I get to review and test a great deal of shoes and 2021 has been no different. Some shoes really stand out and get used all the time and others fade to a dark and lonely place in my shoe cupboard.
So, what has been the highlights and low points of 2021?
First and foremost, I need to clarify that I haven’t tested ‘every’ shoe that is out there to be tested, so, this is very much an opinion post. Importantly, what I have done is tested shoes from zero drop to 10mm drop and shoes with minimal to maximal cushioning.
For perspective, I am happy to run in shoes with varying drop as I really believe that not only is it good for the body, but I also believe that certain drops and better for certain distances and terrain. A good example being, if I were to be running longer, I’d prefer a higher drop, say 8mm. But if running shorter and faster, I’d be more than happy to be in a lower drop, say 4mm. The same applies for cushioning, I am happy with les cushioning for shorter distances and a little more cushioning for longer distances.
Outsole varies considerably and therefore when considering ‘the best’ one must caveat that the shoe is the best for a typical type of terrain and conditions. However, some shoes can be a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ and manage to do a little bit of everything.
I am a neutral runner, so, the shoes listed fit in that category. Regarding shoe width, I am fortunate that I can squeeze my feet in most shoes and I accept and am happy to have my toes a little cramped for a very specific shoe that needs to excel on technical terrain. I appreciate that for some people, that is not an option or a choice, so keep that in mind.
Read an in-depth article about How to Find Your Running Shoe Size and Fit.
Finally, you may well agree and disagree with my shoe choices below. Perfectly normal, gladly there are many, many shoes out in the marketplace with different drops, cushioning, fit, outsoles and so on.
THE BEST TRAIL SHOES
adidas Speed Ultra
This shoe has been a revelation in 2021. It has managed to encompass so many key elements that make a shoe stand out. They are light, responsive, fun to run in, offer a great fit, have a wider toe box and are cushioned. Designed in conjunction with Tom Evans, Adidas and Tom wanted a shoe that could excel at Western States. So, the shoe had to be good for 100-miles but did not require an aggressive outsole. The Continental outsole is almost road like and for some, potentially too minimal. However, the grip is superb and for trail running; superb. On dry and wet rock, the grip has never faltered, in mud grip is compromised. The Speed Ultra has been my ‘go-to’ shoe of 2021 and has been on many varied terrains and always provided a superb ride. They have even been an excellent road shoe. There are few downsides to the Speed Ultra, but the lack of a rock plate does mean that occasionally you can feel the ground beneath you a little more than desirable. Read the full review HERE.
Hoka One One Torrent 2
I was the first person to bring Hoka in to the uk, way back in 2009. I used them constantly for many years but in 2012 I defected. It has taken almost 10-years for me to lace up a pair of Hoka’s again and it was actually the adidas Speed Ultra that tempted me to try the Torrent 2. I was told by many that the Torrent 2 was the least cushioned and potentially most ‘normal’ type trail shoe that Hoka made. They were right. Out of the box the Torrent 2 has excelled, and they have been in a constant rotation with my Speed Ultra. The outsole is more aggressive than the Speed Ultra and therefore open a few more options when it comes to varied terrain. However, I will say that on wet rock the grip is bad. I wished Hoka had used Vibram MegaGrip instead of their own outsole. But if you stick with dry trail or even muddy trail, the Torrent 2 performs exceptionally well. Despite the stack height (still low for a Hoka) they give great ground feel and stability. The toe box has good space and the foot hold is superb. Read the full review HERE. I will make a note here that the Zinal was also a consideration. It has many Torrent 2 features but for me a firmer and harder ride. I preferred the Torrent 2 but you may well think the Zinal preferable.
THE BEST MOUNTAIN/ AGGRESSIVE SHOES
VJ Sport ULTRA
When you need grip, no other brand offers an outsole like VJ Sport. The soft and grippy butyl is just superb. Over the years I have constantly raved about their shoes, be them the iRock, XTRM or the MAXx. However, the one downside (for many) was a fit that was too narrow and not enough cushioning. Enter the Ultra. VJ listened and came up with a light mountain shoe that instantly felt like a VJ but with that wider toe box and additional cushioning. Many would never consider running UTMB or similar in a VJ MAXx but the Ultra now gives that option. You get the best of both worlds, cushioning and the best grip on the planet. I will say that the cushioning is not as plush as I would have maybe liked, however, they do bed in a become a little softer with use. Read the review HERE.
adidas Speed Pro SG
The soft-ground terrain that inov-8 excelled and dominated in has now been impacted upon by many brands offering their own incarnations of grippy and aggressive outsoles to tackle sloppy terrain. The VJ Sport iRock is without doubt a consideration when looking for an SG shoe. Constantly, one of the biggest complaints from many runners is that most SG shoes have narrow toe boxes. Step in the adidas Speed Pro SG. This shoe has a wide toe box, lightweight upper, cushioning and 7mm lugs for the muddiest and gnarliest terrain. The fit and feel is excellent and the grip superb. It’s not a shoe you’d want to spend all day in but if moving fast over technical, muddy and challenging terrain is your thing, this shoe is a great addition. Read the review HERE.
THE BEST RUNNING BOOTS
La Sportiva Cyklon
The La Sportiva Mutant has been a long-time favourite for many a trail runner and the Cyklon is very much a development of this shoe. It manages to combine many elements of classic La Sportiva and then push new ground with the addition of BOA. Designed to excel in mountain terrain, they are more than a shoe but not as much as boot. They fit this wonderful middle ground of combining shoe like feel and comfort but boot-like security. It has an aggressive outsole and some stability (not too much) to ensure mountain days pass without problem. The sock-liner fit, and the new BOA dynamic cage has provided me with arguably the greatest foot hold of any shoe I have ever tried. It is superb. All these plus points do come with a couple of downsides: A little extra weight and they retain warmth/ heat. The latter a good point in winter but less so in summer. Read the review HERE.
adidas Terrex Tech Pro
This is a late addition to my 2021 shoe line-up and what an addition! For many, this would just be too much and too specific, but for me with Norwegian winters, it’s a boot to put a smile on my face. It’s almost two shoes as there is an inner Agravic shoe inside the Tech Pro outer all fastened together by a zip and BOA fastening system. Comfort is superb, warmth is excellent, and the outsole has wonderful grip. There is a downside (for me) though… I really wish adidas had added winter studs to this boot so that they could handle ice. Had they done this, it would be the perfect winter boot. However, I do understand why they haven’t, usage becomes very restrictive with studs. As it stands, you have a boot that you can use all year and if required, add a micro crampon to tackle ice. Read the review HERE.
THE BEST WINTER SHOE
Asics Gel Fujisetsu 3 G-TX
I have tested a great deal of winter studded shoes in the last couple of years and VJ and Icebug have provided me with many great runs with excellent grip. However, there was always a compromise to be made until I got hold of the Asics Gel Fujisetsu 3 G-TX. This shoe has been a revelation… A Gore-Tex upper, wider toe box, cushioning and 14 studs in aggressive outsole to handle snow and more importantly ice with aplomb. They have been superb over short distance runs and recently a 6-hour outing in -10. Read the review HERE.
MY WORST SHOE OF 2021
inov-8 Trailfly G300 Max
Normally I would find it hard to pick a shoe to go here as today, shoe technology and development means that most brands make good shoes. It’s fair to say that me adding the Trailfly as the worst shoe will cause controversy as for some it has been hailed a revelation…! Not so for me. It’s a Frankenstein shoe that is a pure horror. They are heavy (mine over 380g!), lifeless, clumsy, and well, just plain awful. There are some positives which I tried to give credit to in my initial review, but the more I have used them, the more I dislike them. This shoe had the potential to be a more cushioned G270 with a higher drop. They are not even close! Even the Graphene outsole doesn’t feel as good? But one of my coaching clients uses them and loves them. I said in my review they would be a Marmite shoe and I don’t like Marmite. In fairness, if you are a bigger and heavier runner, the Trailfly may well offer a level of protection not found before. Read the review HERE.
The best and the worst? Fully accept that they are ‘my’ best and worst and you may well agree and completely disagree with my thoughts. Ultimately though, it may well introduce you to a potential new favourite shoe that you hadn’t considered before.
I have seen some brands stand still in the most recent 12-18 months, arguably over 2+ years when you consider how long it takes to develop a shoe. But adidas (never a leader in the trail world) has grabbed trail and mountain running by the horns and pushed forward with some great development and shoes with their Terrex brand.
Another stand out has been Scarpa, a well-established mountain brand who with the influence of Marco De Gasperi has started to make some excellent trail/ mountain shoes, the Spin 2 almost making this list. I need to test the Ribelle!
Hoka One One have diversified from the max cushioning and while the Zinal didn’t make my list, it very nearly did and for those who do prefer more ‘cush’ between them and the ground, the Speedgoat (now 4) always gets rave reviews.
But what about Altra, Brooks, Salomon, Nike, Topo and more…
Well, the Nike Pegasus has been a favourite of mine in past years and it’s still a great shoe with a plethora of great features, especially comfort for long trail days. However, my choice was always the Wildhorse. But Nike always had to tweak and change it, we are now on version 7 I think?
Altra unfortunately just don’t do it for me. I know, I know… Some of you will be holding your head in your hands. But the zero drop and super-wide toe box is a no for me. However, I have many friends telling me I need to try the Olympus 4 or the Lone Peak 5.
Salomon have not been on my radar in 2021, I very much feel that as brand they stood still. They released a Speedcross 5 but it’s a Marmite shoe (for me) and the grip although aggressive has always been horrendous on wet rock. The previous incarnations also had arch support which I didn’t like. The Sense Ride 4 with 8mm drop is maybe worth a look?
All shoes were provided for free as test samples. The exception being Asics which were purchased. In addition, many shoes in 2021 were provided for testing that do not appear here.
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