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Road Running Essentials

Gearhead® Expertise and top picks to get you moving.


The best road running gear keeps you light on your toes, absorbs shock to boost comfort, and keeps your body charging with positive energy. If you’re looking for gear picks to find your way through paved terrain in comfort, you’re in the right place.

Road Running Shoes


Pacing up to a new PR ranks among our favorite feelings, and road running offers the accessibility for runners of all levels to get out and pursue their own individual goals. Covering paved ground means our shoes should be built to chase after our goals—whether they’re about speed or simply about being outside.


We look for lightweight, breathable shoes with non-aggressive soles that pair with paved surfaces, and midsoles that prioritize responsiveness and energy return for an efficient ride on flat surfaces.


Keep scrolling for a road running shoe spec rundown and our top picks. Or, if you’re looking for a deep dive on shoe anatomy, check out the article below.

How To Choose Road Running Shoes


Here’s a quick rundown on the key factors that make a pair a comfort and performance shoo-in.


1. Try Them On: This guide aims to offer the key insights that’ll help you land your perfect pair, but individual goals and bodies are unique as our variety of shoes. We recommend visiting a backcountry store to get an in-person feel for how different shoes fit your body so you can run off confidently. We also think word-of-mouth is the best way to learn about any kind of gear. You can reach out to a Backcountry Gearhead® Expert and they’ll hook you up with their intel and recs based on your personal preferences.


2. Fit: All sizes are not created equal across the industry. Every brand has their own sizing tendencies, so it’s important to know your own heel-to-toe measurement and compare that with each brands’ size charts. You can trace your feet and measure on your own at home, or visit a store and measure with their device. Your heel should fit snugly without too much rubbing when you’re moving.


3. Stack Height: Stack height refers to how much cushioning is between the ground and the bottom of your feet. It’s the main driver behind impact absorption, stability,energy return, and overall comfort. A thicker stack height can provide increased comfort and reduce fatigue, especially during longer runs.

4. Support: The main things to consider here is your gait type, or whether your feet tend to overpronate (roll inward), oversupinate (roll outward) or neither (neutral gait). You can check the outsoles of your shoes to see if you’re favoring one side or another—this will help inform whether you should be considering high-stability shoes to help correct overpronation or oversupination. Most brands will let you know if their shoe is designed for people with a neutral gait or for those who need extra security to make their run more comfortable.

5. Upper Materials: Lightweight materials that don’t sacrifice performance are always a plus. We also look for materials that breathe well but are durable enough to stand up through multiple seasons of mile-logging. A healthy balance of flexibility and support will let your feet move naturally while also preventing excessive movement.

6. Outsoles: To reduce resistance and increase speed, we look for relatively flat outsoles. If your routes are especially damp or rainy, consider a pair with more grip. A combination of shallow treads or tread patterns that provide sufficient traction without being overly aggressive is ideal, as excessive tread can impede efficiency on smooth surfaces.

7. Drop: Drop is the difference in height between the heel and toe cushion. For example, if there is 26mm of cushioning under your heel and 20mm of cushioning under your forefoot, the shoe has a 6mm drop. Drop affects running form, stability, muscle activation, injury prevention, and overall performance. A higher heel-to-toe drop promotes a more heel-striking gait. Conversely, lower drop numbers encourage a more natural or midfoot-striking gait.

After logging thousands of miles, we Gearheads® tend to agree that stack height is the main differentiator in road running shoes, so we’ve outlined our top shoe picks based on moderate and maximal cushion options.

Moderate Cushion Running Shoes


Moderate cushion shoes are the most common type; we think of them as all-rounders or daily-drivers. Featuring a stack range of about 17–32mm, they’re a good bet for beginners and best for people who pace with a neutral gait. As for all road running shoes, we look for lightweight options that don’t drag us down. The picks below are geared towards runners who want some cushion but not so much that it’s overly plush.


Best Men’s Moderate Cushion Shoes


On Running Cloud X 3


With its 7mm drop and 25.5mm stack height hitting our sweet spot for moderate cushion running, the Cloud X 3 has enough drop to reduce fatigue and enough stack to boost comfort without the feeling of walking on skyscrapers. It’s versatile enough for long and short runs alike, and equally comfortable in the gym as it is on the road.


It’s a light, airy, spry-feeling shoe with a bit of a wider platform for solid, sure-footed landings. We recommend it for runners who like a little cushion and are looking for a single pair that can train anywhere—both indoors and out.


Get The Cloud X 3


Gearhead® Top Picks

Men’s shoes that balance cushion and response.

Best Women’s Moderate Cushion Shoes


Brooks Ghost 15


If you’re looking for a long-distance shoe that goes the distance comfort-wise—the Ghost hits that mark. It has built-in lateral supports to provide just enough nudge to correct overpronation, and while it’s slightly more cushioned at 35mm in the heel and 23mm in the forefoot, that added comfort is something we appreciate on longer runs.


At 9.1oz in a size 9 it’s fairly light, and we’ve found its outsole fosters smooth transitions and adequate grip. If you’re a runner looking for stability and high drop, we recommend giving these a close look.



Gearhead® Top Picks

Women’s shoes that balance cushion and response.

Maximal Cushion Running Shoes


Maximal cushion shoes have a large stack of foam to give the most amount of cushion and run-up the plushness. Their stack heights are usually greater than 32mm, making them a great option for long distance runners to lock in their flow with comfort, or trainers looking for a softer option than what they’ll be racing in. The best shoes in this field will deliver fantastic levels of cushion for those who need it. Fits that soften our impact on the road and deliver comfort that keeps the pace up for miles are what impressed us most with the picks below.


Best Men’s Maximal Cushion Shoes


Altra Via Olympus


Standing tall at 33mm, Via Olympus is Altra’s most cushioned shoe. Its rockered sole gives this beast an appetite for forward-rolling motion and an efficient toe-off. It features their roomiest toe box and extra space through the midfoot, making it a great choice for runners looking for a more natural and unrestricted fit.


Its zero-drop platform is best for those looking to land on the midfoot rather than the heel. A breathable and extra durable mesh upper ensures we’re covered for many miles, and that's on top of a versatile sole that'll even let you scurry off for some gravel adventures, too.



Gearhead® Top Picks

Men’s shock-absorbing shoes we’re running with.

Best Women’s Maximal Cushion Shoes


HOKA Clifton 9


With ultra-soft cushioning to cruise through innumerable miles in comfort, the Clifton delivers the dreamy, pillow-like experience maximal cushion shoes are after. The plushness continues through the sole and into the upper materials and collar, too, making it wildly comfortable throughout.


This shoe’s rocker promotes an efficient transition from heel strike to toe-off, enhancing overall power and reducing stress on the legs. For a shoe in this class its surprisingly responsive and energetic. And the weight savings HOKA achieved here is worth noting. To put it simply, light, soft, and bouncy feelings are present in the Clifton.



Gearhead® Top Picks

Women’s shock-absorbing shoes we’re running with.

Road Running Apparel


Our shoes provide the foundation of our run, but the right apparel helps keep our bodies cool and our minds collected.

Jackets: We like to bring a lightweight, packable, breathable shell to stay prepared for however the scenery, weather, and pace changes. GORE-TEX layers or DWR (durable water-repellent) coatings are our top choices to stay moving through inclement weather.


Shirts & Shorts: During the main heat, we prefer low amounts of lightweight, breathable, and sweat-wicking coverage that lets our bodies’ temperature stay regulated and conditioned for success.


Best Men’s Road Running Apparel


The North Face Higher Run Jacket & Backcountry MTN Air Short


We can’t always count on the conditions, but we can count on the Higher Run Jacket to raise our spirits in iffy weather. Its breathable DryVent technology keeps breezy feelings in and rain out. Integrated thumbholes and a slim-fitting design ensure we’re covered and able to cut through the elements, too. Its weight is hardly noticed, and this jacket hides its impact in more ways than one. The North Face built the Higher Run with recycled nylon and a PFC-free DWR treatment.

Freedom of movement was the main driver behind our MTN Air short, so we made sure it stayed ultralight, breathable, and weather-resistant. Its Pertex Quantum Air fabric is woven together with durable ripstop fabric to boost its hardiness. And it’s detailed with a zippered back pocket a reflective features for low-light visibility.



Complete Your Kit

Men’s breathable, sweat-wicking styles to move freely.

Best Women’s Road Running Apparel


Backcountry Destination Tank & District Vision Half-Tight Short


Our Destination Tank isn’t just about where you end up. Its racerback design offers a full range of motion and its lightweight material keeps the journey in mind, too. Most notably, it’s made with quick-drying and sweat-wicking material, so all-day training sessions don’t end with a heavy, moisture-ridden layer.

The quick-drying tech is carried throughout our favorite shorts, too. District Vision’s Half-Tight Short conforms to our bodies nicely without restricting our steps and its drawcord waist ensures the perfect fit stays that way from start to finish. We’re especially impressed with its intelligent pocket design. It features zippered storage for essentials and a pass-though pocket for extra layers, so we’re never going unprepared.



Complete Your Kit

Women’s breathable, sweat-wicking styles to move freely.

More Road Running Gear Picks


Running Tech

Watches, headphones, and more gadgets we bring on the run.



Vests and more gear that helps keep us moving.

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