Why Do I Need a Running Shoe?
Shoes that are designed for the specific forward motion of running are engineered to protect your foot from the road and to manage the impact forces of your body weight on your lower limbs. Some models are designed to stabilize your foot in the ideal range of motion and to increase the efficiency of your running gait. However, there is a lot of debate around how successful these designs are in affecting gait or shock offset, with some studies showing no added benefit.
We aren't doctors or scientists here, just running enthusiasts that believe that if your shoe fits well and is comfortable to you, it is going to help you get out there and run. Roads and sidewalks differ from trails and tracks in that they are incredibly unforgiving man-made surfaces that aren't very comfortable to run on without some form of protection. Whether that protection ends up being a thin rubber sandal or an enormous foam platform will be based on your personal preferences and will most likely fall somewhere between those two extremes. Additionally, it's certainly not unheard of for the most enthusiastic runners among us to have a quiver of models for more specialized purposes. You may end up finding that no single shoe will meet all your needs, but having one lightweight, speed-focused shoe and one designed to protect against high mileage workouts will do the trick.
Running Shoes and Injury Prevention
Will any of these shoes prevent injury? The short answer is no. For the majority of people, a shoe suited to their needs is without a doubt an essential tool in helping to run a healthy, injury-free season, but we don't want you to hinder your running by using an overly engineered or ill-fitting shoe, both of which can have damaging effects on your body. The critical factor to understand is that how you use the shoe is what has the potential to cause an issue, and not the shoe itself. Using a motion control shoe on a rigid foot that supinates is not a good match, but that doesn't mean the foot or the shoe is defective, it's just a bad fit.
Even if you find the perfect shoe with the perfect fit, you still need to approach running in a safe way. Based on years of running experience working with a variety of coaches and industry professionals, we recommend first building up muscle, bone, and tendon strength and avoiding doing too much, too soon, too fast. Running shoes are often viewed as a magical cure-all that can solve for biomechanical quirks, imbalances, and overuse. No shoe is designed to fix your knee pain and shin splints, but a properly fitted running shoe tailored to your needs will certainly be better than those old sneakers that have been in the back of your closet for years. This is because materials break down over time, wear unevenly and will cause an imbalance in your foot strike during every stride you take. Bottom line, your footwear selection plays a vital role in staving off injury, but the training decisions you make are significantly more crucial to your health.
Men's vs. Women's Shoes
Sometimes the only difference between men's and women's models is the size and colors. Size refers not only to the length but the width of the shoe. Standard women's shoes (B width) correspond to a narrow size in the men's model. Nowadays there's a much better understanding of the need for different materials and fit for the women's model of an athletic shoe to account for volume and mechanical differences as well.
Females have lower average body weights and do not require the same firmness in cushioning as men's models. Women's shoes that are slimmer in the heel and more extensive in the forefoot and toe box area can better accommodate a woman's anatomy than the straighter designs that fit most men's feet best. Some people may find that their foot fits better in a shoe designed for the opposite gender, so it's important not to get too hung up on this and to zero in on the best fit. Additionally, more and more companies are promoting gender-neutral shoes that are available in a variety of sizes and widths.
Roads vs. Trails
Before we dig too deep, let's determine if road-specific shoes are going to work for you. If you intend to run mostly on sidewalks, roads, treadmills, or the track, you're in the right place. The most significant differences between a trail shoe and a road shoe are in the weight, durability, landing platform, and tread. The more uniform, human-made surfaces you'll encounter around town don't require as much tread as the changing terrain you could encounter on trails.
The most significant difference you will find in a trail shoe is the intense tread designs and materials that increase traction on variable terrain while protecting the foot from wet and muddy weather conditions. These shoes are designed with torsional rigidity (they feel firmer and don't easily twist) to help stabilize the foot and ankle over roots, rocks, and uneven trails. We log a good number of miles on light to moderate trails and solely use road shoes with minimal traction issues. When trails tend to be steeper and littered with loose rocks, it's better to grab the trail shoes with the added features for those missions. Road shoes are designed to allow for more speed and responsiveness, generally designed with softer cushioning to absorb the shock from man-made surfaces. Trail shoes are designed for rough terrain; with more protection, they tend to weigh more and have less flexibility than road shoes. If you feel like a pair of trail shoes is better for the type of terrain you intend to run on, check out our review of the Best Women's Trail Running Shoes
Types of Road Running Shoes
Running shoe categories are commonly organized by the degree of foot motion they accommodate. More specifically, we're looking at the amount of pronation that individuals experience during the gait cycle, taking into consideration runners with a neutral gait, runners whose feet over-pronate (inward) and runners who under-pronate, or supinate (outward).
In the last few decades, the running shoe industry has revolutionized itself, expanding constantly to absorb new research and their subsequent trends. From support to cushioning to bounce, shoe designers try to play catch up with the many different types of proposed benefits a shoe can bring to your feet. Whether you overpronate, have high arches, or suffer from painful knees, there is a company out there marketing a shoe to you. With all these keywords buzzing around, ebbing and flowing with the tides of popularity, it can be difficult to know which terms are important to your shopping and which are just catchy.Here, we dedicate a short section of this review to defining these terms to help you know what to look for based on your body and its unique, individual needs. Below we describe each type of design from neutral to minimalist, to help you better understand what the term refers to, and how one over another might better fit your running needs.
Neutral shoes are best suited for runners with even, or "neutral," gait patterns and moderate to high arches. These models are built with enough stability to keep your foot secure but tend to focus more on cushioning and flexibility. Neutral shoes tend to be a great middle ground between cushioning and stability, with the right padding for comfort, but not too heavy or unstable. All of the shoes in this review are marketed as neutral runners by the manufacturer except for the Brooks Adrenaline GTS and Nike Air Zoom Pegasus, both of which promote their supportive yet balanced designs. The range in this category can be quite broad, which is nowhere more evident than when comparing the maximally cushioned HOKA Bondi 5 with the moderate Altra Escalante.
Stability shoes are great for mild over-pronators as they offer guidance and medial support to keep the runner's gait in an ideal pattern. Shoes that fall within this category are solid and secure, perfectly bracing the foot and protecting from any unnecessary motion that could cause injury. Generally, these sneakers are more rigid than their neutral counterparts and can be heavier due to the extra postings used in structuring the foundation of the shoe. The best stable running shoes are ones that have a plush underfoot feel with good arch support, such as Adrenaline GTS The long-term benefits of a good stable shoe is that they can lessen the impact on the joints and help fix imbalances that may happen during the gait cycle. TheAdrenaline GTS and Air Zoom Pegasus made their mark in this category.
The minimalist scene has exploded in recent years, and companies like Altra are taking advantage. We reviewed the best barefoot shoes on the market in a separate review, but for athletes seeking a light, less-supportive shoe, like the Altra Escalante might be just the one for you. Shoes of this nature are built to do nothing but protect the bottom of the foot on the assumption that our bodies know best and will return to a more natural gait and stride when given the chance to spread out. If you're interested in trying this type of shoe but are accustomed to a traditional shoe, you may want to transition to a lower heel-toe offset first. Most traditional running shoes have a drop of around 10mm which has historically been believed to push you onto the balls of your feet. Some shoes in this review, like the New Balance Fresh Foam Zante v3 have a more moderate drop (4mm in the Zante's case) which could be a good way to experiment with this alternative design without putting too much impact on the knees right away. Once you feel ready for the change, 0mm drop shoes like the Altra Intuitions or Altra Escalante are both great options with less foam allowing for natural foot positioning.
At the same time, Altra was introducing their flat, natural shoes, companies like HOKA ONE ONE were introducing eye-catching maximalist shoes. While some of these models have zero heel-toe drops as well, they also included more padding than the running world had ever before seen. Designed for ultra-marathon distances, shoes with maximalist cushioning are clunky and lacking in responsiveness, but oh-so-comfortable. A shoe of this nature could be a great fit for your if ultras or marathons are in your repertoire, or if you suffer from joint pain and instability.
Over the years, we have picked up a few shopping tips that we would like to share with you. First, try them on in person. Especially if it's your first time picking up shoes for running or you're looking to change up your normal style. We cannot stress this enough. Go to a quality running shop with educated experts who can help you identify the needs of your unique feet. It's also a good idea to bring your old running shoes in to be evaluated based on wear pattern. There are so many good local stores that will be able to guide you through the process, do a gait analysis, and help you choose from a selection that fits your needs. Avoid the salesperson that can't explain why they're recommending one shoe over another. If you're switching to a new category of running, or if you're coming back from an injury, see the specialists.
Second, try on shoes in the evening when your feet are at their largest. Use the measurement of your larger foot to determine shoe size. One shoe being a little loose is preferable to the other being too snug. Wear running socks when you go to try on new shoes, and be prepared to actually test out the shoes. Good shops will even send you outside to run around the block or on a treadmill to get a good feel of the shoe.
Thirdly, take advantage of the return policies if you land in a shoe that doesn't suit you. Most running retailers, including online shops, will go to great lengths to help you find the best shoe to meet your needs. So while they're confident you won't need to use the policy, the best shops just want to keep you healthy and running.
Yes, this article might help you find the best women's running shoe to meet your specific needs, but we also strongly encourage you to take active control of your running health if you haven't already. Think about it this way: if you sit all day, stand all day, wear high heels, shuffle around in flip-flops, or run miles in ill-fitting or worn out shoes (basically, if you're human), then there's a really good chance that you have accumulated imbalances in your body due to weakness in muscle and tendon strength. No shoe can cure biomechanical flaws and weaknesses. So check out our Best in Class review, pick the best shoe for your current running goals, and put in the work to stay strong and healthy. And, most importantly, don't forget to have fun out there!