Our Favorite Trail Running Shoes
Check out our Best Trail Running Shoes article to learn about our current favorite trail running shoes!
The North Face Ultra Cardiac Review
Are you feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the highly specialized trail running shoes out there? Do you find yourself wishing for ‘just a trail shoe’ for trails that aren’t ‘too’ anything (rocky, muddy, steep)? The North Face Ultra Cardiac ($110) may just be the shoe for you. Perhaps this is the culmination of a lot of input from their stellar list of athletes. Maybe it’s in response to the niche left open by the ever-increasing prices and specificity of trail shoes.
Regardless of what has led to this shoe, I find myself thinking back to the ‘good ol’ days’ when I bought my first pair of trail shoes—Montrail Vitesse—in 1997 and ran on everything. The North Face Ultra Cardiac is a similar all-purpose shoe with its 8 mm drop and middle-of-the-road build but is lighter, quicker to dry, ‘faster’ feeling, and has excellent traction on moderate terrain. The cushioning is just right without being mushy and the rock protection is great without feeling too stiff.
I wore these shoes for the Moab Red Hot 33k race in Utah this spring and had happy feet on the off-camber slickrock (hard like pavement), sand, and rocky jeep roads. I’ve also worn the shoes with Kahtoola Microspikes attached while summiting a winter 14’er and on moderately technical (read: rocky) Front Range, Colorado trails with no complaints. Do they excel in mud and ice or feel nimble like racing flats? No, but that’s not their purpose. The North Face Ultra Cardiac is the shoe you pack when you only want to take one pair of trail shoes on a carry-on-only airplane trip to locations with moderate terrain. It also might be the shoe you pull out for 50-plus-mile trail races when you want added protection while still keeping weight relatively low. Well done, designers at The North Face!
The shape of the shoe and the softness of the mesh will accommodate a wide variety of feet. It has a slightly curved last, but my fourth and fifth toes were comfortable. The padding around the ankle and Achilles notch is unobtrusively plush. I wear the same size in these as I do in Montrail and Pearl Izumi which means you may need to size up a half to a full size compared to Salomon, Inov-8, and New Balance.
I was surprised that as ‘beefy’ as the shoe looks out of the box, it has a very light, smooth feel while running. This shoe weighs in at 7.7 ounces (women’s size 7) on The North Face website and at 8.5 ounces per Running Warehouse (women’s size 8). This is quite light for the protection offered.
It has an 8mm drop! I LOVE 8mm DROP! I have a pair of 6mm drop shoes that make me feel fast but tend to beat me up after a few runs in a row. I can wear a 4mm drop shoe maybe once a week or risk all sorts of lower-extremity crankiness. But 8mm—that’s a sweet spot. Thank you, The North Face, for putting an 8mm drop in such a great all-around shoe.
The upper is constructed of TNF’s Ultra Airmesh and FlashDry which worked impressively well at wicking moisture away from my feet. I soaked the shoes thoroughly in a few slush/wet-snow runs and my feet stayed surprisingly non-boggy after a few minutes out of the puddles. The mesh also kept the sand of the Moab desert out while running there on a dry spring day.
Because the upper is more accommodating, I did find occasional blisters on my medial great toe and medial ball of my foot when running on significantly off-camber or rocky terrain. These are common hot spots for me that are typically eliminated with my favorite running socks and the snug fit of a different brand. This is not deal breaker for me as my feet and body crave this type of shoe a few runs a week or if I’m doing something significantly long and less technical. I just add a layer of tape to my foot and carry on as usual. I’d love to see the fit dialed in a bit more perhaps by adding a bit more conforming power to the mesh and/or trimming down the overlay over that portion of my medial foot.
Also the upper eyelet for the laces is a bit higher up my foot/ankle than I prefer, especially with the thickness of the tongue. It took 200 miles before I wasn’t sliding the tongue slightly laterally to make sure I didn’t have pressure over my anterior tibialis attachment on my anterior/medial foot. I think the tongue thickness could be reduced slightly or the area above the top eyelet could be trimmed down a few millimeters.
The tongue has no gusseting at all and is free to move around. For me this wasn’t an issue and helped me mitigate the above-mentioned fit issue, but someone who might tend to get lots of debris in their shoes for whatever reason may wish some gusseting was present.
The midsole has a single-density, compression-molded EVA for a smooth ride with extra support provided by the Pebax heel CRADLE which definitely keeps your heel in place on uneven terrain. There’s also a little extra structure provided by the overlays around the medial and lateral sidewall of the shoe which further enhances the snug fit and stability of the shoe on the foot as you run off-camber or up/down the rocks. I love wearing these shoes when my feet are feeling a little beat up from my more stripped-down shoes—they are like a rest day for my feet and legs.
The Vibram outsole has proven very durable over 300-plus miles. I was most impressed after the slickrock race weekend where very little wear was evident. That red rock usually polishes off aspects of whatever shoe I choose. Vibram once again proves its toughness. This outsole still allows the shoe to roll along the hills and over the rocks. It doesn’t feel clunky on stretches of dirt road either. This coupled with the zonal protection in the heel and toe meant that not once did I get a rock bruise on our Front Range rubble. My tender feet appreciated this greatly.
This is a snow/ice-country-specific highlight, but I loved the fact that these shoes are just burly enough to accommodate my Microspikes for high-country snow running and powerhiking up and down packed snow mountains without curling up or letting the toe box get completely compressed. I just slip them on over my shoes and forget about them. It’s the only pair of shoes I can wear my spikes with that are that comfortable.
I’m impressed with The North Face Ultra Cardiac trail shoe. I will be buying another pair for my quiver when these wear out, and I will be considering them for a mountainous 100k later this summer. The North Face, you have my attention in trail footwear now.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Have you run in The North Face Ultra Cardiac? What are your overall impressions of the shoe? Does it work for you as an all-purpose trail shoe, like it does for Kristin?
- What parts of the Ultra Cardiac do you like, and where could improvements be made for a better fit and feel on your foot and for the kind of trail running you do?
- On what surfaces do the Ultra Cardiac run the best for you?