Flight RTK but are very different midsoles. The Inov-8s are on the firm side and are more traditional in their responsiveness. You can feel that with the firm midsole that energy is being absorbed and then sent back propelling you forward. With the Flight RTK the softer midsole acts more like a spring.
For a trail running shoe, protection is one of the most important features on the shoe. Depending on the trails you run, protection might be very important if you run in the mountains or less important if your trails are not technical. One trend we saw is although race shoes are very fast they had poor protection due to their thin midsoles. Lightweight shoes are not known for their protection but a few still did a pretty good job. The Asics Gecko XT, even though not a very popular shoe with our testers, was one of the most protective shoes tested. Some of the features that made it so protective was a rock shield that stopped sharp rocks from penetrating the shoe. It also had a firm midsole and full rubber outsole, all of which make for a lot of great underfoot protection. It also had a nice padded upper which helped protect against side impacts.
Out testing spans the course of several months. Our testers spend a few weeks running at least 50 miles (typically much more) in each shoe. They live all over the country so each shoe can be put through our testing protocol in a variety of terrains and conditions. Each tester is encouraged—to the best of their ability—to test the shoes in as many different terrain environments as possible: in the mountains, on dirt roads, buffed single track, technical terrain, etc. In addition to varying terrain, our testers have to test each shoe at different efforts including a long run, easy running and fast running. As mentioned above we test for six different criteria: comfort, speed, security of fit, agility, responsiveness and protection.
Comfort is the broadest category but looks mainly at cushion, upper materials (including seams, hot spots, etc.), and the general fit (too wide, high volume, narrow, etc.). The speed category looks at how fast the shoe can go, does it help you run faster, and does it feel fast. As mentioned above security of fit can be a little subjective since each person’s foot feels different in every shoe. But, we generally are looking for how well the shoe secures to the foot. Does the heel slip, is it too tight, do the laces pinch the top of the foot, does the foot slide around; these are questions we ask while testing the security of fit. Agility tends to correspond very closely with speed and responsiveness since most attributes that make a shoe agile (low profile, good grip, good ground feel) also make it fast and responsive. Responsiveness refers to how much energy the shoe returns to your stride. The final category, protection, is the most straightforward and objective. Does the shoe stop rocks from penetrating the bottom of the shoe, does the toe bumper prevent you from stubbing your toes, and is there enough padding on the upper to stop rocks from poking through the sides.
What is a Lightweight Trail Runner?
A lightweight trail runner is a shoe that is generally about 10 ounces or less. This is not a hard and fast definition as a couple of shoes in this season exceed 10 ounces, but meet other criteria, such as low profile midsoles, sleek design, or a fast feel. This season there were very clearly two sub-categories: lightweight comfort and race/performance. Shoes like The North Face Flight RTK, Columbia Montrail FluidFlex FKT II, Topo Runventure 2, Altra Superior 3.5 and Asics Gecko XT would all fall more into the comfort sub-category. These shoes have a little bit more to them, tend to have more cushion and protection. The race/performance sub-category of lightweight trail runners is closer to what most people think of when they think lightweight shoes. These shoes tend to have a firm midsole, pretty good grip, not very much protection and are not that comfortable for long periods of time. For most people these shoes tend to be their second or third pair of shoes that are reserved for race days or workouts. This year, those shoes included the Inov-8 Trail Talon 235 and the X-Talon 230, Adidas Terrex Aggrevic Speed, Brooks Mazama 2 and to some degree the Columbia Montrail Rogue FKT II. If you have never tried a lightweight trail shoe, now may be the time. With more options than ever, and higher quality and more comfort, you may find that you have been lugging around more weight than necessary.