The Ultimate Guide to Running Shoes in 2021
Running shoes are such a touchy subject, and the center of a multi-billion dollar industry. No wonder there are so many misleading claims, different schools of thought, and a lot of literature to sift through. So, when choosing where to spend your hard-earned money - what should you consider?
I’m not an expert by any means. Even though I started running over 10 years ago, I rarely own more than one running shoe at a time. Rather than the (literal) closet of shoes that my business partner owns, I’m a bit more frugal in my purchases. When you’re spending $130+ and 50+ hours in each pair of shoes, then it’s important to know what you’re buying. I usually do a heavy amount of research before purchasing a shoe, so I know much of the ins and outs (even if I don’t have direct experience).
Also, my position at RaceMob allows me to talk to experts in our industry. For example: a legendary running shoe store owner, a YouTube star who makes a living doing video shoe reviews, biomechanics experts, marathon champions, and ultra-adventurers. I’ve gotten the low-down on shoe features, technological advancements, and preferred brands. In addition, chatting with so many beginner athletes, two things are abundantly obvious!
Running Shoes are the single most important piece of gear, and can make or break a runner’s experience. In fact, finding the right shoe is the #2 most recommended piece of advice for beginners according to our community. link
Purchasing running shoes can be extremely challenging! Unlike other shoes that are bought for comfort or looks. Running shoes can impact your pace, distance, traction on surfaces, running form, and even your risk of injury. Plus, we all run differently, which means that you can’t simply copy the gear that the elites use.
For your first shoe, we always recommend going to a local shoe store. They have a lot of tools, equipment, and know how to guide you through your first purchase. It’s also great to support local businesses.
For beginner’s, here are the most important factors for you to consider when purchasing a running shoe:
- Running Shoe Size and Fit
- Over-Pronation, Pronation, and Supination
- Foot Strike and Heel Drop
- Cushioning vs Responsiveness
- Road Shoes vs Trail Shoes
- Wear In and Worn Out
- Bonus! - Carbon Fiber?
Running Shoe Size and Fit
When talking to shoe store owner Chris Schenone of Running Revolution - he mentioned that 90% of new customers coming to his store are looking at the wrong size initially.
That’s why they’ve invested a lot of resources in purchasing precise feet measuring devices. Not only will they measure the length, width, and contours of your feet. But they can also measure the arch of the foot, and where you’re pressing your weight into the ground.
Some brands are known for a narrower profile, while others give you a wider profile. Sometimes, even within the same shoe model, you can get narrower or wider versions. If it’s been a while since you’ve had your foot measured, then we recommend finding a store.
Men's running shoe widths:
Extra Wide: 4E
Women's running shoe widths:
Extra Wide: 2E
Also, many runners in our community recommend getting a half-size or full-size up from your normal shoe. This is mainly due to the fact that the feet swell during longer distance events. While a true professional can help you assess this, general guidance is to leave at least a thumb's width in the toe box. Trust me, there’s nothing worse than losing a toenail due to constantly jamming your toe into the top of your shoe.
Running shoes for distance events are usually worn a little looser than shoes worn for shorter events. Many runners also utilize the marathon knot to give the upper mesh a little more room as the foot expands.
Over-Pronation vs Neutral Pronation vs Supination
I never thought that I would get into running. The first (several) times that I started, I would get terrible foot pain, and knee pain. Not to mention being completely out of breath from running too hard…
I didn’t realize that the pain was caused by my natural tendency to over-pronate. About 20% of runners have a similar problem. While a little of pronation is ok, a large degree of it can cause problems all the way up the body. Pronation is the degree by which your weight transfers from the outside of your foot to the inside of your foot. Almost in a “rolling” motion.
There’s a high degree of correlation between your foot’s arch (I’m pretty flat-footed) and pronation. This is why many beginner runners will take the “wet” test - if they don’t have access to a store. The “wet” test involves dipping your foot in water, stepping on cardboard or concrete, and comparing it with standard foot prints.
But foot arch isn’t the only factor in determining pronation. Which is why video analysis can help tremendously, and why many running shoe stores are outfitted with high speed video cameras attached to treadmills. If you’re extremely lucky, you may even find a location with a fancy treadmill outfitted with pressure sensors, like the one that they have at Competitive Edge Physical Therapy. Not only can they tell pronation, but also the speed at which the weight transfers (which can be an indicator for injury).
Having trouble visualizing pronation? Asics has a fantastic overview (along with GIFs): Asics Guide to Pronation
For those with a high degree of pronation, then a motion control shoe is recommended. Over time, as your feet grow stronger, you may be less reliant on these types of shoes. Which is why it’s always a good idea to get rechecked for shoes after a while.
Having a little of pronation is both natural and ideal. Pronation helps your body absorb some of the impact of hitting the ground (you about 2.5x your body weight of force on your foot when you land). For those of you with a small amount of pronation, then you’re lucky! Most running shoes are made for your running style. You’ll be able to wear many styles of running shoes, and will be looking for neutral shoes.
While supination is fairly rare amongst runners (5-10%), it’s also good to know whether you’re prone to supination. For supination, the weight lands on the outside of the heel, and stays on the outside of the foot. While most supination will be fine with neutral shoes, you may be more prone to plantar fasciitis or stress fractures in your feet. Good orthotics may be able to help this a bit, as will finding shoes with more cushioning. You may also want to consider changing your shoes more frequently, and you may wear the treads on the outside of your shoe more easily.
Foot Strike and Running Shoe Heel Drop
Advanced runners will spend years perfecting their running form. Most elite athletes work hard to develop a mid foot or forefoot strike. This involved quite a bit of practice, but it allows the body to tap into the posterior chain (gluteus and hamstring) and reduces the impact on the body. It also helps you get faster, as your energy is used to propel you forward, rather than “putting on the brakes” by over striding.
We encourage our runners to record a video of themselves running from the front, the back, and from the side. If you pause your video as your foot strikes the ground, you’ll be able to see whether your foot impacts the ground with the heel, the mid foot, or the forefoot.
You’ll often hear people talk about a shoe’s heel drop, and there are many schools of thought here. There is a camp of people that believe it’s best to minimize the drop. Newton and other minimalist shoe brands really pioneered these types of shoes. The problem here is that you really have to know how to run with them, and you should analyze and work on your running form should you buy these shoes. I still remember buying a pair of Vibram Five Fingers, and having aching calves because I didn’t know how to actually run in them.
Heel drop is a reference to the difference in padding between the heel and the forefoot. A larger difference means more “rocking” if you land on your heel and launch from your forefoot. In any case, we’re talking about mere millimeters here, so the heel drop from one shoe to the next probably won’t make a huge difference for the average runner. But, suffice it to say, if a shoe is advertising “low heel drop”, then it’s probably a good idea to check your form before buying that shoe.
Running Shoes Cushioning - Minimalist vs Maximalist
A term that is often associated with stack height, is the shoes cushioning. You’ll see people here in both camps, the minimalist shoe enthusiasts versus the maximalists. Some runners have both types of shoes in their closet, and will often switch them depending on the type of run. For instance, many runners prefer lighter, more reactive shoes for speed work or shorter distance runs. And they’ll have a cushioned shoe for their longer distance easy runs.
As shoe store owner Chris Schenone likes to say. The real goal of finding a great shoe is to help you go that extra mile that you never knew you could.
For most beginner runners, if you’re looking for just one shoe. Then we recommend a shoe that’s easy to run in. Many beginner runners do great with maximalist shoes. Hoka One One really pioneered these types of shoes - but most of the big brands now carry a few maximalist shoes.
If you’re serious about running, looking to get fast, and you’re committed to practicing good form - then owning a pair of minimalist shoes may suit you really well. These shoes, along with proper technique, will help you maximize your body’s natural running mechanisms and strengthen your tendons, feet, and muscles to help you in the long run. But these types of shoe are not for the faint of heart - a study in FootWear Science showed that those new to minimalist shoes were more likely to suffer soft tissue injury. So, if you want to try these shoes, we recommend slowly introducing them, and practicing good running form (preferably with a running coach).
Trail Running Shoes vs Road Running Shoes
This one is a bit self-explanatory, but worth mentioning here. Road shoes are best suited for asphalt (and treadmills). They have a bit less tread, and are made to help you with running on even surfaces - improving the efficiency (and reducing impact) of repetitive activity.
Trail shoes are built with more traction, allowing you to dig into the dirt a little more on the ascent and descent of hills. Trail shoes often have a bit more side to side stability too.
I’ve used road running shoes on the trail, and have occasionally used trail running shoes on the road. So you can certainly get away with either (although I’ve worried about rolling my ankles with a shoe with maximum cushioning). If you know the type of surface that you will run on most frequently, then we recommend buying your shoes accordingly. If you run on both surfaces, then consider buying two pairs of shoes. Not only will they help your running by forcing your body to adapt, but you’ll have a better chance of avoiding overuse injuries by switching it up.
Wear In and Worn Out
As with any shoe, most running shoes require a bit of time to wear in. But, I’ve often found that my most comfortable shoes were comfortable leaving the store, and extremely comfortable by the 3rd run, about 10 miles (16.09 km) in. Many local stores will even have generous return policies. That’s just another benefit of buying local rather than online. If you are buying online, you’ll also want to check their return policy.
Most experienced runners recommend changing shoes after 300 miles (482.8 km). I know that I don’t always heed this advice (and it’s occasionally bitten me hard). Trust me, it’s much better to pay for a $130 pair of shoes than a $300 X-ray for a stress fracture. Many apps let you keep track of your shoes and mileage. The internal structure of your shoes might start to wear down, even if there aren’t external signs of wear and tear.
Ok - you’ve heard the buzz. Carbon fiber shoes are all the rage - and admittedly, I haven’t had the $200+ to shell out on a proper set of carbon fiber shoes. What I do know, from talking to so many runners who have is that the “springy” effect is real. They will help you run faster, but they require a bit of a different technique and are best used on straight and flat courses.
Also, they tend to wear out quicker. Meaning that you might be paying $240+ for about 200 miles (321.87 km) of use. Not a very effective return on investment if you ask me…
If you’re ultra competitive, have a goal to crush, or some money to burn - then by all means try them out. For me, I’ll be sticking with my comfortable, all-purpose Hoka One One Arahi for the foreseeable future.
Buying running shoes can be pretty challenging, but when you find the right shoe - it will make those hours on the road (or trail) so much more enjoyable. To buy the right running shoe, we always recommend going to a local running store. But if you can’t make it there (or the store’s employees aren’t very knowledgeable) here are the things that you need to know.
- 1. Understand your shoe size and know how running shoes should fit
- 2. Know your pronation and purchase shoes that will fit your feet
- 3. Figure out if you will run on road, trail, or both
Here’s our recommendation for buying multiple shoes:
1st shoe: Every Day comfortable road runners - higher cushioning
2nd shoe: Trail shoe (if you plan on running trails)
3rd shoe: Responsive shoe for threshold and tempo running
After that - it depends on if you’re looking to get faster and want to invest in shoes that will refine your technique (minimalist shoes), or you’re going longer and you like some easy day shoes (maximalist).
Hopefully this helped clear up some questions you might have on running shoes - if you have any questions, leave them in the comment section below!