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Lately I’ve seen lots of social media posts from people asking what kind of shoe to get for OCR’s. Now before you go ape-shit trying to find the right shoe and end up buying an entire shoe store, consider whether you plan on doing more than one OCR. While your standard run-of-the-mill sneaker may get you by for you first event, it is truly no way to shred through a tough course without risk of a twisted or broken ankle. I can’t speak for everyone in this matter, but over the years, I have tried several approaches, from old running shoes to trail shoes, and this post is the result of my personal experience. Your mileage may vary.
Having not had the benefit of this post when I started, let me walk you briefly through my personal shoe-volution:
As I mentioned above, I have run events in everything from my old running shoes to basic trail shoes to top-shelf billy-badass mountain trail running shoes. (All of which, by the by, I have managed to pay less than $80 a pair for.) Like most people new to the OCR world, I ran my first mud-laden event in my old running shoes. They were Mizuno Wave Riders, and as you can see below, the tread on these is definitely geared for the road.
Not exactly my best choice, but at that time, I still didn’t know my butt from a hole in the ground about OCR. While I managed to get through the course without any injury, I did have a hell of a time slipping and sliding through the muddier parts. In fact, I nearly LOST one of my shoes in a mud pit midway through the event. Apparently not having learned my lesson, I wore these same shoes for my first Tough Mudder. Yeaaaaaahhhhhh…. Don’t do that. They were retired after that race.
For round 2, I tried to take a step up by going to a large sporting goods store and looking for a decent pair of trail shoes. Their staff was bloody useless in terms of product knowledge, but having done some online homework prior to this excursion, I managed to acquire a good basic pair of trail shoes, in spite of their bumbling. Those were the Asics Gel-Venture 3’s, and I liked them so much I bought two pairs.
I wore these through several OCRs AND the Death Race, with the eventual conclusion that these shoes have good traction for basic trails, and are good enough for a easy training run, a light ruck, or minor snowfall, but are still not the best choice for OCR’s. They simply are not well suited for complex terrain and gobs of tasty mud. I still own both pairs that I bought that day, and they are still intact… although they probably could be put out to pasture any time. I think I’m just holding on to them
for sentimental reasons because black and red shoes are manly and awesome.
Round 3! Having been in the OCR community for a couple of years at this point, I had the opportunity to do much consulting with trail runners and Death Racers, and there were two brands that seemed to be recommended time and time again. Inov-8 and Salomon. I’m cheap, so no way was I buying both of them. I discovered that our local outlet mall carried Salomon’s, and was sort of gravitating that way, so after much praise was heaped upon the Salomon Speedcross by one of my fellow OCR buddies during one event, I went and picked up a pair.
Look at the difference in the tread on these mofos. This is the key feature of any great trail shoe. I could go on and on about how much difference these shoes made during my next OCR, but I won’t. What I will tell you is that they are light, water resistant, clean up easily, and have one of the best quick lacing systems around. There are just a couple of minor cons: 1) The quick lacing system can get jammed up with mud (water and/or WD-40 can fix this easily). AND 2) This model was apparently too narrow for my foot, which was my own damn fault for not heeding my own advice listed below (DOH!!!!). Learn from Uncle Ian, kids.
This brings me to my current favorite shoe, which solved the issue with the narrow toe-box: the Salomon Fellraiser. This shoe is known for its wider toe-box, and more aggressive lug / tread style. I have yet to find anything that I don’t like about them. (Other than they don’t match the colors of my CornFed jersey, but when you’re covered in mud, everything is brown anyway.)
(I have yet to try Inov-8 Talons, the Reebok Terrain or a new shoe I have recently heard about called the Icebug Acceleritas. But if you have experience with any of these, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!)
So how can you save yourself years of terrible / mediocre / less-than-optimal shoe performance?
For starters, get fitted for shoes and don’t always just buy what your BFF is wearing. For gods’ sake man, do your homework and be an individual. Start by going to a specialty running store and have them analyze your foot size, width, arch type, pronation, gait, stride etc. When you’re being fitted, try on several pairs and different brands and ask questions. If the store has a knowledgeable staff, you will be able to get the info you need to decide what kind of shoes to get. While most of these stores will have lots of shiny running shoes, and usually some basic trail shoes, not all of them will carry what you need for OCRs, but the fitting itself is incredibly important.
Second, talk to your fellow obstacle course racers! Man, is there anything we love more than rehashing our races, the good, the bad, and the ugly? No way! Get a few people together in the beer tent and they’ll tell you more than you ever wanted to know about their shoes. What works for them may or may not work for you, but if you pay attention, you’ll get lots of clues. For example, I mentioned that my favorite Salomons have a wide toe box. Obviously that’s not great if the ball of your foot and toes are narrow, so you could rule that out. Knowing what NOT to buy is super-valuable as well – hello saved dollars.
So what DO you need in an OCR shoe? You need a shoe that is:
- Resilient, with plenty of flexibility. Your foot will be moving in lots of different planes.
- Water resistant, or more to the point, that drains water / mud easily.
- Cleans up easily. Once you’ve spent the money on a good pair of shoes, you’ll want to get as many races as possible out of them. That means you’ll want to be able to take the hose to them, and get them mostly clean without having to do a lot of detail work.
- Most of all they need some serious traction, so be sure you are looking at shoes with some serious tread or lugs… think monster truck tires.
As I learned from my first pair of Salomons, you also need to focus on how they fit. Are they comfortable as soon as you put them on? How does the arch support feel – too much / too hard / not supportive enough / just right? Is there any tightness in heel or toe-box? Any discomfort you feel when you put the shoes on will only be magnified once you start running. The last thing you want once the smoke grenade is dropped and the Kraken is unleashed is a floppy shoe or a blister at mile 1. When you get them home, run a mile or two on a treadmill over varying incline. If they’re in any way sub-fabulous, box ’em up and take ’em back. (But air them out first – don’t be a douche.)
Whether you’re looking for your first “real” pair of OCR shoes, or trying to make your next upgrade worthwhile, I hope all of this is helpful in your next shoe selection! What shoes have you tried? What did you love / hate? Have you found your perfect shoe? We’d love to hear about it!