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Trail Runners and Ankle Mobility for Hiking

Ankle Mobility and Trail Runners

When choosing between hiking boots and trail runners, consider your ankle mobility and whether you want hiking footwear that can enhance it with time or whether you need more support because your ankle mobility is compromised.

Ankle mobility is a valuable asset for hiking and backpacking because it contributes to better balance and reduces fall risks, which benefits everyday life. This is particularly relevant for older hikers and backpackers aged 50 and above, although younger people can also benefit by cultivating better balance or proprioception ability.

The lack of ankle mobility and range of motion is one of the leading indicators of increased fall risk as we age. Two strong predictors of this are dorsiflexion (lifting your foot/toes up), which is a strong predictor of dynamic balance when walking or running, and plantar flexor strength (pushing your toes lower than your heels), which is a strong predictor of stationary balance. Both of these motions occur repeatedly when hiking, so it makes sense to preserve or enhance them to help reduce fall risk as we age.

Hiking Boots vs Trail Runners

There are many reasons why you may want to choose hiking boots or trail runners for hiking and backpacking, and all of the other variants in between including mid-height hiking boots, trail shoes, lightweight mountaineering boots, minimalist shoes, and sandals, waterproof hiking footwear vs non-waterproof footwear and so on. This article isn’t intended to be reductionistic or suggest that ankle mobility is the most important factor in the type of hiking footwear you choose.

RELATED: 10 Best Trail Runners and Hiking Shoes

But one of the biggest differences between hiking boots and trail runners is the degree of ankle mobility they facilitate and their impact on hiking gait through your lower extremities including the hips, knees, calves, and feet.

Hiking boots, depending on the rigidity of the ankle area (for example leather vs textile) tend to limit the range of motion to provide more support, while trail runners and low hiking shoes, impose virtually no constraints on ankle mobility. While there is an increased risk of ankle rolls while building up ankle strength and proprioception awareness when switching from hiking boots to trail runners or low hikers, it’s worth asking whether the benefit of improved ankle mobility outweighs the risk in achieving it.

If you hike or walk a lot, and I mean a “real” lot, you can use your hiking and backpacking time to improve your ankle strength and balance while reducing your fall risk as you age. There are other ways to enhance your ankle mobility through programmed exercise, but you can’t deny that the sustained and repetitive activity of hiking and backpacking (hiking with a heavier load) may trump short periods of supervised exercise, especially since it requires so little extra time to perform.

For more information about the relationship between ankle mobility and fall avoidance, see:

Hernández-Guillén D, Tolsada-Velasco C, Roig-Casasús S, Costa-Moreno E, Borja-de-Fuentes I, Blasco JM. Association ankle function and balance in community-dwelling older adults. PLoS One. 2021 Mar 4;16(3):e0247885. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0247885. PMID: 33661991; PMCID: PMC7932177.

Hylton B. Menz, Meg E. Morris, Stephen R. Lord, Foot and Ankle Risk Factors for Falls in Older People: A Prospective StudyThe Journals of Gerontology: Series A, Volume 61, Issue 8, August 2006, Pages 866–870, https://doi.org/10.1093/gerona/61.8.866

16 comments

  1. People have strong feelings about boots vs trail shoes. I went on a four day backpacking trip with some friends recently and prior to the trip some of them were describing wearing hiking boots as such a negative that one of them said, “if you wear boots, you’re going to get blisters.” Not historical reenactment style pirate boots. Hiking boots in 2024. Thank you for a balanced article.

  2. I only wear trail shoes – much lighter, much more comfortable- far less problem with blisters!
    I don’t buy water proof – they are only foot saunas!

  3. I switched to boots after the last trip. My ankle is so trashed out, I collapse it every time now. I wear Xero and with that and a brace makes for a more comfortable trip.

  4. Bruce E Schneiderbauer

    I recently tried Hoka Trail Code GTX, It actually comes up just past my ankle. I found that for me the traction is so much better that my Keen Targhee III Mid. Maybe the shoe and my and ankle flex a bit more allowing more surface contact. They have a Vibram sole with a soft foam in between. The foam has taken some beating on the sharp rocks.

  5. For me, it’s not so much the ankle support that I like about boots vs trail runners, it’s the more rigid platform that the boot sole provides when compared with the trail runner sole.

    I really dislike floppy-feeiling soles…

    I also don’t like feeling the sharp edges of rocks through the sole, as I do with my trail runners. I have a morton’s neuroma and pressure of rocks through the sole can make it act up.

    Maybe I just need to try different runners…

    • I also have Morton’s Neuroma. I use trail runners during the warmer months and insulated 400 gram caf high boots during the winter with this insole which relieves pressure on the nerves of my toes. I haven’t had symptoms since switching to them. It’s a miracle. https://amzn.to/4c2qzgj

      • Wow – a pretty strong recommendation. I will definitely try hat insole. I have tried others with little success.
        I am thinking of getting the cryoablation procedure done.

        • Don’t let the doctors cut you up without getting a couple of opinions. I haven’t heard that that procedure has a terribly high success rate. I did see a podiatrist before using these insoles and the only thing he did for me was give me a strong anti-inflamatory to reduce the inflamation. i was disappointed because he’s a podiatrist in a hospital in the middle of the White Mountains, a hiker mecca, who didn’t know shit about hiking. The foam insert he gave me for my shoe crapped out completely within 3 miles of a trailhead.

    • I forgo to mention: I often run parts of my hikes, in my boots. Typically, I will run all the downhill sections.

      My current boots are the Oboz Kadabatic Mids – I have never had Oboz before, but I have to say, these are the best boots for my neuroma that I have ever had.

  6. Philip – are you sure you are thinking of cryoablation, and not some other treatment like nerve removal?

    My research into cryoablation has indicated that there is pretty high patient satisfaction.

    It is “minimally invasive”, has a very short recovery time, and has almost no significant side effects – phantom nerve pain, for example, which is common with surgical nerve removal techniques.

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