How to Choose a Running Shoe
Simplicity is one of the greatest things about running.
You leave the house with just your trusty pair of shoes (okay, hopefully shorts too) not worrying about flat bike tires, waxing the skis, or if your sleeping bag is warm enough. Since running is so simple, how is it that choosing a running shoe can be so challenging and frustrating? The number of running shoes on the market is overwhelming, to say the least.
With varieties ranging from trail, road, neutral, stability, minimalist and maximalist, it’s no surprise many runners get stuck with a shoe that’s not for them. Don’t worry, we help you narrow down the options and find a new pair of running shoes that will have you logging healthy and comfortable miles. And best of all, we’ll keep it simple.
Trail or Road Shoe?
The first decision you need to make when choosing a running shoe is whether you’ll primarily be using the shoe on roads or trails. If most of your miles are logged on local park trails, or flat hard-packed dirt trails, a road shoe will likely suit you well. If you’re often on rugged, wet, or steeper terrain, having a trail-specific shoe will be beneficial. While they are similar in many respects, in general you’ll find the following characteristics set trail shoes apart from road shoes:
- Outsole offers aggressive lug patterns that are strategically placed for traction on hilly terrain, dirt and rock
- Lugs are often widely spaced to prevent mud from caking on the sole
- Forefoot often features a rigid plastic rock plate and heel for added protection from sharp rocks and debris
- Extra toe protection is usually included to protect against stubbing
- Upper may feature a waterproof membrane or water-resistant coating, often Gore-Tex
- Ankle and tongue may include additional padding
Besides a more aggressive outsole, the feature most trail runners look for in a trail shoe is the rock plate, a thin layer of resilient material sandwiched inside the midsole. You might at first think this would make the shoe stiff, but flexibility is not affected much at all. It just provides extra protection without adding much weight to the shoe. If you expect to encounter sharp rocks, talus, scree, boulder fields, or off-trail terrain, having a trail shoe with a rock plate for extra protection is a good idea. A shoe such as the La Sportiva Ultra Raptor is perfect for such terrain.
It’s important to be aware of using a trail-specific shoe when it’s not necessary. Not only will the life of the shoe be reduced, but you’re at a higher risk for injury. If you plan to run on the road to get to the nearest trail with your trail shoe it’s best to keep it at a minimum, ideally a mile or less.
If you are sticking to the roads, you’ll find road shoes work better because they usually have a low, flat lug pattern that will increase your speed on hard surfaces. Uppers tend to be lighter and slightly less supportive since you don’t require quite as much structure around your foot on smooth surfaces. One of our favorites is the Brooks Ghost.
Minimalist, Maximalist, and Everything in Between
Even though fewer people are buying strictly ‘minimalist’ shoes these days, many running shoes of all types, including the new, seemingly diametrically opposed ‘maximalist’ shoes, include many features that grew out of the popularity of minimalist designs in past years. Thanks to the advances related to the minimalist movement, you’ll find more models with better-fitting, lightweight uppers featuring lighter materials (TPU and film instead of heavy plastic or synthetic leather) and welded, instead of stitched, construction that also saves weight. And underfoot, new, highly advanced materials make for a ride that’s more comfortable than ever. Design-wise, more shoes offer a wider toe box that enables a natural, barefoot-like toe splay.
Maximum, moderate, or minimal cushioning—there’s something out there for every preference.
And yes, minimalist running shoes are still around. Many runners shopping in this category are experienced runners with good technique who enjoy the ‘ground feel’ of running in shoes, with less between them and the ground than traditional running shoes. Super lightweight with a sock-like fit, these shoes make excellent race shoes for shorter (10K or less) distances, though you’ll also see minimalist shoe veterans doing ultra marathons in them.
Minimalist shoes come in a range of ‘drops’ (difference in height from heel to toe) and stack height (total thickness of cushioning). To generalize, we’d say most minimalist shoes feature 0-6 mm heel-to-forefoot drop and 8-15 mm ‘stack height’ (total amount of cushioning and other materials between your foot and the ground). This lower stack height means that the midsole, where most of the cushioning is, is much less substantial compared to traditional running shoes—as a result, minimalist shoes put more stress on your foot’s muscles and tendons.
Therefore, if you’ve only used traditional running shoes and are new to minimalism, take plenty of time adjusting to the change. Spend time walking in the shoes before running and be aware of how your feet and lower legs feel after initial short runs. It’s necessary to gradually increase your mileage to adapt to minimalist shoes, as well as prevent overuse injuries.
Now on to the opposite end of the spectrum, to shoes which are called ‘maximalist,’ or ‘max cushioned’ running shoes, with 25-35mm of cushioning under the heel. Unlike minimalist shoes where taking time to adjust is necessary, max cushioned shoes can often be used for longer runs immediately. With a massive stack height and extreme cushioning, it’s no wonder maximalist shoes made leaps and bounds among the ultra running community. Many people who struggle with joint pain or spend an extended amount of time on their feet (nurses for example) also turn to maximalist shoes.
It’s also important to mention that max cushioned shoes might not be all rainbows and unicorns. There is speculation around the idea that running solely in a max cushioned shoe can lead to a weakening in your feet and lower legs compared to a traditional or minimalist shoe. The heavily cushioned landing feels amazing, and that’s because the softness is masking the natural sensation your feet are intended to feel. In reality, the shoe is doing work that your feet are supposed to be. There aren’t enough studies yet to know for sure. We feel your best bet is to alternate between shoes to keep a healthy balance.
Neutral or Stability?
All runners naturally pronate, though overpronation happens when the foot rolls excessively inwards towards the end of your stride. There are a lot of different reasons for this happens, and can lead to a host of joint aches and injuries. How do you know if you’re an overpronator? That’s the million-dollar question. There are a few tests to get a good idea, though we highly recommend you have your gait analyzed by a professional. No we don’t mean by your local running shop, but a podiatrist. This will save you time, money and unnecessary potential injuries. Running shops will give you a foot analysis, not a full gait analysis.
If you’re never/rarely injured, chances are you’re a ‘neutral’ runner that doesn’t need shoes to help with pronation control. A neutral running shoe is generally more flexible, lighter, and softer (midsole) compared to a stability shoe. Most runners that use neutral shoes have a medium to high arch with average pronation in their footstrike.
Runners that overpronate in their footstrike often benefit from a stability shoe. Traditionally, a stability shoe is designed with a firmer ‘dual-density’ midsole to counter the overpronation in a runner’s foot strike. This means that the midsole has strategically placed areas of denser foam to help prevent excessive rolling of your foot. In addition, a heel counter (a piece of plastic wrapping around the heel) can also help keep your foot centered in the shoe, and is often found in stability shoes.
With that being said, there are now ‘stability’ shoes out there that don’t count on a stiff medial post to correct your gait, and instead feature a more neutral, cradling approach to preventing excessive foot movement. Additionally, many runners who overpronate and continue to train in neutral shoes while maintaining perfect health. As mentioned earlier, seek a professional if you feel like you’re one that will benefit from a full gait analysis.
Waterproof or Not?
Is a Gore-Tex running shoe a useful addition to your quiver? If you’ve been running long enough it’s likely there have been winter runs where your feet are soaked and freezing, leaving you wondering if a waterproof running shoe would have helped. For very cold, short rainy runs we feel you can benefit from using a shoe with a waterproof membrane. A few things to consider when using a waterproof running shoe is that it will be less breathable and won’t dry as quickly as a non-waterproof shoe. Also, waterproof running shoes trap perspiration from your feet and if you’re running long enough you’ll end up with wet feet regardless.
If you’ll be doing creek or water crossings, a waterproof shoe is completely unnecessary since water will easily enter from the top of the shoe. We recommend using a shoe with an integrated waterproof gaiter like the La Sportiva Crossover if you plan to find yourself in this type of scenario. For very cold days, also consider a shoe with a Polartec liner like the Altra Lone Peak Neoshell, which will help trap more heat than a typical running shoe.
The Inside Scoop on Insoles
There’s a good chance you’ve been in a situation at the local running shop where the shoe fitter is giving you endless reasons why you need to buy the latest and greatest insole for your running shoes. Is adding an insole such as Superfeet beneficial? Or is the shop employee trying to upsell you? Insoles can be beneficial if you’re dealing with some foot pain or plantar fasciitis, but if you don’t have a real reason to buy them, then we suggest staying away from aftermarket insoles. Know that using Superfeet or other similar insoles for foot problems could be a temporary solution to a larger issue, so professional advice is always recommended.
When should you retire your running shoes?
How do you know when you’ve put the maximum amount of miles in your running shoes? Most shoe manufacturers will suggest between 300 and 400 miles before retiring. There are a few factors to take into consideration here and each model of shoe has a different life span. The simple answer is that you’ll never know for sure. The important thing is to be aware of how your body is feeling and keep track of the wear and mileage of your shoes. Heavier runners will reach the life of their shoes more quickly. Those with a more efficient stride and gait will get more time out of their shoes.
Have any questions about running shoes? Email me or fire away in the comments section below!