Shop for Running Shoes Like a Pro
Here’s everything you need to know — about fit, gait and function — to find a pair that works for Y-O-U.
True story: There is such a thing as a pair of running shoes that will make you want to run. Shoes that will support you through hundreds of miles, safeguarding your feet and hopefully bettering each and every workout. Shoes that may even feel like they’re doing some of the hard work for you.
How do you find these Cinderella shoes? “You choose a shoe that protects and supports your unique anatomy,” says Ian Klein, an exercise physiologist specializing in cross-training and injury prevention at Ohio University. For starters, that means don’t pick a shoe just based on looks (though, let’s be honest, that does matter) or reviews. Do put real thought and effort into finding the right style. For more on the latter, keep reading...
1. Narrow Your Options
This one’s easy, albeit pretty obvious: If you’re going for a run, you want to lace up designated running shoes, not training shoes (or walking shoes, or lifestyle shoes, etc.). Whether shopping online or in person, head straight to that category.
A running shoe is designed for linear movement and should be cushioned and comfortable so it can support you as you work throughout that movement pattern, says Nike Run Club Chicago Coach Emily Hutchins. A training shoe, on the other hand, provides stability for multidirectional movements, like squats, lunges and side shuffles.
2. Focus on Feel
Just-right running shoes should feel like a natural extension of your body. “If your shoes are uncomfortable, you’re going to anticipate that discomfort with every footfall,” says Nike senior director of global running Chris Bennett, aka Coach Bennett. That causes your body to make compensations in your form, which can affect your natural gait and, he adds, may lead to injuries.
Hop into a specialty running store to have your gait analyzed for specific recommendations (more on that in a minute). As the salesperson helps you try on different models, keep in mind that comfort is paramount. “If someone’s recommending a shoe to you that isn’t comfortable, go with your gut,” says Kate VanDamme, a physical therapist and orthopedic clinical specialist at the NYU Langone Health Sports Performance Center. Ultimately, you are the expert on what feels right.
For example, a stability shoe might be the ideal pair for you based on how you pronate, but perhaps the one you tried on is giving you hot spots or rubbing the back of your ankle, says Lee Welch, a doctor of physical therapy who specializes in lower-extremity injuries in runners and is the co-owner of The Running PTs. Try to wear the shoes around the store (even better if you can test them on their treadmill), or make sure you’re shopping at a place with a lenient return or exchange policy so you can test them better at home.
“You should choose a shoe that protects and supports your unique anatomy.”
3. Get Your Fit Dialed In
When it comes to shoes, size matters.
Wear a pair that’s too small, and you could wind up with blisters and black toenails. Run in a pair that’s too big, and you’ll be sliding around, unable to properly absorb impact and maximize your push off the ground.
To know you have a good fit, “you should have some space between your toe and the tip of your shoe,” says Welch. “That’s because the shoe is designed to bend underneath the ball of your foot, not further back.” You should be able to wiggle your toes too. If you can’t, the shoe is too small, says Welch.
Pro tip: Whether you’re in a store or you ordered online, make sure you try on shoes after a run or in the evening. Your feet swell over the course of the day the same way they swell during running, says Welch. If you try on shoes before a workout or early in the morning, you may end up with a too-tight pair.
4. Consider Any Foot Issues
Your foot anatomy and how you run can make a difference when it comes to choosing the best shoe. Here’s how to deal with some common problems:
- Over- or Underpronation
Everyone needs some degree of pronation. When a person runs, the foot naturally moves into a pronated (inward) position as it hits the ground, then into a supinated (outward) position as the runner pushes away from the ground, explains VanDamme. This natural shifting keeps us nimble on our feet and able to navigate uneven terrain, says Welch, and, most important, “it’s a way for your body to absorb force so you don’t hurt yourself.”
Issues strike when that amount of pronation is excessive. If your foot overpronates, or collapses excessively inward, you could be at risk for plantar fasciitis, IT band friction, piriformis syndrome, knee pain or shin splints, says Welch. If your foot underpronates, the joints of your foot don’t move to absorb shock, and the majority of your weight falls on the outer edge of your foot, which could lead to stress fractures, says VanDamme. Any of these injuries are potentially sidelining for weeks or months, so you want to avoid them at all costs.
Overpronators tend to prefer stability shoes with a firmer midsole that helps prevent their foot from caving in too much, says VanDamme. Underpronators typically fare better in neutral shoes, which provide more cushioning (but less support) and more shock absorption.
- Flat Feet or High Arches
If you have flat feet, consider a shoe that has a little bit more support, says Welch. On the other, uh, foot, people with high arches “can often wear whatever they want and do well in a neutral shoe,” he says.
- Plantar Fasciitis
Plantar fasciitis is an injury to the plantar fascia, a strong band of tissue that runs down the middle of your foot and supports your arch, says Klein. It’s often caused by excessive stress, like overtraining or a sudden increase in mileage. The inflammation typically creates a stabbing pain along the bottom of your foot, from your heel to your toes.
If your fasciitis is mild and/or caught and treated early, you can usually continue to run as long as you don’t overdo it on mileage. If that’s the case, “the more supportive the shoe, the better,” says VanDamme. A stability shoe that provides extra cushioning at the heel may help lessen the pain.
5. Think About Your Main Usage
“For casual, everyday runs, a somewhat cushioned, neutral shoe can do it all,” says Jason Fitzgerald, a USA Track & Field–certified coach, the head coach of Strength Running, and the host of The Strength Running Podcast. Most neutral shoes have a mix of cushioning and responsiveness that eases you through long runs but can still give you ample energy return when you want to pick up the pace.
During races or speed workouts, a lighter shoe can be clutch, says Coach Bennett. (When you’re gunning for an all-out effort, the less weight your foot has to pick up with each stride, the better.) “Racing flats can give a runner great track-feel while offering the ability to go off-track,” says Nike Run Club Chicago Coach Robyn LaLonde.
Going off-road? You’ll likely need a pair of trail running shoes to help you better navigate roots, pebbles and boulders as well as softer, uneven surfaces, says LaLonde. These have a durable sole and wider base with a grippy tread for better traction. You may also want to look for a trail running shoe that’s either water-resistant or waterproof and has an ankle collar to keep out debris. If you’re going to be running trails that are especially rock-laden or steep, LaLonde recommends a shoe with a rock plate built into the midsole, which helps protect your feet from sudden stubs and awkward landings and makes it easier to run tougher grades.
Know When to Upgrade
So you’ve checked off all of the above to find your beloved shoe — nice! Sadly, you might need to go through it again in the near future. “A shoe is kind of like a muscle,” explains Klein. “When a muscle gets fatigued, it loses its function. So when a shoe gets fatigued or worn out, it loses its structural integrity and can no longer perform its function.”
Most running shoes are safe to sport for 300 to 500 miles, depending on how you run, says Welch. But overstriding, excessive pronation, and landing too far forward or too far back on the shoe can all cause the outsole to wear out faster, he says.
A simple way to determine when to replace your shoes is to pay attention to the feel, says Fitzgerald. “Ask yourself, are they still giving your feet and your lower legs the support and cushion that they used to give you?” he says. If not, or if you can see visible signs of wear in the sole, he adds, it’s time for a new pair.
If you’re lucky, your go-to style is still available and you can just pick up a fresh pair. But if the version has been updated, you probably want to try them out to make sure any changes to the fit still work for you. Good news is, since you’ve already gone through this list, you know what to look for.
Excuse to go shopping, granted.
Words: Ashley Mateo
Illustration: Justin Tran