How to Find the Best Neutral Running Shoes for You
Choosing the right running shoe doesn't have to be intimidating. Here’s what to know about neutral running shoes — and if they’re a match for your needs.
At its core, running is a sport that allows you to lace up your shoes and get rolling with your workout — without being tied to bulky or expensive gear.
For many runners, especially newcomers to the sport, comfort level is a top priority when selecting footwear. And rightfully so — if your feet aren’t comfy, how enjoyable can a run really be? Research agrees. According to a 2020 study published in PLoS One, new runners prefer the overall comfort of footwear over any performance-enhancing and injury-prevention elements. Shopping for a shoe based on its fit is a great place to start. Be sure to consult an expert at your local running shop for additional guidance before making any purchases.
While we often associate terms like cushion with comfort, reaching for a shoe based on cushioning alone may not always result in the best fit. In fact, there are a variety of features worth exploring to identify the best pair for your needs. For starters, you might want to investigate different types of support, plushness, and flexibility to discover the perfect fit.
Find out why a neutral running shoe is likely ideal for most runners — and exactly what to look for when shopping.
What Is a Neutral Running Shoe?
Running shoe terminology can be a bit intimidating, but experts in the field affirm that the neutral running shoe category can be quite simple to understand.
The American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine (AAPSM) explains that a neutral running shoe is made without a medial post (aka, a firm device found in the midsole of the shoe) meaning it doesn’t provide as much arch support as a stability or motion control shoe. A neutral shoe also curves from the heel to toe along the arch and services those with neutral pronation, meaning the foot rolls slightly inward with each step.
Howard E. Friedman, DPM, founder of Suffern Podiatry based in Suffern, N.Y., says that neutral running shoes should be the default choice for most runners. That is, unless you have a known musculoskeletal issue that would require extra support. Generally, the two main types of shoes are stability and neutral running shoes. When in doubt, you may want to start with a neutral shoe.
“Stability shoes are designed to provide added arch support,” says Friedman. “This can be achieved by adding material in the arch of the shoe as well as building up the thickness of the heel to further lift and support the arch. A neutral shoe has less added arch support and the heel is even throughout, not thicker in one area over another. Generally therefore, a neutral shoe is lighter weight than a stability shoe.”
Remember, stability shoes are best for those who overpronate or have flat feet. A motion control shoe is a bit heavier than a stability shoe and helps runners with severe overpronation limit excessive foot movement.
“A stability or motion-control shoe is designed to help offset excessive pronation, which is where the foot rolls [too far] inward after impact with the ground,” says Seth Kopf, who is a running coach and owner of Kopf Running and certified by the Road Runner's Club of America and USA Track and Field.
Runners who are hoping to improve foot strike or gait can easily get bogged down by examining all the features available in a shoe. According to Mary Johnson, USATF-certified running coach and founder of Lift | Run | Perform, the quest for perfect running form is futile. Instead, she recommends runners to choose a shoe that allows their foot and body to do most of the work, as opposed to letting the shoe do that for you.
If you don’t have any glaring issues or imbalances, choosing a neutral shoe will eliminate what Johnson refers to as “external guidance” from taking over when you run. For context, a 2018 study found that maximal shoes (think, stability or motion control shoes) can cause the runner to rely too heavily on the shoe to reduce the force of impact that comes from hitting the ground with each foot strike. The study authors concluded that new runners who chose maximal shoes over neutral ones actually suffered from a higher force of impact, which could increase their risk of injury in the long run.
Who Should Run in a Neutral Running Shoe?
If you are a new runner or a veteran who doesn’t have any known issues, selecting a neutral shoe could be a strong option. Friedman adds that a history of arch pain or plantar fasciitis — which is associated with pain in the heel — are other issues that may instead require the support of a stability shoe.
“There seems to be a common belief that feet always require added stability and support,” says Friedman. “While this is true for some, I believe it is the exception and not the rule. Most people, including those that are considered to have a mild or moderate flat foot, may not require additional arch support. On the contrary, given an opportunity, the foot musculature may strengthen in a neutral shoe more so than in a stability shoe.”
In fact, additional studies have found that shoes that have more cushion don’t prevent running injuries caused by the impact of feet pounding on pavement. Additionally, shoes that are more stiff have actually been associated with a higher risk of injury.
“Having worked in a running specialty store for three years, I can personally attest to the large number of people that are in the wrong type of shoe,” says Kopf. “Knowing whether you need a neutral-cushion or stability shoe is half the battle!”
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What Features Should You Look for in a Neutral Running Shoe?
There are a few features you should make note of when buying a neutral running shoe. For example, Johnson specifies that the heel-to-toe drop is key, explaining that a zero drop shoe means it’s completely flat on the bottom, or that there is no height difference between the heel and toe of the shoe.
Before you go to the running store, be sure to do a little research to make the best-informed selection. Look into what the heel-drop ratio is in a current pair of running shoes and compare it to any new options. This way, you can be sure to prepare for an adjustment period if necessary. This is especially true if you’re switching up brands since “a neutral shoe is not the same across every brand,” Johnson notes, adding that seeking out a shoe with flexibility is key.
As you’re considering different features — including whether you want your neutral shoe to have more cushion or not — the most important thing to prioritize is comfort.
“The toes must have room to spread,” says Friedman. “One way to ascertain that is to remove the liner of the shoe if possible, stand on it and look down. The entire foot should fit within the borders of the liner.”
If you aren’t purchasing your shoes in store, it may be a good idea to order a few pairs online and test them out on a few runs. The bottom line is this: “Don’t overthink it: If it is comfortable, go with it,” says Johnson.
Try These Neutral Running Shoes
Because a neutral shoe is ideal for most runners, there is no shortage on the market. If you are looking for where to start, Nike has you covered with neutral, lightweight shoes — some that offer stability features without all of the bulk.
1.Nike Air Zoom Pegasus
A mainstay in Nike’s running shoe lineup — and running shoes in general — the latest version of the Nike Pegasus comes with a wide toe (meaning you’ll have room to spread the toes as Friedman advised). They are a cushioned neutral shoe, while remaining incredibly lightweight.
2.Nike Air Zoom Vomero
Another lightweight option, this shoe has an upper that is made to stretch and fit the foot comfortably. If you are making the switch from stability shoes to neutral running shoes, the Nike Air Zoom Vomero is a great option thanks to the clip at the heel that helps support the foot without adding rigidity.
3.Nike ZoomX Invincible Run Flyknit
Another great option for a neutral shoe that has features mimicking a stability shoe, the Nike ZoomX Invincible Run Flyknit has lightweight foam in the sole. These are cushioned without adding additional weight and are suitable for long runs. Nike’s Flyknit technology helps the shoes fit like a glove, molding to your feet while staying breathable and secure.
Words by Ashley Lauretta