The best pair of running shoes isn’t the latest or the flashiest, it’s the shoe that helps you run your best. You don’t have to be an expert to score the perfect set of kicks, but understanding the basics of shoe fit and construction is crucial to making a worthwhile purchase. Follow along as we take you through the essentials of specialty running shoe shopping.
Learn the lingo.
Every running shoe is essentially three components: the upper, the midsole, and the outsole. The upper is the mesh fabric top side of the shoe, the midsole is the foam or polyurethane layer between the upper and the outsole, and the outsole is rubber tread.
Although the fit of the upper and grip of the outsole matter, you’re really paying for the midsole as it determines how the shoe feels in-stride. “In every shoe, you sit on the footbed differently,” says Steve Stonecipher-Fisher, owner of Columbia, Missouri-based running store Tryathletics. Our tendons and ligaments react differently to different midsoles.
The midsoles of cheap running shoes will wear down and form depressions more quickly, so skimping on your kicks means they’ll lose energy return—the bounce you feel in a new set of running shoes—sooner.
Know the three basic types.
Every athlete of yesteryear had to settle for neutral, flat midsoles. Today’s runners benefit from a range of midsole support options. Purpose-built running shoes come in three distinct varieties: maximum support (or control), stability, and neutral.
“When more people can run with better choices, more people can run,” Stonecipher-Fisher says, who’s seen his store’s selection explode since he opened shop in 1986. “That’s why the shoe wall looks like it does today: More and more people wanted to run who weren’t perfect physical specimens.”
Maximum support shoes are great for runners who overpronate significantly. This means their feet roll inward more than most. The shoes tend to be a bit heavier, partially due to denser foam under the arch to mitigate the inward roll, and they’re molded to feel highly stable upon footstrike.
Stability shoes are perhaps the most popular, as they offer a milder form of support as compared to maximum support shoes. They’re designed to control the motion of a variety of strides without feeling too clunky.
Neutral shoes derive their name from the fact that there’s no motion control going on. The density of the midsole foam is consistent throughout. They’re ideal for neutral pronators or people whose feet roll inward to a mild degree, and under-pronators (or supinators), whose feet don’t roll inward much at all. Supinators can be prone to impact-related injuries because they lack the inward roll of normal pronation that acts as the body’s natural shock absorber. So, they should start with neutral shoes with a lot of cushion.
Go to the running store.
Now that you’re up to speed, find a specialty running store near you. It’s worth buying your first couple pairs in a store where experts can help you survey the field and find the right shoe for you. And although some stores will offer direction after watching you run, the only person who can tell whether a shoe is right is you.
“There’s so much variability in motion,” Stonecipher-Fisher says. “Someone who looks like they’re way out of whack may still be in the realm of normal. People do change over time, but for the most part, it’s important to start with the same category and try on a couple shoes on the fringe of that category and see if they’re heading in that direction.”
Try each style.
If you’ve never been fitted and don’t know what type of shoe you’ve been running in, ask the sales associate to try a couple shoes in each category (maximum control, structured, and neutral). Jog around in each and see which feels right: If you feel your arch rolling inward in a neutral shoe, you might need some structure. And if a structured shoe feels like it’s pushing the force of each step to the outsides of your feet, a neutral shoe could be your ticket.
Once you’ve determined the category of shoe, try five or six models to find the ones that feel best underfoot. Then, analyze fit. “Proper fit is a thumbnail from the longest toe to the end of the shoe,” Stonecipher-Fisher says. “And a snug fit all the way to the back.” If anything feels slightly snug, try a different size or width, since minor annoyances become major issues after a few thousand steps.
Buy for fit, not looks.
Inevitably, you’ll reach a tough deliberation between two or three shoes that feel and fit well. Don’t make the rookie mistake of buying for color or looks. The store can probably order you another colorway if you’re not feeling the style in stock.
If you really can’t decide (and can swing another purchase), get two different pairs. You’re going to use them anyway, and it’s healthy to keep your leg and foot muscles on their toes. “Rather than buying a $120 pair now and then $150 and then $200 shoes, you’re better off having more $120 pairs in the mix,” Stonecipher-Fisher says. “Get your favorite and second-favorite, and your tendons and ligaments will get the differences they need.”
Ask about returns.
Before you check out, ask about the store’s return policy: You might want to try your new rubber on a treadmill first since many stores will let you swap for a different pair if the shoes don’t feel good after a real run.