How to Choose the Best Running Shoes for Women

running shoes women
Article By:
Lauren DeLaunay
Senior Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Tuesday
January 30, 2018
Feeling daunted by the growing selection of women's running shoes saturating the market? Confused by shoe lingo and descriptions? You've come to the right place.

In this review, we tested 10 of the highest-ranking road-specific footwear available from a variety of industry leaders in a side-by-side comparison to give you a detailed understanding of where to start when shopping for new gear this season. We've said it before and we will say it again, there is no one best model that we can recommend for the many body and foot-type combinations out there, but by taking the time to gain a deeper understanding of your individual fitness goals and body mechanics, you can use our 2017 women's review to help make an informed purchase.

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 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 a 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.

The Glycerin likes to transition from pavement to dirt just as much as we do.
The Glycerin likes to transition from pavement to dirt just as much as we do.

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 really damaging effects on your body. The key 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 overtime, wear unevenly and will cause an imbalance in your foot strike during every stride you take. Bottom line, your footwear selection plays an important role in staving off injury, but the training decisions you make are significantly more crucial to your health.

Showing off the highly cushioned sole of the Glycerin
Showing off the highly cushioned sole of the Glycerin

What's the Difference Between Men's and 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 is in the weight, durability, landing platform, and tread. The more uniformed man-made surfaces you'll encounter around town don't require as much tread as the dynamic terrain you could encounter on trails.

The biggest 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 mission. 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

The Valley Loop Trail in Yosemite has never been more comfortable than with the HOKA Bondi.
The Valley Loop Trail in Yosemite has never been more comfortable than with the HOKA Bondi.

Traditional Shoe Categories


Mainstream shoes are classified as either neutral or stability shoes, and these categories are based on accommodating the way your foot moves as you run. This is defined by level of pronation in your gait. A neutral gait cycle pronates just enough to absorb the impact forces of running. Neutral runners do well to choose neutral shoes. People with flat or highly flexible arches tend to have an over-pronating gait where the arch collapses while running which causes the foot and ankle roll inward. These runners may want to use stability shoes for support. Supinating or under-pronating gaits occur most often in individuals with high, inflexible arches that do not collapse at all, resulting in the foot rolling outward. Under-pronators looking for shoes should find models that compensate for the lack of shock attenuation in their biomechanics. Not sure what your gait looks like? Most running shops are equipped with experts to help you identify unique features about your gait cycle, usually free of charge.

Neutral


Neutral shoes are also sometimes referred to as cushioning shoes. This is because the primary focus for neutral shoes is to cushion your landing and provide an even platform without getting in the way of your gait. These shoes tend to be flexible and work best for people who don't have biomechanical issues to address.

Stability


Stability shoes are designed to keep the neutral or over-pronating gait from excessive rolling inward. If a person who over-pronates puts on cushioned shoes that offer no support, they are going to increase their rate of over-pronation further when the sole compresses medially (inward).

Newer Shoe Categories


With a recent boom in running, the shoe industry is exploding with new theories and technologies aimed at helping you find your best fit. Here, we break down some of these new categories. These terms define different aspects of the shoe and can usually be paired with one of the categories described above. For example, a shoe can be both neutral and minimalist and supportive and maximalist.

Minimalist


Our first example of a new shoe category isn't new at all but a return to the idea that the foot is designed with all the cushioning and shock absorption properties it needs. This category can also be referred to as barefoot running. Shoes in this category tend to have little to no cushioning, very flexible thin rubber soles, and light, breathable uppers. Transitioning to minimalist shoes is best achieved in a super slow process that allows the body to adapt slowly to the new input from barefoot running.

Sometimes, a "minimal" shoe may be referring to its heel-toe drop. This measurement tells us the offset in height between the heel and toe. While most of the more traditional shoes in this review have between a 5mm and 10mm offset, companies like Altra market entirely "zero-drop" designs in which the heel and toe sit at the same distance from the ground; even their most maximalist design incorporates this feature. Because traditional running shoes are designed to push you ever-so-slightly onto the ball of your foot with this offset, we recommend transitioning slowly to a smaller heel-toe drop if that's the direction you're interested in taking to let the body adjust to this lack of support.

Maximalist


With up to two and a half times more cushioning materials than traditional running shoes, maximalist shoes are plush, soft shoes with a serious focus on cushioning. The shoes in this category tend to be rigid and heavy (though not always), and they are designed to protect the foot and body from ultra distances. Hoka One One is credited with having pioneered the maximalist category, and their Bondi 5 is an amazing example of what this category can look like at the extreme end.

Shopping Strategies


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.

Getting excited to take off with the Bondi
Getting excited to take off with the Bondi

Final Thoughts


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!



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