Amid all the hype surrounding new midsole foams and cushioning tech, the outsole often gets overlooked.
But it shouldn’t be – an outsole is a very important component of a running shoe. No amount of midsole cushioning or springy responsiveness can salvage a running shoe with a sub-par outsole grip.
An outsole doesn’t stop at just providing traction; it adds value in other ways. A well-designed outsole works together with the midsole to improve the transition quality.
Also, depending on the material and geometry, the outsole acts as a defensive layer from the small rocks and debris on the road and trail. Some brands use a more durable compound than the others, thus saving you money in the long run.
But let’s not get distracted. This guide is about shoes with excellent outsole traction, so which factors determine that?
As with most running shoes, things are never straightforward. Looking back at over a decade of running shoe wear-testing, a combination of two factors decide how good or bad the outsole grip will be. There are always exceptions, but the following selection criteria can help you find shoes with the best traction.
The outsole material
An automobile tire is a classic example of how various rubber compounds take the surface characteristics into account.
Firmer summer tires work on dry roads while a grippier and softer rubber is used for winter driving. Off-road motorcycles have knobby tires with aggressive lugs for grip over loose soil and gravel.
Running shoe outsoles work similarly. Softer, blown rubber lugs will generally grip the surface better than harder outsoles. That’s one of the reasons why Brooks models are a part of this guide – their softer outsoles offer plenty of road grip.
A few brands are adopting semi-transparent outsoles made of a harder compound. Saucony calls it Crystal rubber; Brooks markets it as something else. However, their high lifespan comes at a price; they aren’t as grip-friendly as traditional blown rubber.
Brands also offer specific rubber compounds designed to grip better. They go by different marketing names like adidas Continental, New Balance AT Hydrohesion, Salomon Contagrip MA or Nike OR9. Then there are outsoles like the Saucony PwrTrac that fare well under dry conditions.
So far, we’ve assumed that the outsoles are made of rubber. But what if the shoe in question doesn’t have a separate outsole or uses a limited amount of rubber?
Foam outsoles deliver adequate grip on dry/wet roads, powder snow, and clean sidewalks. But throw in some slush, and the traction level will drop drastically. Likewise for smooth artificial floors that are dusty or freshly waxed.
The overall traction isn’t only about the materials. The outsole design also influences the level of traction – or the lack of. Smaller and deeper lugs grip better than flat slabs – even if they are made of the same compound.
Outsole articulation or grooving also plays a role. A geometry that carves the outsole into different sections lets them operate semi-independently. This way, targeted traction is provided where it’s required.
Trail outsoles aren’t built the same way as road shoes. While a higher count of longer lugs is also preferred here, these need to be spaced wider to prevent the mud from sticking.
Some geometries are also optimized for both downhill and uphill traction. For instance, forefoot lugs might be angled forward and downwards while the rear does the opposite.
We get it. Outsoles are complex. The best we can do is to list running shoes with above-average levels of outsole traction, and you can work your way up from there.
As always, the guide is arranged by groups first (road and trail shoes) and then sorted alphabetically by brand.
Category 1: Road running shoes
1) adidas SolarBoost 19
The adidas SolarBoost 19 has a single-piece outsole of Continental rubber that has optimal traction over dry and wet surfaces.
The surface contact area of the rounded, flat-faced lugs help with the grip quality – and so does the flexible nature of the Stretchweb design.
Also see: The adidas Solar Glide 19.
2) adidas adizero Boston 8
This lightweight trainer for faster runs uses the same outsole material as the SolarBoost but in a slightly different layout.
Nonetheless, the result is the same; the Continental rubber outsole feels reassuring grippy during those speed workouts.
Also see: the adidas adizero adios 5.
3) Brooks Ghost 12
The Brooks Ghost 12 doesn’t use a branded rubber compound, but two factors give it an edge over the others in the traction department.
The outsole forefoot uses soft blown rubber that is molded into small lugs for optimal grip over most running surfaces.
Also see: The Brooks Glycerin 17
4) Brooks Adrenaline GTS 20
Let’s be honest here; the Adrenaline GTS 20 is nothing more than a slightly more supportive version of the Ghost. In the context of this guide, that’s a good thing – the Adrenaline has a similar outsole with excellent traction.
The rest of the shoe is what’s expected of Brooks – a soft, cushy upper with a true-to-size fit profile. Considering that this shoe is a mildly supportive version of the Ghost, the ride is very similar – cushioned enough for the long haul and tame enough for daily runs.
6) New Balance 1400V6
Generally speaking, road-racers grip well. The 1400V6 doesn’t disappoint.
The 1400 doesn’t have the molded lugs of the Hanzo but makes up for it with an outsole that grips via a colony of small, sharp rubber lugs.
8) Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 36
Both the geometry and rubber formulation come together on the Pegasus 36 to deliver confidence-inspiring traction on the road.
The fine lugs cover both the inner and outer outsole for multi-directional grip. The segmented layout also helps each section grip efficiently.
9) Reebok Floatride Run Fast pro
Reebok’s ‘Speedtrac’ outsole isn’t made of regular rubber. Like the New Balance Hanzo, the tacky lugs are molded separately over a substrate to produce an unparalleled level of traction.
Unlike the Hanzo, the Run Fast Pro’s entire outsole is made using this technology. The Run Fast Pro is super pricey, but then, it’s got a lot to show for that price.
Also see: Reebok Floatride Run Fast.
10) Saucony Type A9
The Type A9 is another road-racer that uses an outsole made of specialized rubber.
Not only does the outsole have a sharp geometry that means business, but it also uses Saucony’s PwrTrac compound for enhanced grip on the road.
Category 2: Trail Running
1) adidas Terrex Agravic XT
Trail shoes depend on a combination of lug design and rubber materials to deliver traction on wet and dry surfaces.
On the Terrex Agravic XT for example, deep lugs are spaced widely on a Continental rubber outsole to grip effectively during trail runs. The wide spacing of the slim lugs prevents the mud from sticking to the sole.
2) New Balance Summit KOM
The ‘Megagrip’ outsole sourced from Vibram relies on a Golf-spike inspired design for multi-directional usage over dry and wet trails.
This speed shoe also has a rock-plate – just in case you’re looking for a trail shoe that shines in areas of outsole grip and forefoot protection.
Also see: The New Balance Summit Unknown.
3) Nike Terra Kiger 5
The Terra Kiger’s clawy outsole is made of a stickier 004 compound for traction over slick trail surfaces.
With a segmented rock plate, the Kiger 5 is a clear upgrade over the last year’s model.
4) Salmon Sense Ride 2
The Sense Ride 2’s versatile outsole combines a grip-friendly tread design with a sticky Contagrip MA rubber for traction under various trail-running conditions.
The deep flex grooves in the front and rearfoot partially allow the outsole sections to function independently – thus targeting grip where it’s required.
5) Salmon Speedcross 5
Yes, it’s pretty obvious – the Speedcross 5’s outsole has deep lugs made of a sticky rubber compound that offers a great grip on slush and snow. But there’s more to the Speedcross than first appearances.
The slim outsole profile distributes the pressure over a smaller area – thus improving the bite on the trail. The midsole is also double-lasted, meaning that the upper wraps the midsole for superior lock-down.
Lastly, the Quicklace upper secures the foot and keeps it closer to the ground for a better power transfer.