The North Face Athlete Jonathan Albon knows a thing or two about running shoes. To his name, Albon has 1st in Spartan and OCR World Championships (2014), won the OCC at Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (2021) and won the Trail World Championships (2019).
We met with Albon to discuss the importance of great running shoes and how foot health is paramount to success…
Tell us about your background in running.
Yeah, I didn’t start running till I was around 20 years old, which is late for most people. I played skate hockey when I was a kid, which was like ice hockey, but on wheels, and that was my childhood sport. I had to keep fit when I quit that, so I decided to run backwards and forwards to work when I lived in London.
I like to challenge myself, so I entered some events and gravitated towards the obstacle races because it was like a fun challenge for a different sort of fitness, like full-body fitness.
They didn’t seem that serious as well, which was really lovely. It was a bit fun and a bit challenging. In many sports, once you get competitive with them, they’re not as fun. Obstacle racing was a breath of fresh air for that. It didn’t seem like you had to have your parents force you to do it from when you were ten years old to be any good because it was such a young sport. So that was fun.
What have been some of the highlights of your career?
Now I went from obstacle racing to more trail and mountain running, and that’s kind of like what I’m mostly focusing on now. So some of my favourite races are when I’ve been out in the mountains and running along, and it’s just been you in nature and crushing it.
So I like being out in nature, especially wild races. So maybe the ones that really stand out is a race where you just run up in the mountains, drink from streams and you’re just… moving. It’s almost like it’s not really a race. It’s just immersing yourself in nature.
Then other races where I’ve felt like I’ve competed well would be something like Marathon du Mont-Blanc last year, where I enjoyed the course, and it suited me, and I managed to sort of peak my shape for it and actually have one of those magical days. That was a really fun experience, and slightly more runnable trails.
That was actually when I moved to The North Face. It was when I started running a bit more down in the Alps because the shoes I was wearing weren’t made for that sort of terrain. So I needed something designed for a bit smoother, a bit harder, packed trails.
Do you think it’s worth getting different running shoes for different terrains?
Oh, for sure; it’s night and day. If you get the right shoe for the right terrain, it’s like insane I mean, up in Scandinavia and in the UK, you can get some really wet boggy trails where the trail isn’t really a man-made trail like it would be, say, in America. It’s just evolved. So people have gone there, and then the trail has just formed, and that’s very different to say someone goes out with a digger and carves up the terrain and makes a nice flat, smoothish trail.
The difference between those two types of trails is immense, and then a shoe for each can really be important. For example, on the wet rocks up in Scandinavia, you really want a really good rubber, so you have much grip. Then on a dry trail down in the Alps, that’s less important. In Scandinavia, you could get away with a thinner, less cushioned shoe because it’s swampier and softer. But down in the Alps, if you run 20km in that thinner, less cushioned shoe, you’re going to get some rocks that will really start impacting underneath your feet.
So you’re going to have to think about having a rock plate or a carbon plate to protect your feet and a little bit of extra cushioning because the downhills are a lot more runnable, so you can really pound your legs rather than picking your way down a technical trail you can hammer. So it does make a hell of a difference.
What’s your journey with running shoes been like; have you worked with recommendations, research or just trial and error?
To be honest, back in the obstacle racing days, I needed the shoes that were the most technical or most aggressive, and I actually remember the first pair of trail running shoes I bought.
I was at university, and I’d just done a big presentation; I’ve always been a bit of an introvert, so I don’t really like talking, and presentations are probably my worst nightmare. So I was pretty stoked after I got that done. So I went down to the running store and saw this pair of Cross Talons 212, it was orange and silvery grey ones, and I just thought they looked insane.
At that time, there weren’t that many shoes out there with those sort of really big aggressive lugs, and I figured that’s what you need for these muddy trails. So that was my first pair of trail shoes, and then I was wearing Inov-8s. And then I moved to VJ because then the rubber quality was like they were perfect, especially on the wet rock. As I gravitated towards drier, smoother, faster trails with a bit more rocks and stuff, then it was off to The North Face.
I was down in Chamonix for the OCC, and I was sponsored by VJ at the time, but I couldn’t wear their shoes on those trails because my feet were just getting smashed up from the rocks. So in that week before the race, I went to all the sports stores in Chamonix, and I was trying on all these shoes and buying a bunch of different shoes and ended up buying, I think, four or five pairs of shoes and testing them all in the week before. That’s when I decided to use The North Face shoes. So I chose that shoe, not because they offered me sponsorship or anything like that. It was actually the shoe that I bought and tested and chose to wear over all the others.
What The North Face shoes are you wearing at the moment?
At the moment, there are two main models that I gravitate towards. Both have got a carbon plate, but they’ve been designed so they still give good ground contact, so you can still run in relatively technical terrain. Still, one is certainly a bit thicker and made for long distances, and it’s got more cushioning and more protection. That’s the Summit VECTIV™ Pro Artist.
And then the Summit VECTIV™ Sky is thinner and more precise so I can wear that in much more technical terrain. Between those two, I’ve got what I need for drier trails, which worked well for me. I did CCC in the Pro last year and the Marathon du Mont-Blanc in the Sky.
Does foot health play a huge part in overall race success?
If you don’t keep your feet injury free and in good working order, you won’t be running very far. I actually had a foot injury that lasted four or five years.
It was the two little bones underneath the foot, just behind the big toe, that I’d fractured doing a race in some shoes that were too thin on a rocky trail in the UK, and they never got better. So I had this foot pain for four years, and it wasn’t until the pandemic came along that I took the time to have an operation and do the rehab and get my foot back to good working order.
That was another reason I had to go towards the more protective shoes made for rockier ground with a rock plate. They’re designed for that terrain because as you get older, you get a little bit more fragile, and you can’t take the abuse that you could do when you were younger.
So that was, again, another sort of main reason I moved to The North Face because I figured maybe the rubber isn’t quite as grippy on wet rock, but they understand how feet are meant to work and how shoes are meant to work on your feet when you’re running sort of like long distances. And that was really important to keep my feet in good working order.
I haven’t had any problems since. It is essential to take care of your feet; any injury isn’t a good thing when you’re a runner, and anything you can do not to get injured is essential.
What tips would you give those training for an ultra and looking at their first pair of trail shoes? Are there criteria they should be looking for?
To do some excellent research on what race they’re training for and what terrain they’re training in, they can get the shoe best suited towards that terrain. So looking at the race and just thinking about what they need, what their feet need, and what would work best.
Then go out and test it. So before most races, I always do some race simulations where I try and run on the same terrain with the exact equipment, with the exact same fueling strategy, even sort of what I’m eating the night before and do a race simulation.
So it’s a similar climate, terrain, and starting time of the day. If you can run on the actual course, that’s also the best thing. That’s the best time to test that pair of shoes or a few different pairs of shoes and see if they work for you. See if you get any blisters anywhere. See if they’re too narrow. See if those issues and problems happen once you get into an ultra; see if you can recreate those.
Because it usually won’t happen in a one- or two-hour training run. But, in these longer race simulations, when you’re putting them through the paces as to what you’re going to expect on race day, then that’s when you can come across these problems that you can fix. So it doesn’t happen on the big day.