What’s the best HOKA for trail running?
We’re all at home a bit more than we’d really like to be right now, which is as much reason as any that we all need to go for a run. Part of the beauty of trail running is that even when the run doesn’t feel so good, being in nature can have its own positive impact on our sense of wellbeing and inner peace – even with no races on the calendar for the next few months.
Whether you’re an experienced trail runner, or a runner looking for the right shoes to start running trail, we hope this guide helps.
Trail running as both a sport and personal recreation has really exploded over the last decade and a bit. The biggest trail running event in Australia – Ultra-Trail Australia – has grown from fewer than 200 competitors to over 5,000 runners in that time. Many trail runners say that bitumen is boring, but it’s just different. If you’ve only ever run one surface, it’s hard to know what you’re missing out on.
As a runner, my own focus was just trying to get the fastest half-marathon and marathon PBs that I could. Every road runner knows what that means – consistent training, increasing volume, progressively building up kilometer interval sets in Centennial Park, monthly and even weekly 5km time trials, Sunday tempo and long road runs.
Then a mate took me for a run on the trail from Spit to Manly. I was nervous beforehand because I felt like I was going to be right out of my element. But the challenge of slippery tree roots and steep muddy steps, with constantly changing textures and uneven surfaces, getting away from the regular rhythm of blacktop and seeing new scenery, with forested sections and waterways and beaches was kind of a thrill.
(Shortly after this, funnily enough, I wrote my original review of the Bondi B 😊.)
Over a period of about 4 years my interest shifted intensely from long road running to the many various kinds of trail running, especially gnarly technical stuff. Most road runners who switch to trail will still prefer road-style racing, on well-groomed trails or fire roads. These mean they can still run at a pace close to what they manage on road, allowing for slower sections with long and sometimes steep climbs, and long and sometimes punishing descents.
But as more and more road runners have filled up the starting lines of faster trail races like the Great Ocean Walk 100km, 6 Foot Track and UTA 22, a growing body of runners are also enjoying different types of trail – especially technical terrain.
This is the sort of running on offer in the Victorian Alps, around Mt Bogong and Feathertop, or Mt Solitary and Blackheath in the Blue Mountains, many sections of the Great North Walk north of Sydney and at events like the Wandi Cross. This is the kind of running where the amount of time runners take to finish benign sounding distances will have road runners making jokes about trail running not really being a sport, until they’ve actually tried it themselves.
Personally, I used to HATE technical trail. It slowed me down and annoyed me, because it took a lot longer to cover distance than on rolling rocky access roads. But ultimately I just didn’t enjoy it because I was really bad at it.
Entering more technical races forced me to train on these kinds of trails, a lot. Steep, twisting single track sections with loose surfaces, potholes, sharp climbs, tree roots, and very little opportunity to get into a mindless rhythm became my jam. I’m as slow as ever, but really enjoy the foot chess game of uneven trail running – so much so that I haven’t run a road race in nearly two years now because I just don’t like the idea of getting off trails to do a tarmac training block.
With all of the “stuff” that now goes with trail running – multiple different sizes and styles of running packs, lightweight jackets, different brands of hiking poles, compression gear, gels, drink powders, waist belts, and even running vests for your dog (these are pretty cool actually) – it’s easy to feel baffled. So hopefully there’s some information here that will help with one of your more important gear questions – which shoes?
The “which shoes?” question has some complexity. A shoe that sounds awesome but that doesn’t fit your foot properly or work well with your own style of running is not going to be a good choice. A shoe that might feel brilliant to you over a particular distance might be too cushioned or not cushioned enough over a different distance or different surface.
Ultimately, the more you run on trail and try different things, the more you will probably find not just the shoe that works well for you, but that a mix of shoes is really what works well. Doing technical runs with agile shoes that grip well will protect the more all-terrain or even road shoes that you use for longer smoother runs, and you’ll enjoy the various surfaces more with more appropriate equipment too.
The shoes that you use in your lunchbreak (remember those – from 3 weeks ago when we could all go to our own offices and workplaces) to run short flights of stairs in the city might be fine for half an hour, but what about when you’re doing flights of uneven stairs in the mountains that take half an hour per single rep?
This table is meant to help as a guide.
||Runners wanting low profile, lightweight, and more ground feel. A great fast shoe.Popular with HOCKEY players too.Ideal for heavier runners up to marathon distance, or more efficient runners doing much longer distances.||Generous volume, natural shape on foot. Upper (fabric that goes over and around the foot) very forgiving.||Drains super fast. Balances protection & responsiveness beautifully.Extremely breathable. Sticky grippy outsole.Very popular first ever HOKA for a lot of trailrunners.||If it’s all about the cushion and you don’t want to feel a thing, pick another model. These feel racy.|
|CHALLENGER ATR 5 now available in Gore-Tex, ideal for long hikes and cooler climates.||Runners who mostly use light road shoes (like Clifton 6) on-road and want a similar ride but with off-road traction.Also ideal for runners who want one shoe that handles road and trail smoothly.||Standard volume and shape. Less volume and give than Torrent. WIDE very popular.||WIDE available.Reliable cushioning for long descents without feeling spongey.Robust all-terrain outsole ideal on access roads and fire trails. Drains quickly.||Technical trail purists might prefer a dedicated stickier trail outsole, as in Torrent or Speedgoat.|
|SPEEDGOAT 4(now also available in Gore-Tex, ideal for hiking and snowy or cooler climates.)||Runners hitting trail for a long time, wanting epic grip matched by epic cushion.||Relatively straight fit.Some shallowness through forefoot for technical hold. WIDE gives higher midfoot volume than Torrent.Deep heel cup.||A very smooth ride that takes a lot of impact.Sticky Vibram outsole great for slippery descents.Great traction on trail but multiple smaller lugs also means nice ride quality when running road sections.WIDE now available.EVO (Goat 3) available for gram counters and fast draining.||More outsole tread means slightly more weight.Standard upper takes about 1500 metres to really run the water out.|
|EVO MAFATE 2
||Runners who want unbeatable traction with a heap of protection, and dynamic pronation control, in an impossibly light package.||Standard volume, but stretchable fabric insert over toebox allows for extra volume.Deep heel cup.||EVO Matryx drains insanely fast and breathes fresh on hot days.Grippy Vibram outsole.Fastest drying highly cushioned ride ever.Possibly the world’s best long technical mountain racer.||Thicker midsole and deep teeth will feel chunky to some runners, but mostly these just feel impossibly protective for how light and structured they are.|
|STINSON ATR 5
(now also available as a Gore Tex mid height boot.)
|Runners with high volume mid-foot and forefoot wanting a truck tyre to crush the trail before them.||Generous forefoot splay.Really deep heel cup and full length cradle for feet shaped like South America.||Super tough monster of an all-terrain shoe.Huge toebox.The thickest midsole.Eats gravel and long runs for breakfast.Committed all-terrain running.For runners familiar with the Bondi, this is essentially an all-terrain Bondi.||Underperforms on technical single track. Slowest drainage in range.|