The primary factors in selecting the appropriate shoes for your feet include arch shape, how your foot strikes and pushes off the ground, shoe types versus the type of terrain you train on, and the kind of mileage you’re putting in. It pays to learn about your feet and determine the best type of shoe to support your build and style. The following topics will help you learn how to choose the best running shoes for your style.
Types: Running shoes can vary drastically depending on what type of running you do. Matching the appropriate type of shoe with the style of running you regularly engage in is vital for keeping feet happy and healthy. There are three primary types of running shoes and one unique running style that we’ll discuss in this guide:
Barefoot: Barefoot running has gained momentum in recent years due to research suggesting a correlation between heel striking and running shoes. The research argues that the human body is built to run most efficiently when the foot first strikes the ground with the mid-foot or forefoot, rather than with the heel.
Minimalist: Minimalist running shoes offer a solution for runners who are interested in the theory behind barefoot running and would like to strengthen their foot and ankle muscles gradually by challenging them to work harder than they would in traditional running shoes, but without the risks associated with barefoot running, such as bruising or cuts.
It is worth noting that individuals with high arches tend to adjust faster to minimalist running shoes than runners with low or flat arches because high arches naturally require less arch support. Minimalist running shoes offer a height difference between the shoe sole from the heel and the top of at least half the distance (0-5 mm) than generally found in traditional running shoes (10-12 mm). These shoes also usually offer a wider toe box, allowing toes to naturally splay while running, or fit around each toe individually.
Traditional: These line the walls of running stores across the country, save for a small row that may have recently been added to accommodate a growing interest in minimalist and trail running shoes.
Traditional running shoes include cushioned soles, particularly in the heel (thus heavier than minimalist shoes). Traditional running shoes offer a variety of differing arch heights and curves to accommodate runners with varying arch types, from those who push off from the ground from their big toe (pronation), to those who push off the ground with the outside of their foot (supination), or those who push off the ground mostly straight (neutral).
Traditional running shoes are designed for the most common running surface for recreational runners – flat pavement. The overall goals of a traditional running shoe is to keep runner’s feet protected from the elements and aid all runners in having as close to a neutral push-off as possible, with the intention of reducing injury through a more perfect form.
Trail: Trail running shoes are designed with holes, natural debris, uneven ground, and other natural obstacles in mind; they consist of thicker soles, larger and deeper tread, and thicker and stronger uppers (the entire shoe above the sole). Trail running shoes are recommended to runners who run on non-paved, uneven trails. Trail shoes are not necessary for pavement, track, or wood chipped trail runs.
Fit: There are five main considerations for determining a properly fitting running shoe:
Weight: The weight of a running shoe varies with the type of shoe and materials used. Minimalist shoes, at around 10 ounces, weigh the least. Traditional running shoes and trail running shoes are the heaviest, due to cushioning, thicker uppers, and thicker soles often made of carbon rubber. Running shoes of all types may add nylon or mesh pockets around the upper part of the shoe in an effort to improve breathability and reduce weight.
Midsole Technology: The midsole includes the materials between the sole (outsole) and all parts of the shoe visible above the sole (upper). Midsoles exist for cushioning and stability. Although the materials used in midsoles vary by manufacturer, there are a few basic components in the vast majority of running shoe midsoles:
Ethylene Vinyl Acetate (EVA): This foam is used primarily as a cushioning agent.
Thermoplastic Polyurethane (TPU): This is a flexible plastic used for stabilizing purposes.
Posts: These are areas of condensed EVA intended to create specific areas of the midsole that are harder to compress. Posts are used in stabilizing shoes, aimed at correcting pronation or supination and encourage feet to push off the ground in a more neutral position.
Plates: Often made of nylon or TPU, plates are intended to help stiffen the shoe’s forefront. Plates are most commonly used in trail running shoes for additional protection against harder, uneven objects such as rocks.
Shanks: Generally used in trail running shoes, shanks run through the middle of the shoe to stiffen and protect arches and heels.
Cushioning: Cushioning minimizes the impact that foot strikes have on a runner’s joints and muscles. The outsole, or bottom, of the shoe is the primary impact point, so it is naturally also where most of the cushioning is located. Most traditional running shoes are made with carbon rubber on the heel – where many people strike first – then blown rubber along the forefoot. Trail running shoes outsoles are often completely made of carbon rubber for the combination of cushioning and longer sustainability on rough trails.
Stability: Some shoes work in ways to stabilize the foot as it strikes the ground. The more minimalist, the less stability, the more work required of the runner’s foot and ankle. This is often the desire of a minimalist runner, as minimalist shoes may be used as a training step toward barefoot running, which requires the most foot strength and natural stability.
Some traditional running shoes are also called ‘stability shoes’ since they offer stability against overpronation or oversupination. Overpronation is far more common, but runners who do not overpronate severely may prefer the more mild corrections offered by stability shoes over ‘motion control shoes’, which are designed specifically to correct extreme overpronation. Trail shoes, however, are specifically designed to be more stable than the average traditional shoe since the expectation is that they will be moving over rugged terrain the majority of the time.
Motion Control: Runners who severely overpronate (meaning their foot rolls inward and pushes off the ground from their big toe sometimes also rolling their knee slightly in), or those who have flat arches (which often leads to overpronation anyway) should look into motion control shoes. Motion control shoes have stiffer heels and straighter sides, allowing for less overall curving and rolling of the foot while running. The primary goal of a motion control shoes is to help overpronators have a more neutral footstrike, theoretically reducing their change of injury.
Shoe components/materials: A running shoe is only as good as its materials. Although a runner will learn their personal preferences over time, it helps to know what to consider.
Shoe lasts: The last is a mold used to create shoes; it determines the shape of the shoe. There are three primary styles of running shoe lasts, used for both genders:
Straight lasts: These are used in the creation of stability and motion controlled running shoes, intended for runners with flat arches and those who severely overpronate.
Semi-curved lasts: These include a slight curve around the area of the foot’s arch and are used in the creation of neutral shoes, used by runners who neither pronate nor supinate.
Curved lasts: These include a large curve in the arch area, intended for the creation of shoes for runners with stiff, high arches and runners who supinate.
Closures: Running shoe closures are simply how the shoe is held onto your foot.
Laces: By far the most common running shoe closure, laces are the standard by which other systems are judged. Laces have proven to be an effective way to “tie your shoes” since the term was coined. Yet there are more to laces than string. Some lay flat, others rounded, and almost all are tipped with an item named an aglet. You’re welcome crossword aficionados.
Dials: Some types of running shoes have replaced laces with a knob that twists and tightens the shoe around the foot. These are quick, light and durable but found only in a few models. The most well known is made by Boa Technologies and similar, but liter, than the ubiquitous snowboard boot closure.
Speed Laces: Several models of trail running shoes and some racing shoes such as the well reviewed Salomon S-Lab Sense use speed lacing systems. These are very light and usually well integrated into the engineering of the shoe.
Uppers: The entire shoe north of the sole is considered the upper. Uppers are either connected to the sole through a method called slip lasting, meaning that it’s tucked under and glued directly to the sole, or through a method called board lasted, meaning a board is placed over the tucked portion of the upper. Board lasted uppers are used in the creation of stabilizing or motion controlled shoes intended to help control overpronation. Although the style and colors of uppers may vary greatly between manufacturers, the materials used in constructing uppers are typically a combination of two or more of the following:
Synthetic leather: Synthetic leather is actually extremely common for running shoes. Synthetic leather is typically seen lining the toe box, heel cup, and lacing holes of a running shoe (the areas of the shoe that are most likely to receive pulling, impact, or scuffing that causes wear and tear) due to its strength and durability. Additional synthetic leather may be used in trail running shoes to offer additional protection to feet from trail debris, roots, and rocks. Because synthetic leather does not breathe, it typically only covers high impact areas and is usually separated by another, more breathable material such a nylon or nylon mesh.
Nylon and nylon mesh: These materials are usually found along the top of the toe box and on the sides of shoes, as they provide breathability for a runner’s foot, keep the overall weight of the shoe down, and are considered durable to handle the several hundred miles of wear and tear that runners put on their shoes.
Thermoplastic urethrane (TPU) overlays: These overlays are placed over the shoe’s breathable panels, like in the arch and heel, because they are strong enough to increase the shoe’s stability and overall durability.
Waterproof/breathable uppers: This type of upper utilizes a membrane bonded to the lining interiors which allows moisture (in most cases, sweat) from a runner’s foot to escape the shoe while still keeping moisture, such as rain, dew, or puddles from seeping into the shoe. Although this material makes a small overall compromise with breathability in order to keep moisture out, the potential to avoid blisters from excess wetness can certainly make or break a training schedule or race for some runners.
Heel Counter: The stiff cup-shaped form on the back of a running shoe is the heel counter. The purpose of a heel counter is to aid in stabilizing the runner’s heel while in motion, as well as to help cushion the heel as it strikes the ground.
Outsole: The bottom of a running shoe, or the part of the shoe that touches the ground, is known as the outsole. Outsoles vary depending on the type of running shoe. Minimalist shoes have very thin and relatively outsoles. Traditional running shoes have thicker outsoles with a variety of tread designs, and they usually use carbon rubber in the heel and blown rubber near the forefoot. Trail running shoes often have the thickest outsoles, with large, deep, waffle iron type treads, which are comprised entirely of carbon rubber. Road racing shoes, sometimes called flats, have outsoles comprised completely of blown rubber. Blown rubber outsoles are lighter, but carbon rubber outsoles last longer before wearing down.