Our Favorite Trail Running Shoes
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Inov-8 Race Ultra 290 Review
Inov-8 has a history of making excellent shoes for a certain subset of runners. For me, they’ve been too narrow, too thin, too low drop, too minimal on the cushioning. I like moderate-plus cushioning with a semi-firm ride, decent rock-plate protection, excellent traction, a Birkenstock-style shape, and a 10mm drop—just call me Miss Free-Toes Tenderfoot. My distinctly non-graceful, mincing style of descending on steep, technical trail coupled with my tendency to catch my toe also tips my preference towards a nice toe bumper and a secure midfoot. I should probably just design my own shoes.
After reading a bit on the new shoes coming out this summer after the Outdoor Retailer show last winter, my interest certainly was piqued with what I read on the new Inov-8 Race Ultra 290 ($130) with a women’s-specific fit. The shoe comes in around 9.3oz (women’s size 8), offers an 8mm drop, “optimal cushioning” for long distances, and a flatter yet well-lugged outsole that still facilitates good proprioception or ground feel (per Inov-8’s website). I was excited to try out the shoe as I’d love to find a solid option between my Salomon Speedcross and its outstanding traction but less than fabulous pointy rock protection and my Pearl Izumi M2’s which have a great ride for non-technical trail but tend to irritate my posterior chain after more than three hours at the lower drop.
The upper (synthetic/TPU) is a soft mesh that blends breathability with keeping the gunk out fairly well on dusty, dry trails. The reinforced toe bumper extends into a rand that wraps entirely around the shoe for enhanced protection from sideways incursions with rocks and brush. I found this extremely helpful on many runs. There’s no sign of any wear along the upper-midsole junctions and no visible snags or punctures in the mesh or rand despite my best attempts to create some via rocks and pointy shrubbery. Two attachment points for the Inov-8 gaiter lie flush in the rand on the lateral and medial aspects of the shoe which is handy if you have their gaiter. The tongue is padded without being thick and is gusseted three quarters of the way back which keeps debris out nicely yet creates no pressure ridges or uncomfortable areas around the top of the foot. The standard flat laces are lengthy but stay tied well with the typical double knot. Overlays extend from the rand up to the lacing holes creating more stability through the upper and theoretically the ability to cinch down the shoe through the midfoot. This is the one area I think could be improved.
The new Race Ultra shape is stated to be the most natural for the foot with increased room for toes to spread out. I agree in that it’s the most roomy toe box and midfoot I’ve ever experienced in an Inov-8 shoe. It’s so roomy, in fact, that my I-wear-Chaco’s-every-day foot has too much room, and I have yet to figure out how to cinch up the midfoot in such a way that it doesn’t feel sloppy on off-camber technical trails. This also contributes to a feeling of lack of control on rockier trails because my foot and shoe aren’t working together. The arch is of low-medium height which might also contribute to my feeling of increased movement inside the shoe. The length of the shoe is true to my normal size and the heel cup fits well in terms of depth and firm yet comfortable support. Two other aspects of the upper to note—I found the Achilles notch atop the heel cup very comfortable, and I appreciated the low-profile webbing loop attached to the back for hooking my shoes to a pack during door-trail carpooling.
The midsole of the Race Ultra 290 is a single density injected EVA with the Meta-Shank III (third generation) Trail-Roc shank which the website describes as a five-finger polymer that aligns with each metatarsal for increased benefit from the “Windlass Effect” while retaining underfoot impact protection and flexibility. From the functional perspective, I found it to offer a semi-firm ride and ample protection for most of the Colorado trails I took them on while not feeling too stiff or over-built. The shoe has excellent torsional stiffness for a neutral shoe without being too stable or decreasing my feel for the trail. Overall, I think they should be a very durable shoe for as light as they feel while running.
The outsole features the Tri-Endurance compound (Race Ultra Sole) which is made of a more durable version of the sticky rubber for which Inov-8 is known. The lower-profile lug pattern has forefoot lugs for improved climbing and reverse lugs for improved traction on descending. Three different colors (and densities) of materials are used on the bottom of the shoe. A red strip (most dense of the three colors) with Terradapter lugs is positioned at the heel to improve durability in the high-wear area for heel strikers. A blue strip is positioned around the outside of the bottom of the sole which feels the least dense of the three colors of compounds but enhances traction on off-camber rocks and technical terrain. It has the uphill and downhill lugs as appropriate. In the middle section of the entire outsole is the black, medium density compound with the uphill and downhill lugs. I think the lugs offer traction that is adequate for most conditions outside of Pacific Northwest winter mud or ice/slippery snow. They shed the mud I did get into well, but I didn’t have the opportunity to wallow too much in goop or wet clay. After 150-plus miles in these shoes on a variety of surfaces—dirt, roots, rock, technical uphills and downhills, sand, and a bit of water and mud—I don’t see significant wear to any of the colors or lugs which is fairly impressive.
Despite my frustration with the inability for the shoe to truly become one with my foot, I still really like the shoe. It feels light and fast. The rock protection is excellent without sacrificing flexibility. It drains well yet has ample protection around the shoe for run-ins with pointy rocks, long grass seeds, and scrubby brush. I wore it in temperatures between 50 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit and had no issues with blisters or excessive foot sweating. After 150-plus sweaty miles plus a few creek crossings, the X-tatic Anti-microbial lining is still working well as these shoes can hang out inside the house by the door without garnering any excessive sniffs from the dog or any raised eyebrows from other family members. At this point, I can only wear the shoe up to about 15 miles of trail with moderate rocks/roots or 20 miles on non-technical trail. If the fit of the midfoot can be improved by Inov-8 at all, this would be my go-to shoe for most spring-summer-fall conditions offered up by the Rocky Mountains up to at least the 50k distance. If you haven’t had the chance to try this shoe out, head on into your favorite local trail running store and give them a try. Let me know how the shoe works for you below.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
Have you given the Inov-8 Race Ultra 290 shoe a go yet? If so, share your thoughts on the pros and cons of the shoe for you.