Walk into any local running store and you’ll face a colorful wall holding dozens of shoes. Needless to say, finding the best-fitting shoe among numerous choices isn’t easy. To make matters more complicated, not every shoe is right for you. Whichever pair you choose must fit properly from heel to toe and feel comfortable with your regular running stride.
You can shop online as well, but there’s a little more risk involved if you don’t get to try on before you buy. Luckily, most retailers will offer a risk-free trial period so you can still lace up your shoes and head out for a test run, like you would at the store. (Just double check the return policy, and always keep the box in case you do need to send them back or swap sizes.)
Whether you shop online or in-store, we’re here to help. Read on for a breakdown of shoe anatomy, common shoe-buying mistakes, and a list of our favorite shoes right now in your favorite category.
Shoe Anatomy 101
It’s helpful to understand the purpose of each element of a running shoe Even the slightest differentiation may affect your experience. Here are the main elements to know. (For a deeper dive, you can learn more about all the elements of a running shoe here.)
Everything above the sole. Traditionally made with layers of fabrics and mesh sewn and glued together, modern models increasingly use knitting and 3D printing to create one-piece uppers that stretch and support in appropriate places.
What to look for: An upper that is shaped like your foot and smooth wherever it touches, not binding or chafing anywhere.
The wrap at the top of the shoe opening that holds the heel down in place. Some shoes use thick padding while others rely more on the shape.
What to look for: Pay attention to whether your heel slips, how the padding interacts with the bones on the side of your ankles, and whether the curve on the back irritates your Achilles tendon.
A semi-rigid cup layered inside the rearfoot that cradles and supports your heel. Some shoes have an external heel wrap that serves a similar function while minimalist shoes have eliminated the heel counter to allow full freedom of movement. Research has shown that heel counters do not provide motion control, but they do center the heel for stable landings and support.
What to look for: A heel that allows a comfortable ankle motion.
The reinforced area around the instep—the arch of a person’s foot between the ball and the ankle—that interacts with the laces to hold the shoe securely on the foot. Designers have developed a variety of overlays, eyelets, and lacing systems to mold the saddle closely to any foot shape.
What to look for: Pay attention to how the saddle fits and holds your foot, providing a secure feeling with no slippage while allowing for the natural doming of the arch during your stride.
All of the upper from the front of the eyelets to the end of the shoe. Often capped with a reinforced toe bumper that holds the fabric off your toes and protects from stubbing, particularly in trail shoes.
What to look for: A toebox that stays out of the way, allowing your foot to flex and spread out naturally in both width and length without binding or rubbing your toes.
Where the rubber meets the road. Often made of a variety of rubber or foam compounds placed in strategic areas to increase wear life or enhance bounce or flexibility.
What to look for: Materials that provide traction and durability without adding excess weight or stiffness, and for a footprint shape that matches yours and gives you the desired level of stability underfoot.
Flex Grooves and Toe Spring
To make the shoe bend like your foot bends, many shoes use grooves under the ball of the foot. Turning the toe up, called toe spring, or cutting away the midsole into a rocker pattern also allows the foot to roll through the stride. Small differences in location or angle can alter the mechanics and feel, and what degree of flex works best for your stride as it changes with speed.
What to look for: A shoe that flexes or rolls the way your foot wants to move—at the pace for which you’ll be using the shoes.
The foam material between the outsole and the upper, designed to cushion the runner from impact forces and guide the foot through the stride.
What to look for: A midsole thickness and material that feels right at running speeds, fits your preference of softness or firmness, and doesn’t have excess weight.
Midsole material designed to minimize the impact shock of a heel strike. Besides using a variety of cushioning materials, some shoes feature a softer “crash pad” area on the outer edge of the foot or a rounded outer heel to smooth the landing. Research has shown that the body provides the majority of cushioning for your joints and that you land harder in a more cushioned shoe, so heel cushioning is largely a matter of perceived comfort.
What to look for: A balance between cushioning, stability, and ground feel, and note whether the shoe touches down where you expect it to and rolls into the stride a way that feels right.
Midsole material designed to reduce the impact of the largest forces of the stride that occur at forefoot loading and push off. While body mechanics largely provide cushioning to everything above the ankle, forefoot shoe cushioning protects the structures of the foot. The promise of new “energy-return” materials and designs is that they can both protect and propel your foot.
What to look for: Pay attention to the shoe’s responsiveness, looking for a balance between cushioning comfort and a firm push-off platform.
The difference in height between your heel and the ball of your foot when standing in the shoe. Experts disagree on the importance of drop related to injuries (remember Vibrams?), but agree that changing drop distributes forces differently to the foot and leg, and can alter your stride.
What to look for: A shoe that feels right throughout the stride, from touchdown to toe-off, and reduces stress on any weak parts of your foot.
Designers use a variety of technologies (such as medial posts, dual-density foams, varus wedges, guide rails, and wider shoe geometries) to try to keep the foot from excessive motion, primarily over-pronation or rolling inward. Scientists agree that most people do not need pronation correction, but control and stability devices appear to help some runners maintain their preferred movement path.
What to look for: A shoe that allows your foot to move comfortably and naturally through the stride, with the shoe providing stability as support, not correction.
The removable pad of foam inside the shoe that cushions the contours of the bottom of your foot. The sockliner, along with shoe geometry, provides most of what people think of as “arch support” and gives the shoe its initial step-in comfort.
What to look for: Pay attention to how the shoe feels on the run, where softer is not always better and the foot works dynamically to provide its own support and cushioning.
Avoid Common Shoe-Buying Mistakes
Specialty running store staffers see runners making the same mistakes again and again when they come in to buy shoes. But not you, not anymore, thanks to this advice from five prominent store owners and managers.
Mistake #1: Buying for looks. “We try to encourage every guest we work with to focus on fit, feel, and function over fashion. Making sure it is the right shoe for your specific needs is paramount. If the shoe doesn’t perform for you, then it doesn’t really matter what it looks like.”—Michael Zabrodski, Philadelphia Runner (Philadelphia, PA)
Mistake #2: Not asking for deals. “When you’re ready to pay, ask if there are any discounts available for running club members. Most specialty stores offer discounts from 10 to 20 percent; we offer 10 percent to our local track club. It costs $20 to join it, so if you buy two pairs of shoes, your track membership is paid for.”—Tim Rhodes, Run For Your Life (Charlotte, NC)
Mistake #3: Buying shoes that are too small. “Tight-fitting shoes lead to blisters and black toenails and that kind of thing. Women in particular are used to wearing their shoes close-fitting, as they’re often more self-conscious about the size of their feet. We like to say, ‘Play the piano with your toes,’ meaning the fit should be roomy enough in the forefoot—about half an inch—but not sloppy.”—Mike Johnson, Road Runner Sports (San Diego, CA)
Mistake #4: Shopping at the wrong time of day. “A lot of times people come in the morning and say, ‘This is the shoe I need.’ Then they’ll come back the next day and say, ‘I wore them at 5 p.m. and they were too small.’ Your feet start swelling in the morning and they don’t stop until about 4 p.m. That’s as big as they’re going to get, so always buy your shoes in the evening.”—Tish Borgen, Running Room (Minneapolis, MN)
Mistake #5: Assuming your size. “People assume that a size is a size—that an 8 in a Nike will be the same as an 8 in a New Balance. But sizes differ because of different lasts (foot forms), the different shape of the upper, and the way the shoe is stitched together. Have your feet measured every time you buy, and always try the shoes on for fit.”—Johnny Halberstadt, cofounder of the Boulder Running Company (Boulder, CO)