The outsole often gets overlooked amidst the hype surrounding new midsole foams and cushioning tech.
But it shouldn’t be – an outsole can make or break a running shoe. No amount of midsole cushioning or springy responsiveness can salvage a running shoe that grips poorly.
An outsole doesn’t stop at just providing traction; it adds value in many other ways. A well-designed outsole works together with the midsole to improve the quality of cushioning and transitions.
Also, depending on the material and geometry, the outsole acts as a defensive layer against the small rocks and debris on the road and trail. Some brands use a (more) durable compound to deliver more miles per dollar spent.
But let’s not get distracted. This guide is about shoes with excellent outsole traction, so what are the factors involved?
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 decides how good or bad the outsole grip will be. Exceptions always apply, but the following selection criteria can help find shoes that grip the best.
THE OUTSOLE MATERIAL
An automobile tire is a classic example of how various rubber compounds take 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. As a general rule, softer blown rubber lugs or sticky compounds deliver better grip 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.
Brands also offer specific rubber compounds designed to grip better.
They go by different marketing names like adidas Continental, Asics Wetgrip, New Balance AT Hydrohesion, Salomon Contagrip, or Altra MaxTrac. The Saucony PwrTrac is another tacky rubber material.
So far, we’ve assumed that the outsoles are made of rubber. But what if the shoe lacks a separate outsole or limits the use of rubber?
Foam outsoles deliver adequate grip on dry/wet roads, clean sidewalks. But throw in some slush, and the traction level decreases drastically. Likewise for smooth artificial floors that are dusty or freshly waxed.
EVA foam outsoles also stiffen in the cold, thus reducing their traction.
THE OUTSOLE GEOMETRY
Not everything about outsole grip is about the materials. The geometry also influences the level of traction – or the lack thereof.
Smaller and deeper lugs generally grip better than flat slabs – even if they are made of the same compound.
However, using a high-tech rubber compound on a flat geometry works just as well. The Asics Metaracer and adidas adios Pro are proof.
The outsole articulation or grooving also plays a role. A geometry that divides the outsole into separate sections lets them operate semi-independently. This way, targeted traction is available where and when necessary.
Trail outsoles aren’t built the same way as road shoes. While a higher count of longer lugs is preferred, these need to be spaced wider to minimize clogging.
Some geometries are also optimized for both downhill and uphill traction. For instance, the forefoot lugs could be angled forward and downwards whereas the rear does the opposite.
Also, trail running shoes need to perform equally well on wet and dry terrain. This means that the rubber compound needs to deliver reliable performance under ever-changing surface conditions.
We know; 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.
The following list of shoes is grouped by their use-cases.
Category 1:Everyday trainers
1) Brooks Ghost 14
Two factors give most Brooks running shoes an edge in the traction department. The forefoot outsole uses soft blown rubber that’s molded into small lugs for optimal grip over most running surfaces.
That applies to the Ghost 14 as well. The flex grooves also allow the outsole sections to work independently of one other, and their ‘pistoning’ effect (compressing into the midsole) also helps with the traction.
The outsole grip isn’t the only reason to buy a Ghost 14. This Brooks model is very popular for a reason; the cushioned midsole has enough versatility with a do-everything character, and the plush upper is the icing on the cake.
It’s very hard to go wrong with the Ghost.
Also see: The Brooks Glycerin 19.
2) Brooks Adrenaline GTS 22
With its firmer outsole and ‘Guiderails’, the Adrenaline GTS 22 is the stability version of the Ghost 14.
In the context of this guide, that’s a good thing – the Adrenaline has a similar outsole with excellent traction.
Most of the Adrenaline GTS 22’s outsole is made of a soft rubber that grips very well under most everyday conditions, including rained-on roads. It also helps that the outsole geometry maximizes the contact area.
The rest of the shoe is quintessential Brooks. The spacer mesh upper is soft, comfortable, smooth, and has a true-to-size fit profile. Though the ride is firmer than the GTS 21, the midsole is cushioned enough for long-distance runs and tame enough for daily runs.
Just so that you know, Brooks is in the process of transitioning most of its stability models to the ‘GTS’ form factor. The GTS versions of the Launch, Glycerin are neutral trainers – but with a raised midsole sidewall.
However, we don’t believe that the ‘Guiderails’ are the answer to everything. For example, the firmer Guiderail of the Adrenaline GTS 22 is more noticeable under the arch than the 21 and is distracting during runs.
We guess that Brooks isn’t renaming the Adrenaline because of its loyal consumer base – it has been a very commercially successful stability shoe model for a long time.
3) Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 38
The Pegasus 38 is marketed as Nike’s do everything trainer, so it should grip well. And it does.
The waffle-shaped lugs on the Carbon rubber outsole deliver satisfactory traction during most run types. The snug (and warm) upper also helps with the traction by bringing the foot closer to the midsole for better power transfer.
The Pegasus 38 is very similar to the 37, so we don’t think as highly of it as we did the 35 and 36. While it’s still a very comfortable shoe for daily runs, it’s not the Pegasus we hoped it would be.
4) Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 38 Shield
Though the Pegasus 38 Shield shares an identical midsole with the standard Pegasus, it’s an entirely different product.
The Shield variant is a winterized Pegasus that not only features a water-repellent, splash resistant, and insulated upper, but also has an outsole that grips better.
The Pegasus 38 Shield uses a ‘Storm-Tread’ outsole geometry that uses small grooves made of a tacky rubber compound. While it’s no match for hardened ice, it offers excellent traction on wet roads.
Our full review will be published shortly.
Category 2: Road racers and speed trainers
1) adidas adizero Boston 10
This shoe is sold as the Boston 10, but forget whatever you thought you knew about the Boston series. If you’re interested, our detailed review is here.
The V10 is no longer the low-profile speed shoe that runners grew up with. The upper retains the fit and feel of the classic road racer silhouette, but the new midsole is an entirely different beast.
Unlike the firm and flat ride of the Boston 9, the dual-compound foam stack makes the ride cushioned as well as quick. The midsole contains ‘Energy rods’ – or stiff PEBAX tubes that make the transitions efficient.
And the grip is excellent under the forefoot and heel. The completely redesigned Continental rubber lugs deliver a powerful bite on the road; a grip that’s much better than any of the previous Boston models.
2) Asics DS-Trainer 26
Though this lightweight speed trainer has made its fair share of changes to the outsole design, the latest model still delivers an excellent grip.
The DSP (Dual Stencil Process) forefoot lugs of the older DS Trainers will be missed, but the dense colony of rubber lugs on the DST 26 (still) packs plenty of bite.
The 26th edition of the DS-Trainer isn’t all that different from the 25. The sole design stays the same, and the upper receives minor tweaks.
The knit upper has a very smooth fit, and the Flytefoam midsole makes those fast runs cushioned, smooth, and quick.
It’s worth mentioning that this is one of the few racers (along with the New Balance 1500V6 and Saucony Fastwitch 9) with a midsole that is designed with a higher level of medial support.
3) Brooks Hyperion Tempo
Unlike the Brooks Ghost and Adrenaline, the Hyperion Tempo’s excellent grip isn’t just due to the rubber compound. The outsole doesn’t even use soft blown rubber; the aggressive lugs are molded out of a hard-wearing rubber compound.
By allowing better power transfer to the ground, the firm midsole also plays a part in the grip delivery.
The Hyperion Tempo’s dense colony of lugs is ideal for multi-surface and multi-season traction. It possesses confidence-inspiring traction on wet, dry, and wintery roads, and we say this from experience.
Also see: The adidas adizero adios 6.
4) 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 with a colony of small, sharp rubber lugs.
It’s an excellent pick for 5k to 10K races. The Revlite EVA-blend midsole keeps the ride harshness at a minimum while producing a fast ride character.
5) Reebok Floatride Run Fast 3
Grab these shoes while the stocks last. The Reebok brand recently got acquired by the Authentic Group, so we don’t know what adidas’s divestiture means for the future of the high-performance Floatride assortment.
Though the Run Fast 3 features on this list due to its excellent outsole traction, it has several features that make it an excellent buy. The PEBA foam midsole delivers lightweight and speed-friendly cushioning on the road, and the racer-like upper disappears over the foot.
And why is the outsole grip so good? That’s because the entire underside is covered with rubber micro-lugs.
6) 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. The narrow upper also helps the foot connect better with the ground for quick push-offs.
Category 3: Trail Running shoes
1) Altra Lone Peak 6
If a 0 mm heel-to-toe offset (uniform midsole thickness) isn’t your jam, feel free to skip to the next shoe on the list.
On the other hand, if you’re already used to zero-drop trail shoes or open to trying one, we recommend giving the Altra Lone Peak 6 a try. Let’s begin with the primary reason why the Lone Peak is on this guide – its outsole grip.
Altra’s aptly named ‘MaxTrac’ rubber compound delivers traction on dry and wet surfaces alike. The lug geometry is an equal partner as well; the large lugs deliver a deep bite, and have wide spacing to minimize clogging.
The zero mm offset isn’t the only Altra trick. The wide toe-box accommodates a range of foot shapes, and extras like the gaiter attachment points and unique, removable rock shield (not a plate, though) make the Lone Peak 6 a versatile tool for the trail.
2) 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 mere 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 a superior lock-down.
Lastly, the Quicklace upper secures the foot and keeps it closer to the ground for better power delivery.
3) Saucony Peregrine 12
Besides being an excellent all-around trail running shoe, the Saucony Peregrine 12 also delivers great outsole grip traction. For that, we have the tacky PwrTrac rubber compound and aggressive lug geometry to thank for.
The specially formulated rubber delivers multi-surface traction, and components like the rock plate and firm midsole help connect the foot to the ground.
The Peregrine 12 is an extremely do-it-all trail running shoe in the market that doesn’t cost the earth.
It packs phenomenal value and use-case versatility for its $130 retail price. The cushioned midsole is firm enough to be supportive; the rock plate protects the foot from jabbing roots and rocks, and the upper is comfortable while providing fit security over uneven terrain.
For 2022, the new model also gets an E-TPU (Pwrrun+) sockliner.
4) Saucony Peregrine ICE+ V2
We were pretty clear in our detailed review of the Saucony Peregrine ICE – this shoe has a sub-par grip over icy surfaces. This is one of those products where the marketing hype got ahead of itself.
The ICE V2 has the same sole as the V1, so the quality of traction stays the same.
However, we have to give credit where it’s due. The Vibram Arctic Grip delivers phenomenal traction over wet, but non-frozen surfaces. The sandpaper-like texture of this special rubber compound delivers confidence-inspiring traction over otherwise slippery surfaces.
The firm midsole has a comfortable and supportive ride, and the closed mesh upper does a decent job at repelling moisture. The ICE V2’s upper has been redesigned to include gaiter attachment points and a traditional lacing set-up – instead of the V1’s ISOFIT straps. Both these updates are an improvement over the previous model.
5) Salomon Snowspike CSWP
The Salomon Snowspike CSWP is the nuclear option for winter running when all other alternatives have failed.
The name of the shoe should give it away, but if you’re still clueless, we’ll break it down for ya. Not only does the outsole have point rubber lugs for grip on slush, but it also has 11 Tungsten Carbide spikes for the ultimate in winter-ready traction.
These spikes bite into frozen surfaces where ordinary rubber cannot, thus vastly improving the safety when the pavement is either snow, ice, or both.
There’s also a waterproof upper and a comfortable midsole that goes on top of the spiked outsole, so this is a complete package. We tested the Snowspike over several months before writing our review.