Does the search for new running shoes have you running in circles? The road-running shoe market is full of misleading descriptions, flashy colors, and confusing, sometimes irrelevant lingo. We sorted through the chaos and now are here to help. Our skilled team of running enthusiasts and expert gear testers researched dozens of the most popular running shoes for women to filter the mediocre from the exceptional, all to help steer you in the right direction. We created a detailed side-by-side comparison for the best shoes out there, running miles in each pair. In our review of running shoes for women, we highlight our testing metrics and explain which contenders excel in each category. Here, we hope to guide you down the path to your running success by offering helpful advice on choosing the perfect pair.
But, Why a Road Running Shoe?
We know from firsthand experience that if your running shoes fit comfortably and suit your needs, you'll be more likely to get out there and run. Roads and sidewalks differ from trails and tracks in that they are incredibly unforgiving man-made surfaces that often aren't very comfortable to run on without some form of protection. We sought out both maximalist style shoes with plenty of cushion for the pushin' and lightweight speedsters sure you propel you into PR (personal record) territory. It is certainly not unheard of for the most enthusiastic runners to select models for more specialized purposes; it depends on your running goals. You may end up finding that no single shoe will meet all your needs, or you may find that one shoe that's perfect for everything. As we review, we keep these elements in mind. We often discuss a shoe's versatility or specialty to further arm you with the info you need to select the right pair of runners.
Running Shoes and Injury Info
For most athletes, a shoe suited to their needs and preferences is, without a doubt, an essential tool in helping to have a healthy, injury-free life. Overly engineered or ill-fitting shoes can have damaging effects on your body and hinder your running goals — and other objectives, too. The critical factor to understand is that the shoe cannot inherently cause an injury; the runner's application of an improper fit can cause overuse injuries over time. On the flip side of the coin is the option for running shoes to help reverse the damage done by years of improper form, running posture, and gait. We always recommend determining muscular imbalances and unnecessary tension while on the move.
A classic example of this that comes to the surface is overpronating. Overpronation happens when a runner's anatomy and stabilizing muscles do not support ankles in motion. The sensation of the ankles rolling inward is the most notable way to determine this in the gait. Overpronators will do best with a supportive shoe that guides their feet to tracking in smooth, straight lines.
There has been a lot of pushback in the running community with the onslaught of barefoot and minimalist style shoes, and we are here to split the difference. One is not better than the other; it truly comes down to the runner's needs to purchase the shoe. The minimalist and zero drop crowd argue that stabilizing muscles need to have the space and opportunity to build strength. Yes, but… runners with naturally less supportive anatomical structures need the support to prevent injuries over the long term. And round and round we go. Ultimately, this is up to you and any bodyworkers you may have in your inner circle. Oftentimes, fatigue can play a role in the type of shoe you need. If you consistently seek out marathon-style efforts and run on tired legs, a support shoe might be more your bag. But if you are looking for a comfortable and supportive shoe to wear for long walks, short runs, and in the gym, a zero-drop option may help encourage your body to create more strength in the rear chain of muscles in your body.
Finding the perfect shoe doesn't give you the green light to have poor form; it's still crucial to approach your running career with postural cues and muscular engagement intact. We recommend building up muscle and tendon strength first based on years of running experience, personal training, and work beneath physical therapists. This means: avoid doing too much, too soon. The same rules apply as you allow your bones to get used to the higher impact that running imposes. If you are a new runner, remember: slow and steady wins the race.
No shoe is designed to fix your knee pain, shin splints, neuromas, tight IT bands, etc., but a properly fitted running shoe will undoubtedly be better than those old sneakers that have been in the back of your closet for years (you know, they've been there since running shoes were called sneakers). Materials break down over time and wear unevenly based on quirks in your gait, and these unique wearing patterns will cause imbalances in your foot strike every step of the way. Bottom line is your footwear selection coupled with training decisions play a vital role in biomechanical health and musculoskeletal longevity. It's up to you to choose wisely, and we are here to nudge you in the right direction.
Durability. How Long Will They Last?
A worn-out pair of running shoes can put a damper on your workout schedule and your bank account, but it can also be a gift. It can be helpful to study the bottoms and sides of our worn-out shoes to see where they faced the most wear and tear. This is a great way to determine what type of shoe will suit your gait properly and can help guide you towards your next purchase. It's as simple as taking your worn shoes to a running specialist and allowing them to sort out the deets.
Depending on how long it takes you to clock a few hundred miles, you might be going through your running shoes faster than you'd expect. If you're the type of runner who needs multiple pairs of shoes every year, you might want to pay extra close attention to the "Value" section of our main review. We believe that value and durability are two halves of the same whole, as we do not want to shell out our hard-earned schillings on kicks that degrade after a few voyages.
Road Shoes vs. Trail Sneaks
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, we need to ensure that a road-specific shoe is the best option for you. If you spend most of your time on a sidewalk, road, treadmill, or track, you are in the right place. Paved surfaces require different types of movement than rough, uneven surfaces, resulting in different shoe designs. Typically, trail and road shoes differ in weight, durability, landing platform, and, most importantly, tread. While all the road-specific shoes we tested for this review have decent traction, they do not have the burly lugs found on many of our favorite trail running models.
The most significant difference you will find in a top trail running shoe is the intense tread designs and materials that increase traction on variable terrain while protecting the foot from wet and muddy weather conditions. Some of our road runners held up their end of the bargain with the addition of small, protective features. Our more maximally styled shoes offered more protection than a more minimally-designed runner. The burlier the shoes, the more torsional rigidity (they feel firmer and don't easily twist) they have to help stabilize the foot and ankle over roots, rocks, and uneven trails. We log many miles on light to moderate trails and 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 and protection. And, if you're a hiking all-star ready for long day hikes or multi-day adventures, check out our review on hiking shoes.
Road shoes are designed to allow for more speed and responsiveness and are generally made with softer cushioning to absorb the shock from unforgiving 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: The Dirty Deets
Running shoe categories are commonly organized by the degree of foot motion they accommodate. The running shoe industry has revolutionized itself in the last few decades, continually expanding to absorb new research and subsequent trends. From support to cushioning to bounce, shoe designers constantly try to keep 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, the tides of popularity ebb and flow, making it super challenging to know which terms are essential to your shopping needs and which are just clickbait.
We decided to 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 anatomical needs. Below we briefly describe each type of design from neutral to minimalist to help you better understand all of the fancy-schmancy wording that has infiltrated the running world.
Neutral shoes are best suited for runners with neutral gait patterns along with moderate to high arches. Neutral running shoes are a safe bet for new runners and those unsure of where they fall on the gait pattern spectrum. These models are built with enough stability to support the foot through its average range of motion but focus more on cushioning and flexibility. Most of the shoes we tested fall into this category.
Stability shoes are great for mild over-pronators as they offer guidance and medial support to keep your gait in an ideal pattern. Shoes that fall within this category are typically solid and secure, bracing the foot and protecting from any unnecessary movements that could cause overuse injuries or imbalances. Generally, these sneaks are more rigid than their neutral counterparts and can be heavier due to the extra accouterments used to structure the shoe's foundation. The best stable running shoes are ones that have a plush underfoot feel, a soft tongue, and a collar full-o-fluff with good arch support.
A relatively new trend in running shoes, especially trail running shoes, is minimalism. This term can describe a few different traits but often refers to the shape and amount of cushioning on a shoe. Maybe you've seen those crazy people running in shoes that look like toe socks? Yeah, those are minimalist shoes — sometimes also called barefoot shoes. We have a review on barefoot shoes. However, we also found a few options to satisfy our inner minimalists in the road running sector while still protecting our feet from the elements. Or, let's be real, from stubbing our toes on the curb.
For athletes seeking a light, less-supportive shoe, zero-drop differentials are a good place to start looking. Shoes of this nature are built to 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 toes are given a chance to spread out. If you're interested in trying this 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. We reviewed quite a few shoes that have a 4-6mm drop, many of which are great gateway shoes available to a runner looking to dip their piggies into the zero drop tidepool. Zero-drop shoes are not abundantly common, but if it interests you, there are plenty of brands to check out.
On the other end of the spectrum from minimalism is, unsurprisingly, maximalism. Companies like Hoka One One promote heavy padding targeting distance and ultra-distance runners. These kicks are padded to the nines, offering a fluffy, marshmallowy landing with every stride. Maximalist shoes perform best over long, slow distances (LSD). The cushy base absorbs impact and vibrations to allow your muscles and joints to stay fresh mile after mile. We love maximalist shoes on our recovery days and think anyone with a history of injuries will enjoy the softness that maximalist shoes offer.
Hoka is by far the standout company here. They continue to introduce eye-catching maximalists. That's a nice way of saying it. They often look and feel like clown shoes, but if you are prone to shin splints and joint pain, get over the fashion faux-pas! This style will seriously help lessen joint pain. These kicks include more padding than the running world had ever before seen. Designed for ultra-marathon distances, shoes with maximalist cushioning are clunky and generally lack the responsiveness sprinters rely on. But man, are they comfortable! A shoe of this nature could be a perfect fit for your feet if ultras or marathons are in your repertoire or future repertoire.
Altra is an example of a company that uses "zero-drop" technology, meaning that the heel and toes are at the same height, as opposed to traditional shoes, which often elevate the heel 5-12mm. The science behind this is solid, even though the feel is not for everyone. Zero drop manufacturers have determined that by lowering the heel height, runners have to engage and utilize their stabilizing muscles more thoroughly. This is the same concept behind the construction of barefoot shoes, except that most zero-drop shoes shield feet from twigs, dog poop, rocks, whatever it is you're likely to come in contact with on your route.
Over the years, we've picked up a few shopping tips that we'd like to share with you. First, and we can't stress this enough: try them on in person! We know it's challenging as we rely on the internet for everything, but if you can, TRY THEM ON, especially if it's your first time picking up shoes for running or you're looking to change up your everyday style. We know the inter-webs make everything so instantly gratifying. Still, it's a mistake to underestimate the value of a quality running shop with educated experts who can help you identify the needs of your feet. It's also a good idea to bring your old running shoes to be evaluated based on wear patterns. And say a quick "adios" to the salesperson that can't explain why they're recommending one shoe over another and scoot your buns over to someone who knows what is up.
Additionally, it's a good idea to try on shoes in the evening when your feet are at their largest. Our feet tend to swell throughout the day, so it's a good idea to avoid trying on shoes first thing in the morning. 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. We have learned the hard way that buying running shoes half a size larger than our actual shoe size helps ward off black and blue toenails and midrace foot cramps. Wear running socks when you try on new shoes and be prepared to 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.
And finally, take advantage of the return policies if you land in a shoe that doesn't suit you. Seriously! Most running retailers, including online shops, will go to great lengths to help you find the best shoe to meet your needs. While they're confident you won't need to use the policy, the best shops want to keep you healthy and running.
We hope that this article helps you find your perfect running BFF. We strongly encourage you to take the initiative for your running health if you haven't already. It is up to you to stay motivated, respect your body's limitations, and push to your physical edge when the time is right. Check out the best women's running shoes, pick the best shoe for your current running goals, and put in the work to stay strong and healthy for life. And most importantly, don't forget to have fun! Running is fun, and anyone who tells you otherwise hasn't found a pair of shoes that allows them to take flight yet.