Obstacle Course Training | The Ultimate OCR Shoe Guide: Which OCR Shoe Should I Choose?
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The Ultimate OCR Shoe Guide: Which OCR Shoe Should I Choose?

How to Choose Your WEAPON

Jon Albon wearing Inov-8 OCR Shoes

Welcome to the Ultimate Mother-of-all OCR shoe selection guides!

Before delving into this soon-to-be instant classic, we need to be clear about what this guide isn't. It isn't a comprehensive shoe review, detailing the specs and pros and cons of a couple of dozen brands and models of shoes. That will come later. It isn't a guide that will tell you that the perfect shoe for you is Brand X, Model Y. While we would love nothing more than to be able to tell each of you exactly which shoe will be the best for your Obstacle Course Racing and training, we can’t: there are simply too many unknown variables that make each of your personal shoe requirements unique.

What we can do is tell you what to look for and what things to take into consideration to help you make the best choice for yourself. Think of it as being taught how to fish, rather than just being handed one dead halibut.

The only rule set in stone is to never compromise fit: not for grip, nor drainage, nor brand, nor discount code, nor even pretty colours. Got it? Good.

Form Follows Function

Before anything, ask yourself “What is this shoe for?” Will this be a dedicated race-only shoe, or will you be doing both training and racing in them? If it is mainly for racing, then you can go with a shoe that is a little lighter compared to a shoe that you’ll be using for both training and racing.

Another factor is the typical length of the races that you plan to do. You can generally get away with a lighter shoe for 5km-10km sprints compared to what most of you would want for a 42km Ultra Beast. Most people’s feet and legs can tolerate a bit of extra pounding for 1 hour or so. Once you start going longer than that, things like cushioning and support begin to take precedence over weight and bulk.

Choose your Chassis

The first thing you need to select is the heel-toe drop. Ask yourself the following question: do you want or need a traditional shoe architecture with about a 12mm to 14mm drop from heel to toe, a zero-drop shoe which is completely flat, or the increasingly popular “something in between”? Don’t worry if you’re unsure…

Heel-toe drop

Here are some things to consider when deciding on the heel-toe drop:

  1. If you have trouble with ankle stability, then a lower heel or zero-drop will place your ankle in an anatomically more stable position.
  2. If you have had any Achilles tendon or calf issues, then be very careful selecting a lower drop, as it will place these structures into a more stretched position during your runs. Pick at least 8mm or higher.

If you're super lucky and have both issues described above, then a good compromise is to try something with a slightly lower drop (4mm to 8mm) and see how that feels.

Are there any reasons to try to transition either up or down? In terms of going up in drop, the only benefits are injury management and potentially a wider selection of shoe brands and models. As for going down in drop, the biggest advantage in addition to increased ankle stability is that the shoes tend to be lighter. If you have no compelling reason to change from what you have been using, then the safest bet is to stick with what has been working for you.

WARNING!! Trying to transition from years of running in traditional shoes straight to zero-drop is almost certainly a bad idea. It needs to be a controlled progression, just like the rest of your training.

Fit, Fit, Fit

The second thing you want to nail down is proper fit. Yes, size matters, but there is so much more to it than just getting the right shoe size, which is really just a semi-accurate measurement of the length of the shoe, and which varies randomly by country. It’s by far the most commonly used and known shoe fitting criterion, yet it is also the most confusingly inconsistent one.

TIP: When trying on shoes, wear the socks you would normally train/race in.

Length

When people talk about “shoe size”, what they are referring to is the length of the shoe. One would think they would use actual units of measurement such as centimeters or even inches. One would be mostly wrong. Instead of reinventing the wheel, please allow me to quote Wikipedia.

“Sizing systems also differ in what units of measurement they use. This also results in different increments between shoe sizes because usually, only "full" or "half" sizes are made.

The following length units are commonly used today to define shoe-size systems:

The Paris point equates to 2⁄3 centimetre (6.6 mm or ~0.26 in). This means an increment of 2⁄3 centimetre (1⁄4 inch) between whole sizes, and 1⁄3 centimetre (1⁄8 inch) between half sizes. This unit is commonly used in Continental Europe.

The barleycorn is an old English unit that equates to 1⁄3 inch (8.46 mm). Half sizes are commonly made, resulting in an increment of 1⁄6 inch (4.23 mm). This measure is the basis for current U.K. and U.S. shoe sizes, with the largest shoe size taken as twelve inches (a size 12) and then counting backwards in barleycorn units.

Further, metric measurements in centimetres (cm) or millimetres (mm) are used. The increment is usually 0.5 cm (5 mm or ~0.20 in), which is between the step size of the Parisian and the English system. It is used with the international Mondopoint system and with the Asian system.

Due to the different units of measurements, converting between different sizing systems results in rounding errors as well as unusual sizes such as 10 2⁄3.”

There you have in a nutshell the mostly senseless histories of shoe length sizing. To further muddle things up, different countries have adopted different systems...

Clear as mud.

Width

The only other sizing measurement commonly used is called width, although once again, things are not as they seem. As it turns out, what the shoe industry calls “width” is not a 1-dimensional linear measurement, but actually a 3-dimensional measurement of girth taken at the ball of the foot. That being the case, what’s up with the ubiquitous Brannock Device that they use to size you in most shoe stores? It’s simply giving a linear measurement of your feet and trying to correlate that to the 3-dimensional volume of the toe box.

The practical take-away from this is that like size (which is really length), width (which is really toe-box volume) is an estimate to be used as a starting point for trying on shoes. Do not get too attached to the fact that you are a “size 9 EE”, because that will vary significantly from brand to brand and even from model to model or year to year of the same model. This is why some athletes, if they find a shoe that they really love, will buy a half dozen pairs. They know that the odds of them ever finding that same shoe in a year or two are slim to none. Oh, and once again the units of measure are arbitrary and vary by country, just like with size. At least the inconsistency is consistent. To Wikipedia we go:

"There are different methods indicating the width:

The measured width is indicated in millimetres (mm). This is done with the Mondopoint system.

The measured width is assigned a letter (or letters), which is taken from a table (indexed to length and width) or just assigned on an ad-hoc basis. Examples include (from narrow to wide):

A, B, C, D, E, EE, EEE, EEEE, F, G (typical North American system; medium being D)*

4A, 3A, 2A, A, B, C, D, E, 2E, 3E, 4E, 5E, 6E (variant North American)

C, D, E, F, G, H (common UK; "medium" is usually F, but varies by manufacturer).

N (narrow), M (medium) or R (regular), W (wide)

The width for which these sizes are suitable can vary significantly between manufacturers. The A-E width indicators used by most American, Canadian, and some British shoe manufacturers are typically based on the width of the foot, and common step sizes are 3⁄16 inch.”

* D is the medium width for men's shoes, while B is the women's medium.
Yet more muddiness. Which, if you think about it, is fitting for OCR.

Shape

Probably the #1 factor in determining the comfort and fit of a shoe is something called the “last”, so of course almost nobody has ever heard of it. The last is about the shape of the shoe, and can make or break shoe fit even if you have size and width dialed in. The trifecta (see what I did there?) of correct size, width, and last will not only be the most comfortable, but will also allow your foot to absorb the running impacts dynamically.

Most shoes tend to be narrow in the toe box and curved as well. This works for some people, but definitely not for others. Putting the foot on the left into the last on the right (diagram below) is a common scenario resulting in the outside of your forefoot hanging off the midsole and being compressed by the upper.

Here's a handy tool to help you out. Take off your shoes and stand on one leg on a piece of cardboard. Get someone to trace the outline of your fully loaded foot. Cut this out and you now have the actual size and shape of your foot. You can pull insoles out of shoes and compare them to your foot to get a quick idea of if it's going to be a fit. Likely nothing will be perfect unless you get a custom-built shoe, but the closer you can get the better off you'll be.

Once you have these three things sorted (function, platform, fit), then you can look at things like grip, weight, and drainage, all of which are important for obstacle course training and racing.

NOTE: We know that for some of you, finding a near-perfect fit can be very difficult, so watch for an upcoming article about what you can do to customize the fit of your shoes.

After Fit, go for Grip

While a generic trail shoe will do a passable job in the sport of OCR, you can certainly do better if you hone in on the shoes with the best grip. Obstacle courses are different from trail running in two important respects, both of which challenge the grippy-ness of your footwear:

  1. While you may encounter wet and muddy footing in trail runs/races, you are virtually GUARANTEED to be almost immediately slogging through water and mud in any self-respecting OCR.
  2. Trails will have some hard or smooth surfaces here and there in the shape of rocks, logs, and roots. You can avoid or minimize these depending on the trail. However, with OCR, in addition to those natural obstacles, you WILL have extensive smooth, hard, wet, and muddy surfaces which you cannot avoid: balance beams, logs, walls, tip of the spear, and the like.

The first challenge – water and mud – is countered by the tread on the outsole of the shoe. You want to get deep, widely spaced directional lugs for the best grip in sloppy, muddy conditions. The depth and spacing of the lugs allows them to penetrate the layer of mud and, in theory, grab the more solid surface underneath. The wide spacing will also help the treads shed the mud so you're not carrying around an extra kilo on each foot inside the first couple of minutes.

Here are some deep, widely spaced directional lugs (Salomon Speedcross)

Here are some deep, widely spaced directional lugs (Salomon Speedcross)

If you think about it, there is no reason that the tread under the toes should be the same as the tread under the heel. In OCR you will be faced with some very steep and muddy climbs and descents, which is when directional lugs will help. While climbing, you will be pushing off with your toes, so the tread under the forefoot should be designed to grip the ground and allow you to push back against it. Conversely, when descending steep grades your initial contact will be with your heels. Therefore you want the tread here to grip the ground and prevent you from sliding forward.

The second challenge is addressed with the use of “sticky” materials in the construction of the outsole. You can have the most aggressive, deep, directional tread in the world, but if it's made out of hard, smooth plastic it will be useless on rocks, logs, and walls. However, it's not as simple as putting on the softest and gummiest rubber compound you can concoct, because it won't last more than a race or two. The tricky bit is to get a material that hits the sweet spot between durability and stickiness. If you watch Formula 1 racing at all, you know that tire manufacturers spend millions on trying to get that balance right.

This Formula 1 tire shows the challenge of getting grip with durability

This Formula 1 tire shows the challenge of getting grip with durability

Currently, the consensus out there seems to be that IceBug's RB9X material is the one to beat in terms of stickiness combined with durability. That having been said, it's not like other brands are hopelessly slippery: quite the contrary. Most seriously aggressive trail shoes, fell runners, and purpose-designed OCR shoes all do quite well.

NOTE: Keep in mind that there are adaptations you can make to your running and obstacle techniques that can help maximise your grip. More on that later.

One final thing to check before you head out with your shiny new shoes…

Collar

Did you know that your “ankle bones” are not symmetrically aligned? The medial malleolus (inside ankle bone) is superior and anterior (above and in front of) the lateral malleolus (outside ankle bone). Go poke around down there if you don't believe me.

The part of the shoe that is supposed to accommodate this structural curve-ball is called the “collar”. If the collar does not match well with your ankle bones, then you’ll get one side or the other or both (jackpot!) rubbing and blistering and bleeding. Make sure you check that neither side of the collar is rubbing before taking the shoes out of the store.

While we are on the collar, it’s always a good idea to make sure that the back part of this - called the heel counter - isn’t pressing on your Achilles tendon. Some shoes will have a notch right at the back specifically for this.

ACCELERITAS4-RB9X

That wraps up version 1.0 of the Obstacle Course Training Shoe Selection Guide. We are aware that both the sport and the shoes are constantly changing, so keep an eye out for updates We also know that we cannot always get everything spot-on right first time around, so please let us know if you find errors or significant omissions. Finally, we welcome your feedback, so please comment to your hearts’ content.

To top things off in style, we now present our coaches’ shoe selections. Enjoy.

Here's What our Coaches Wear (and Why)

 

Jonathan Albon

I discovered VJ Irocks at the beginning of 2015. With these shoes on my feet I went on to win one of the biggest races of my life, Tromso Skyrace, defend my title by winning the OCR World Championships and remain undefeated in Toughest races – eventually winning the tour final. I am in no doubt that I owe these victories, in part, to the trainers I was wearing and here’s why:

Grip on soft ground: The cleats are big enough to supply the best imaginable grip in mud and marsh but are spaced apart enough to allow mud and rocks to be shed easily – so they don’t become clogged and heavy. Smaller cleats on the arch give grip for when stepping on for example a branch, tree or low wall – a feature missing in many purist fell running trainers.

The grip of these shoes has never let me down. From the thick soft clay of southern England to the soft marshes of Norwegian mountain running, I have always had the grip to enable me to push harder.

Grip on wet rock: This is where these trainers come into their own. The butyl rubber gives unheard of grip on wet rock. It’s hard to describe the difference in grip, and therefore confidence, these trainers provide on rocky surfaces. All other trainers I have tried don’t compare, even the classic inov8 x-talon 212. You would think this added grip is a product of a softer rubber which wears down faster but I have found this to be the opposite – the butyl rubber lugs outlast many of the other brands of trainers I have tried.

Whilst competing in Tromso Skyrace there was an incredible amount of running on wet boulders and rocky mountainside. The grip of the VJs gave me the ability me to outrun my competition, including the Ultra Skyracing World Champion, to take the win over the 44km course with 4400m of elevation gain.

Durability: VJ are interested in one thing and one thing only – making quality trainers and they haven’t followed the path of many other companies that sacrifice quality for profits. VJ only use the best materials and construction methods to make their trainers last the longest and perform the best. This is shown best in the upper material used, Schoeller®-Keprotec®, that actually has Kevlar fibres woven in, a costly material used in motor biking safety clothes which ensures this mesh will never tear.

During the entire 2015 season whilst running over 3500km I have only used 4 pairs of Irocks!

Comfort & Support: The Irock, although narrow (making it responsive), is completely ergonomically shaped which makes it comfortable from the first use. This trainer also boasts the Fitlock system, a thickened rubber section that protects the inside of your foot and wraps up when the shoe is laced providing extra support and protection.

I recently took part in World’s Toughest Mudder, a 24 hour obstacle race held in the desert surrounding Las Vegas. The Irocks, which I used throughout, were more than comfortable enough to take me over 135km and on to win the team category.

Drainage: The Irocks have adequate drainage and use materials that don’t soak up water – this means they mostly remain the same weight (around 240g each) even used in the wettest conditions like wading or swimming.

Ryan Atkins

Probably Ice Bugs...big shoe review coming from Ryan soon.

Matt Murphy

I use the Inov 190 for shorter races, below 1 hour 30, due to the fact that it is a very light shoe. It’s also very grippy on most surfaces, and fits my foot very well. I have a narrow foot and the 190 is awesome for this. The rubber compound is good on 90 % of surfaces so I have a lot of bases covered.

If the race is over 1 hour 30 min, I go for the Inov8 212 due to there being a little bit more meat to the shoe. Otherwise: all of the above benefits of the 190 also apply to the 212. If the race has A LOT of rocks I’d look at something more specific to rock like a VJ sport iRock. Jon's favourite shoe.

[translator] Umm...more meat? Do you mean it has a more substantial midsole, a bit more cushioning between your feet and the ground? [end translator]

Yes that’s it. Just when going longer in the 190s my feet cop a pounding, that’s why the 212 for longer durations. I feel good in the 190s up to about 3 hours if it’s a soft trail. However, when there is a bit of hard pack or rock, then the feet are a little beat up after 1 hour 30 or so.

Tags:
Peter Dobos
peter@obstaclecourse.training

Peter is the Community Manager at ObstacleCourse.Training and brings a unique blend of writing, sport science, and 16 years of "extreme" racing to the table.

9 Comments
  • Jeff Cole
    Posted at 18:48h, 11 January Reply

    I've always found it difficult to find the "right" shoes for OCR. After 3 years of using Reebok I'm switching to Merrell for the upcoming race season. I did some research and came to the conclusion that Merrell would be the best "fit" for me. This article is a nice outline that would have helped in my research. If you don't have the right shoes it will make the race even harder.

    • Peter Dobos
      Posted at 00:39h, 12 January Reply

      OCR races can be tough enough as is, Jeff. You're absolutely right that having the correct shoes will make your life a bit easier. Glad you found this helpful, and hope the Merrells do the trick for you.

  • Ben Ruane
    Posted at 23:05h, 11 January Reply

    Absolutely awesome article!

  • Niklas jens
    Posted at 13:48h, 13 May Reply

    Sounds like it's the vj rocks I should go for! Just did a ocr race with the 212, I liked them except when they got wet and the grip on wet wood where like ice.. Will the VJs do this better?

  • Brad Kauffman
    Posted at 18:40h, 13 May Reply

    After having made the decision to begin training for my first OCR (deliberation should be my surname) I'm trying to figure out where to start with shoes. As a 40 something one-upon-a-time athlete working my way back into running/cardiovascular shape, do I just look for a good running shoe that "fits"? Or should I be looking for a shoe more along the lines of an minimalist ocr shoe with minimal cushion and support? I have the sense that my calves especially are not ready for the traditional ocr shoe, but neither do I want to train, running especially, with shoes that will make it difficult to transition to ocr/racing shoes at some point. Maybe I'm making the decision too difficult and I should just get some well fitting shoes and start running more, but any feedback would be very helpful and much appreciated.

    Thanks for the great information above!

    • Peter Dobos
      Posted at 16:04h, 27 May Reply

      Hi Brad,

      If you find that your calves/achilles are not happy with low or zero drop shoes, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with a more traditional 10 to 12mm drop. You can always wear low or zero drop shoes as your casual walking around footwear and that's a more gentle introduction to the lower drops. Then if all goes well, you can look for a 6-8mm drop for your next pair of shoes and so on.
      Tread and cushioning will depend on where you will be doing your running: track, road, trails.

      Pete

  • Jaime reynoso
    Posted at 11:16h, 17 August Reply

    So I guess no one has used ice bugs or solomons? There's been a lot of talk about solomons. Just wondering.

    • Peter Dobos
      Posted at 20:41h, 17 August Reply

      I know both Ryan Atkins and Lindsay Webster use IceBugs...

  • Mike Bloom
    Posted at 02:43h, 22 August Reply

    I'm new to obstacle course racing and I found this article very helpful. My question is : Where do I find these shoes? I live in central Florida, close to Orlando. The major sports stores are here or online perhaps? Thanks.

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