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When it comes to fast trail racing and training, you want a shoe that strikes a balance between being nimble and durable, and between cushioned enough to be comfortable but light enough to let you fly.
This guide shares the best lightweight trail racing shoes that weigh nine ounces or less. Because the shoes here are very light and generally narrow and with low-volume midsoles, many are not well suited for ultramarathon distances, but are perfect for zooming up, down, and across everything from buttery singletrack to buttressed mountains.
To skip right to a specific shoe, click their links below. You can learn a bit more about how to choose the right trail racing shoes for you by jumping down to our how-to-choose section.
We also answer the most frequently asked questions about trail racing shoes below, and we describe our testing methodology for this guide.
For a look at more generalist trail shoes, check out our best trail running shoes guide.
Though the Arc’teryx Norvan SL 2 seems minimalist, the shoe is capable of tackling many types of terrain. Weighing in at an actual weight of only six ounces (170 grams), the shoe is 20 grams lighter than the original version. However, it retains a chunky midsole and has ample 3.5-millimeter lugs. If you’re familiar with the Salomon S/Lab line, then you’ll find the Arc’teryx Norvan SL 2 fits like S/Lab shoes, thanks to the similarly slim and snug profile.
There is no rock plate and ground feel is great; to be honest, the shoe is so peppy that I didn’t feel a rock plate was necessary. You can point your feet and pick up your legs quickly, and landing feels very precise. That said, my trails don’t beg for a rock plate since they’re either buffed out or slabby. You might want to consider the specifics of your own trails before investing in these, as other people have noted the ground feel is harsh for them.
The Vibram Megagrip outsole is very sticky and I love the lug depth. The grip and overall light weight of these shoes make them perfect for fast downhills. It’s a joy to move nimbly and quickly when you might otherwise step on the brakes. The toe cap works well enough to prevent stubbing, but the shoes just beg to be lifted, so I don’t find any issue with robustness or lack thereof.
The outsole is 30% lighter than the original. Because of the Arc’teryx mountain sports heritage, it’s not the first brand you might think of when it comes to ultralight racing shoes, but the Norvan SL 2 simply feels fast on your feet.
Full Arc’teryx Norvan SL 2 Review
- Actual Weight (U.S. men’s 9): 6 ounces (170 grams)
- Drop: 7 millimeters
- Pros: Great traction and enough cushion to fly uphill and downhill
- Cons: Some runners might find too little cushion and protection
As professional hiker Andrew Skurka likes to say, “There’s light, and then there’s stupid light.” The Salomon S/Lab Pulsar is just a couple of grams away from stupid light. At an actual weight of just over six ounces, it floats in your hands out of the box, and except for the snugness, is virtually unnoticeable on your feet.
Though I find the shoe quite hard to get on my feet, sort of like a ski boot or climbing shoe, when I finally get them on, they are incredibly secure and the fit is perfect. Adding a pull tab for the heel collar would be really appreciated, but … weight! The Salomon Quicklace System is almost unnecessary because the upper is so snug.
The shoe has Salomon’s lightest ever midsole and a propulsive ride, the rocker style almost forcing you onto your toes even at a standstill. The Energy Surge EVA feels plush, which is something you can’t say about a lot of other Salomon trail shoes. The Matryx Mesh upper is soft and strong, and is not showing signs of wearing through or pilling.
Though Salomon touts breathability in their shoes, I found the Pulsar to be very sock-like; it doesn’t let air through because of how tight the shoes are. I wear these with and without socks. There is no removable insole, which adds to the sock-like fit. Whether this shoe suggests the future of Salomon or is just a very impressive specialty shoe, the brand has created an incredible option for racing.
The only downside I find to this shoe is related to my local trail conditions: this shoe doesn’t have the best grip on dry and dusty trails. I suspect traction is much improved on slightly damper or loamy surfaces. The lugs are only 2.5 millimeters deep and are made of Salomon’s Contagrip technology.
Full Salomon S/Lab Pulsar Review
- Actual Weight (U.S. men’s 9): 6.17 ounces (175g)
- Drop: 6mm
- Pros: Incredibly precise fit; superlight; plush cushioning
- Cons: Traction on dusty trail surfaces is weak
- Other S/Lab Pulsar Versions: Black Limited Edition
The key word with the Skechers GoRun Razor Trail is Hyper Burst. If you’ve never run in a Skechers shoe with this amazing midsole technology, you need to try it. Combined with a lightweight and springy ride, this shoe just propels you forward with very little effort.
While this is a great shoe for buffed-out trails, it is not the one to choose for technical descents. The Goodyear outsole grip is fantastic, but because of the significant stack height, the shoe can feel unstable on uneven surfaces. The upper is surprisingly robust, considering the lightweight race orientation of these shoes.
The ripstop mesh upper breathes well and hasn’t shown serious signs of wear. Since the GORun Razor Trail is about two ounces lighter than the average trail shoe, you will want to ensure this is a race day shoe or something you just use for fast training runs on trail or road, since it’s a little less durable than average.
- Actual Weight (U.S. men’s 9): 8.4 ounces (249g)
- Drop: 4mm
- Pros: The bouncy cushioning and rocker midsole are fun; the grippy outsole is very effective
- Cons: Very narrow toebox; it’s not for technical downhill running
Asics might be a surprising brand in a list of the best trail racing shoes, but don’t hold their lack of trail presence against them. The Asics Fuji Lite 2 excels in some areas that others in this guide don’t. This comes into play on variable surfaces: it transitions well from buffed-out trail to super technical descents where foot placement and ground feel are important.
The toebox is perhaps the roomiest in this guide, making it comfortable over longer distances. The exceptionally comfortable heel cup and minimal heel-to-toe drop make the Fuji Lite 2 very nimble.
Asics has added a lace garage to this model, but it’s a little clunky with too much fabric, making the tongue a bit poofy. The FlyteFoam midsole is downright comfy, especially for a lightweight, race-oriented shoe.
Lastly, taking inspiration from the damp and loamy surfaces of Japan where Asics was founded, the shoe still performs excellently on the dry and dusty surfaces of Colorado where I live. The Asics Fuji Lite 2, with great underfoot protection and an inviting cost, is a shoe perfect for races and everyday trail runs alike.
- Actual Weight (U.S. men’s 9): 9.1 ounces (259g)
- Drop: 4mm
- Pros: Incredibly precise fit, light, plush cushioning; reasonable cost
- Cons: Chunky lace storage and shoelaces don’t match the sleek package
The design of the new Hoka Zinal is a drastic U-turn from the brand known for the most exaggerated cushioning in the game. Though ultrarunning dominates the trail running narrative, Hoka took inspiration from the sometimes overlooked short-course style of trail running for the Zinal; the shoe itself is named for the 30-kilometer Sierre-Zinal in Switzerland, an iconic European trail race.
Hoka’s popular Torrent line gives some context for the Zinal: a roomy toebox, a locked-down heel cup, a moderately firm midsole, and a Vibram Megagrip Litebase outsole which works great, even on dry trails. With a shorter stack height, you can bomb down tricky descents without Hoka’s sometimes clumsy footwork.
Like other shoes in this guide, the Zinal certainly errs on the narrow side. There isn’t a lot of wiggle room for your toes and forefoot in general. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, just a word of warning. However, the narrow nature of the shoe adds to the racing style: the overall package is built for speed first.
Hoka intended for the mesh upper with its gusseted tongue to keep rocks out but I found it too streamlined and not very effective. Rocks and dirt still make their way into the shoe and on top of that, the lacing system offers two options: tight or super tight. I would have preferred a more novel design to help this very narrow shoe accommodate a wider foot shape.
Full Hoka Zinal Review
- Actual Weight (U.S. men’s 9): 8.6 ounces (244g)
- Drop: 5mm
- Pros: Great traction in all conditions; soft midsole makes it very runnable for race days
- Cons: Upper lacks sophistication; a better lacing system would help with overall fit and control; significant midsole exposure on bottom of shoe creates durability issues for use on rocky terrain
The Scott Kinabalu RC 2.0 is the only shoe in this guide where the manufacturer suggests limiting race distances to a marathon. After a lot of testing, I very much agree. The Kinabalu RC 2.0 has the least amount of drop in this guide, and feels more like a racing flat with lugs attached.
Just like the ultramarathon-oriented sister shoe, the Scott Supertrac Ultra RC, the upper stands out, giving a lock-tight fit for descents and for making quick work of technical sections of trail.
The rocker midsole is made for a race course. Scott’s eRIDE technology is at the heart of this propulsion. I find this rewarding for my heel-strike-oriented gait, as it gives me a kick on flat-to-rolling trails. The lug pattern is called Hybrid Traction, with conical cleats which are meant to deliver what Scott calls “straight-line power transfer.”
The midsole also has a very effective rock plate located in the forefoot only. I love this shoe, but be warned: it can create problems for your skeleton if you push the distance, especially if you are a big person with heel striking form like myself. For reference, I’m six feet, four inches tall, and I weigh 180 pounds.
- Actual Weight (U.S. men’s 9): 8.8 ounces (249g)
- Drop: 3mm
- Pros: Rocker propulsion makes flat running feel quick; rock plate helps smooth out the ride on fast descents
- Cons: Lacks excellent breathability; lug pattern can be squirrelly
Anatomy of the Trail Shoe
While we tried to be nontechnical and avoid jargon in describing the shoes above, there are some terms common to the trail running world that those new to it might not know.
- Heel-to-Toe Drop (or just Drop): Heel-to-toe drop refers to the difference in height from the heel to the toe of a shoe. Currently, heel-to-toe drop in trail shoes varies from none to 12 millimeters. Some runners prefer the natural movement of no drop, while the same can irritate the lower legs of runners used to traditional running shoes with drops of 8 to 12mm. Plenty of trail shoe models offer moderate drops of 4 to 8mm.
- Lugs: Lugs refer to the protrusions of material on the bottom of an outsole (see below). While road running shoes often have minimal lugs, trail shoes generally have lugs that are 3 to 6mm deep. Some trail shoes designed specifically for muddy conditions can have lugs as deep as 8mm!
- Midsole: This is the spongy component between an outsole (see below) and your foot. These days, midsoles are made from a wide variety of “foams” and range from minimal thickness to nearly 3 centimeters of material.
- Outsole: This is the bottommost layer of a shoe that contacts the ground. It’s generally made of a rubber or rubber-like compound.
- Rock Plate: The rock plate is a layer of deformation-resistant material, whether a plastic sheet, carbon plate, or other, that sits somewhere between the outsole and the sock liner. The rock plate’s purpose is to prevent injury to the bottom of the foot as rocks or roots push through the shoe from below. Rock plates vary in length from the full length of a shoe to the forefoot only.
- Toebox: The toebox is the forward cavity of a shoe where your toes go. Toeboxes tend to be narrower in trail shoes aimed at faster or more technical running, while many runners prefer roomier toeboxes as the length of their runs increases to multiple hours.
Buying Advice: How to Choose a Trail Racing Shoe
How low should you go with the weight of your trail racing shoe? All of the shoes in this guide are nine ounces or less, but their degrees of “lightness” vary greatly. If the average ultrarunning shoe is around 10 ounces, then the six-ounce Salomon S/Lab Pulsar will feel like an entirely different class of shoe.
While all the shoes in this guide are very light, they have different enough characteristics where you might opt for a slightly heavier shoe because of preferences for the midsole or outsole, or you might opt for the very lightest option because that’s what’s most important to you.
A weight limit is a good benchmark when selecting a lightweight trail racing shoe, but there there are many more elements to consider, and we chose a good cross-section of shoes with multiple options and features, in addition to being light.
Are any of these shoes actually comfortable? Unfortunately, none of the shoes in this guide are going to win a “most comfortable” competition if you compare them to shoes made for going super long, in ultramarathons or all-day adventure runs.
Most of these shoes are narrow, and wide-footed runners or those with bunions may question which was least uncomfortable, rather than choosing something particularly enjoyable to wear. The shoes here aren’t minimalist in the vein of barefoot trail shoes, and many are actually very neutral in terms of gait, but all are generally narrow and tough on runners with wide feet as well as feet that are prone to swelling during a long run.
This is more an issue regarding the upper and shape of these shoes rather than the midsole feel, the latter of which is fairly outstanding in all the shoes in this guide.
While durability for short trail races and quick training isn’t as important as for, say, a 100-mile race, it is still something to consider. All of the shoes tested proved to be nearly as durable as their heavier counterparts.
The real innovation here is that so many brands were able to merge cushy midsoles into such an overall lightweight shoe. It could be my body type — I am six feet, four inches tall and weigh 180 pounds — but I generally note that the midsole is the first component of my shoes to decline. To my delight, the shoes in this guide maintained the midsole ride as much as heavier shoes I’ve tested.
In general, upper durability is not as important as the midsole and outsole, but still a factor. The uppers of these shoes are excellent, with the exception of the Hoka Zinal. The same issue I’ve had for years with Hoka’s uppers across a variety of shoes was noticeable here again; for all of the performance the Zinal offers, it still, unfortunately, suffers from a poorly constructed upper.
Outsole and Midsole Characteristics
The type of trail race you’re running or the type of terrain you train on will likely influence the type of outsole and midsole you need the most.
Each outsole in this guide is fairly low profile. In certain cases, like in the Sketchers GoRun Razor Trail, the midsole stack height is too extreme to move with stability over technical terrain. The Arc’teryx Norvan SL 2 has the biggest and most spaced-out lug pattern and is excellent for descending on all terrain, but the very light EVA midsole may leave you hurting after a 1,000-foot descent.
The solution in choosing a shoe is to match outsole and midsole characteristics to the course you’re running is to pay attention to the midsole density, midsole stack height, lug pattern, and type of outsole rubber compound.
The Scott Kinabalu RC 2.0 for instance, has the most interesting lug pattern of all shoes in this guide: the entire middle section is lug-free, and despite that, it is one of the best descenders here.
Why You Should Trust Us
Don’t worry, despite creating this guide for trail racing shoes that are more appropriate for sub-ultramarathon-distance racing, we haven’t changed our name to iRunShort! Even if we are named iRunFar, we have years of experience on trails and in races of every distance.
Many runners can and will push these shoes beyond a marathon or 50-kilometer distance, but we wanted to test shoes that would be most inviting for short and steep trail running and mountain running. This is like the difference between wearing a pair of road shoes versus spikes at a track workout — different tools for different running.
We zeroed in on lightweight shoes that are more well-rounded for all kinds of trail running, instead of some shoes made traditionally just for running in mud or fell running; we left these out mostly because they are a category unto themselves.
To create this guide, we researched hundreds of shoes in the trail running space, narrowed down our potential shoes to those weighing nine ounces or less, and took a couple of dozen shoes into the field. We tested these shoes exclusively in Boulder, Colorado, on the classic ascents and descents of Mount Sanitas, Green and Bear Peaks, and across the rolling trails that connect them over the course of all four seasons in the calendar year.
Frequently Asked Questions About Trail Racing Shoes
What kinds of races can you run in these shoes?
The shoes in this guide are best for shorter trail races, such as vertical kilometer races, half marathons, marathons, 50-kilometer races, and most skyrunning style races. These types of races are more prevalent in Europe and elsewhere outside the United States, but I did my best to replicate these race distances and styles on my local trails, trying to attain some new PRs on classic climbs around Boulder, Colorado, where I live.
For some of these shoes, a relative lack of comfort and cushion limits them to very particular course lengths and types of terrain. Know your shoe’s characteristics and the race course terrain, and choose accordingly.
Should we use these shoes only on race day?
No! For those of us whose daily run doesn’t often exceed 10 miles, you should and can run in these shoes all the time. Even if you are not a frequent racer, consider the shoes in this guide to be perfect for daily training runs, and for when you might prefer faster feeling shoes and a more streamlined design.
On the other hand, if you frequently run longer, then you should consider other shoes from ultrarunnning stalwart brands like Hoka, Altra, and others. If you’re looking for more information on trail running shoes that are not race-oriented, check out our Best Trail Running Shoes guide.
Does a lightweight shoe mean it is considered to be a minimalist shoe?
Some of the shoes in this guide are almost 50% lighter than normal trail running shoes. Does that make them minimalist? Not at all. These lightweight racing shoes are indeed light, but that’s where the minimalist comparisons end. These shoes are cushioned, grippy, durable, and robust.
Where to Buy Trail Racing Shoes
If you’re in the market for some trail racing shoes and you have the chance, swing by your local running store to see if they can set you up with a pair. Not only will they have the knowledge to match a pair to your needs and the skill to properly size the shoes, the store’s selection should also be well-suited for local trails.
Many local outdoor stores also carry a selection of trail running shoes (as they often double as great hiking shoes) that would, once again, be suited for the local environment.
If you know what you’re looking for, online outdoor retailers like REI and Backcountry carry a huge selection of trail racing shoes from a multitude of manufacturers. These days, you’re likely to find just as many or more trail shoes on Amazon, with free two-day shipping if you’re a Prime member.
If you’ve still not found a trail shoe that strikes your fancy, you could keep poking around Road Runner Sports, Running Warehouse, and even smaller specialty sites like Skyrun until you find your match.
Call for Comments
- Are any of these lightweight shoes your favorite for racing? Let us know your favorites!
- Do you wear different styles or types of shoes for racing versus daily training?