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Face-Off: The Best Offroad Running Shoes

We look at three new pairs of agile trail shoes for offroad running adventures: Hoka’s Zinal, Brooks’ Catamount, and Saucony’s Peregrine 11.

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Are the long bike rides and 4 x 500 swim sets starting to get you down? Does it feel like that “A” race needs to get here ASAP? Or maybe you’ve already ended your season, you’ve had your rest, and you’re looking to get back out again for some unstructured training/adventures. Regardless of how you landed where you are, the fall is here, and that typically means the best time of year for trail running. And if you’re looking at off road soon, there’s a host of new, nimble trail running shoes that give you that fun feeling of dancing in the dirt without taking a toll on your legs. The new generation of low(ish)-profile trail running shoes borrows from the latest foam to still give you some bounce and protection without losing that tactile trail feel.

RELATED: Face-Off: Three Foamy Shoes of The Future

Below, we pit three new/revamped spritely trail shoes to see which pair triathletes should try this fall (and we actually pick a winner!):

The Basics

All three shoes are moderately minimal, low/mid stack height, fairly lightweight trail runners with a focus on speed over protection:

Shoe Stack Height Drop Published Weight Actual Weight (Men's size 12) Price
Hoka Zinal 22mm 5mm 8.5 oz 10.2 oz $160
Saucony Peregrine 11 27mm 4mm 10 oz 12.5 oz $120
Brooks Catamount 32mm 6mm 9.3 oz 11.15 oz $160

As you can see, all three shoes have very similar drops—low for most trail shoes—and all valiantly try to sneak under the published 10-ounce barrier, making them a relatively lightweight choice. The three shoes above are all marketed as “speedy” trail shoes by their respective brands, and truth be told, they all are quite nimble.

Both the Catamount and the Zinal have pretty minimal, unaggressive lugs in their outsoles, and while the Peregrine 11 is quite grippy, the lugs are not very deep. More than likely these types of shallow lugs are a function of trying to keep weight down, but they still all excel in all but the muddiest conditions—to varying degrees.

Meanwhile, the uppers on these three shoes are actually quite different. Both the Catamount and the Peregrine have a decent amount of protection around the lower part of the foot, while the Zinal focuses its protection on the toe. Both the Catamount and the Zinal use a bootie-hybrid system to attach the minimal tongue to the rest of the upper, while the Peregrine uses a much beefier, traditional tongue and upper construction. The Catamount and the Peregrine also have a few little bells and whistles, while the Zinal’s upper is super simple.

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Hoka Zinal

Hoka is no stranger to trail running shoes—excellent examples include the beefy Speedgoat line and the traditionally racy Torrent series. While the Torrent has typically been their flagship lightweight trail shoe, this year Hoka released the Zinal in an effort to give runners something with a little less aggressive tread that feels more like a hybrid road/offroad shoe than something that’s dirt only.

If this was the goal, then Hoka succeeded. The Zinal is a shoe that feels great on pavement and great on most types of trails. The upper is pretty standard fare, mirroring the thin, lightweight tongue that we see a lot of right now paired with a really nice 3D mesh material on top. Given the lack of seams, I would go far enough to say that you could wear this sockless in a tri (onroad or off) and be just fine.

The midsole ride is very middle of the road—in a good way—not too firm, and not too bouncy. Thanks to the minimal outsole, you get a lot of trail feel, but your feet aren’t wrecked on rocky sections. The wider platform—wider than the other shoes in this face off—provides stability. The fit on this shoe is a little wide around the midfoot and a little long, so some might want to size a half size down. If you like a roomy shoe for thick socks or swelling fit, keep it as is.

If there’s any room to complain about this shoe, it’s that the outsole is so minimal (about 40% of the outsole is a no-rubber-only-midsole-material situation) and the lugs so shallow that traction can be an issue on muddy or super loose trails. Similarly, the Zinal’s outsole isn’t super durable—particularly given that this is billed as an onroad/offroad shoe. You also won’t find a ton of bells and whistles on this shoe (unlike the other two in this review), but there’s nothing wrong with simplicity!

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Saucony Peregrine 11

While the Peregrine isn’t a new shoe by any means, it’s a worthy standard against which to compare these two newer one. Lightweight enough to be mentioned in the same conversation, the Peregrine focuses on traction, while providing a more protective platform against trail detritus.

As such, the Peregrine truly shines on loose and rocky terrain where you might not want to get that “trail feel” that some people enjoy. Hands down, the outsole on this shoe is one of the best for dry or sandy and steep terrain—both up and down. The tread is extremely aggressive, the rubber itself is super tacky, and the outsole plate is stiff and protective against anything you might mow over. For muddier/slicker climates, Saucony has the “ST” version of the Peregrine with deeper lugs in a different pattern.

The midsole ride of the Peregrine is very much an “old-school” feel with not a ton of bounce, but rather a minimal amount of cush and a pretty stiff ride. This is the perfect type of midsole for hill reps or tempo trail runs, but probably not ideal for super long trail runs or trail runs that have a heavy dose of road. While I do enjoy that quick-step platform, when I get tired or when my form breaks down, the midsole can feel a little abusive. The fit on this is fairly average, but they run a tiny bit small—not enough to size up, but worth noting if you run in super thick socks or prefer a roomier shoe for long-distance foot swelling.

In terms of the upper, the Peregrine is also pretty basic. It has a traditional plush tongue that can feel a little heavy in hot summer runs (but is welcome on chillier ones), a good amount of stitching on the inside (sockless? no), and heavy protection around the toe, bottom of the midfoot, and heel. Little extra touches like a gaiter loop at the bottom of the laces and a pull tab at the heel are nice, but the upper’s construction is decidedly old school when compared to the Zinal and Catamount. That said, the Peregrine is also $40 cheaper than the other two, and $40 could be an extra trail race entry…

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Brooks Catamount

Released last year to much fanfare amongst Brooks fans who were feeling a little slighted on their trail options, the Catamount is meant to be a speedier, more nimble shoe than models like the Cascadia. Coming in under a claimed 10 ounces, the Catamount has “lightweight trail racer” written all over it.

First, we’ll talk about what really sets this shoe apart from many trail offerings: the midsole. Using a nitrogen-infused midsole foam, the Catamount certainly feels springy and active when compared to a shoe like the Peregrine. While it’s not overly cushy for long, pounding downhills, it has quite a bit of life. We also noticed that the midsole needed to go through a bit of a break-in period—which is a little unusual on a trail shoe, but nothing to be worried about. Mosty, give this shoe a chance before you dismiss the ride as harsh or not lively. The platform on the Catamount is also a little narrower than the other two shoes, letting it move more nimbly, but also leaving an opening for more ankle rolls.

The upper is also quite good. We liked the level of protection around the bottom of the softer mesh fabric, as it extends from the toe, around the midfoot, and back to the bottom of the heel. The minimal mesh tongue is also an interesting add-on—something you’d typically find in a lightweight road racer—but we liked how airy it feels while still keeping some level of coverage and protection. We also appreciated the velcro tag on the heel for potential gaiter attachment, but were puzzled why there wasn’t a tab at the bottom of the laces for a gaiter like the Peregrine. In terms of fit, there’s not much to write because the sizing and width are fairly standard.

Finally, the outsole is one spot on the Catamount that we found lacking. While the rubber itself is super super tacky, and we loved how uniform the tread and outsole construction was, we found it performed best only on hard-packed dirt trails or on large, unmoving rocks. Elsewhere, like in loose rocks or sloppiness, the shallow lugs and bare midfoot section caused quite a bit of slipping on big uphills or around tight corners.

The Winner

There are times when I struggle to name a winner in a face off for various reasons—usually it has to do with one shoe/bike/wheelset/computer/whatever being the perfect thing for one person and another the perfect thing for someone else. Here, we’re facing a similar situation, but with a caveat that I actually think one of these pairs of shoes is better for most situations, while the others are good for a few specific ones.

While I love the insane grip of the Peregrine 11, and I love the fact that this pair of shoes doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, it’s still a shoe that has a pretty specific use case: dirt only, and the looser the better. In a time when shoes feel like rockets because of their foam or their carbon plates or an extreme rocker, this is not a sexy-feeling pair of shoes—they’re pretty workhorse. Of course there are lots of trail runners who want something like that and run in really loose, really steep trails, so this is the shoe for that person, but not for most.

Similarly, I know the Brooks Catamount has gotten a ton of praise in other reviews, but for me it’s simply a good start to what should be a great line of shoes from Brooks. Brooks needed the Catamount to fill out their otherwise stuffy trail line, so it has a great place, but I think the outsole, and even the midsole to some extent still need a little bit of work. For those who like a super nimble shoe and run on bigger, off-camber rocks a lot, this is a great choice—in the loose stuff, in the wet stuff, on trails that move and shift, you may want to wait until this is a little more refined.

So that leaves the Zinal. I think the Zinal is a great choice for the vast majority of our readers who probably have to run on some roads to get to and from their trail system—who probably don’t tackle super mucky or super super steep stuff, but want an energetic, fun trail shoe that’s simple and easy to wear and run in. There’s no attachments for gaiters, and there are better shoes for deep muck, but when you’re being realistic about your trails and your access to your trails, a shoe like the Zinal will work for far more use cases than the other two in this face off. Of all the trail shoes that were released in 2021, the Zinal is the best, making it not only the winner of this face-off, but the best trail shoe in our Best of 2021 Awards.

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