The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of outdoor gear

Purchasing the Ideal Pair of Running Shoes

The author (right) and two avid running friends John (middle) and Tomasz (left) are happy to finish the side by side comparison so they can get back to running.
By Ryan Baham ⋅ Review Editor
Friday October 26, 2018

It's safe to guess you're here because it's time to replace your old kicks, you're searching around for a new style, or you're looking to get into running. Don't worry, we have you covered. Whether you're looking for trail shoes, maximalist, endurance, minimalist, barefoot, or something else, we'll help point you in the right direction.

Road or Trail Running Shoe?


Before we can get into all the different sorts of shoes - minimalist, maximalist, stability, barefoot, and the rest - we need to figure out where you'll be running. Will you be mostly on the road, a little bit on the trails, all trail, and what kind of trails? Gentle, serendipitous little things with hard-packed earth or treacherous treks into the wilderness not for the uninsured? Keep your answer in mind.

Road and trail shoes are definitely designed for different pursuits, but they're not always apparently different and sometimes it's pretty easy to cross them over without concern. Lots of road runners love running in the New Balance Minimus 10v1s, even though they're really best suited to trails and rough or technical terrain. But there are still major differences between the two styles. The first noteworthy difference is that road shoes use much lighter, smaller, and less durable tread on the outsole. That's not something you could get away with in trail shoes, but on the road, you're usually stable enough not to have to worry about slippage unless there's tons of loose or wet gravel and quick changes in foot speed or direction. Road shoes are designed to take hard, consistent pounding on ground with no give, so the sole needs to be springy and responsive to maximize speed and stability.

Trail shoes need to withstand the stabbing, tearing, and scraping from rough terrain, so they offer significantly more protection. They're usually heavier, use super durable rubber, typically carbon rubber, and are less flexible than road shoes. There are exceptions though, as in some of the shoes put out by Merrell, New Balance, Vibram, and the other emergent minimalist/barefoot companies. Traditional trail shoes are typically fine for traversing a jagged boulder field, whereas the minimalist/barefoot shoes might be a bit too risky. At the least, the less protected shoes would require you to slow down more over the most craggy bits.

Trail shoes also come with a wider landing platform than road shoes to give a better feeling of control during landing. The more of your shoe that is making direct contact with the ground at any given moment, the better control you'll have while running. This is quite effective when you're hopping rock to rock and across creeks in trail shoes.

So, can one be substituted for another? This primarily depends on what type of terrain you'll be logging the majority of your miles. We logged about a mile per shoe on moderate trails just to see if any stuck out as incredible crossovers. As expected, the New Balance Minimus 10v1 did well on all but the most jagged rock surfaces, though mud and water obviously seep through to your feet immediately. Then again, if you're on a trail run, you probably expect to be a little wet and dirty anyway. Either way, when you know the trail will be tricky, littered with rocks, and muddy, maybe you ought to grab the trail shoes from the closet. If you log most of your miles on the road, treadmill, or paved walkways and venture out to moderate trails only occasionally, we feel you'll likely have no problem with using road shoes all the time, but the decision usually comes down to personal preference. If you feel like a pair of trail shoes is for you, check out our review of the Best Trail Running Shoes.

Selecting the Right Road Running Shoe


When you're in the market for new road shoes your first question should be "What is my running style?" The second is "What shoe matches my style?" It's extremely important that your shoe complements or assists your running style to maintain form and injury. At the very least, you shouldn't have to fight against the structures in your shoe to have a natural ride. For example, a runner with a standard gait might have some serious discomfort wearing a stability shoe meant for pronators. Meanwhile, a supinator seeking stability might actually have trouble in a stability shoe. Most stability shoes are meant to limit excessive inward movement of the ankles (overpronation), which would reinforce the excessive outward rolling of a supinator. But we'd encourage you to go see a sports physiologist for proper advice on specifics.

That brings us to the two major shoe styles: neutral and stability. You likely fall somewhat clearly into one or the other category. So what happens if you don't know where you fit and seeing a sports physiologist isn't in your plans? Don't worry, just head to the nearest running shoe specialty store where you can have a free gait analysis test to tell you what type of shoe will work best for you. We will also go over some reasons why you might prefer one shoe over another. The next question to ask is "What will I be using the shoe for?" If you plan to log most of your miles in road races, you might prefer a lighter racing flat. If you don't race at all and want the most miles for your buck, we suggest a slightly heavier, well cushioned neutral shoe with greater durability. There are so many varieties of shoe that no matter what you're looking for, the perfect shoe for you is out there. Now let's find it!

Types of Road Running Shoes


Neutral


Neutral road shoes are typically lighter and have more flexibility when compared to stability road shoes. You'll likely want to pick a neutral shoe if you have average pronation in your stride and a medium to high arch. Neutral road shoes omit the rigid midsole posting as well as the plastic space trusstic found in stability shoes, which allow the shoes to be lighter and have more flexibility. Neutral shoes also usually use a single density midsole instead of multi-density like most stability shoes. A single density midsole gives you a much softer landing, making them much more comfortable as the miles pass by. The majority of neutral shoes have a relatively flexible midsole like the Brooks Pureflow 7, that helps absorb impact from a standard foot strike. Expect to see about an 8mm heel to toe discrepancy in most neutral shoes, though they can range higher, as in the Brooks Glycerin 16, the most comfortable shoe in our group.

The neutral Adidas Adizero Boston 6 features a flexible  cushy sole that accommodates the standard gait.
The neutral Adidas Adizero Boston 6 features a flexible, cushy sole that accommodates the standard gait.

Stability


As previously mentioned, stability road shoes are made to provide extra support for those who over-pronate, which is where the ankle rolls inward too much. This excessive motion can potentially cause a slew of issues and running related injuries. This is a highly debated topic in the running community though, especially with the current minimalist and barefoot movement.

Many runners that thought they needed to train in stability shoes made the transition to minimalist shoes, and soon enough injuries were gone and PRs were had. Now, this obviously hasn't worked for everyone or stability shoes wouldn't be on the market anymore. Certainly some of our testers have had to eat the bitter crow of immediate running injuries from transitioning to minimalist shoes too quickly and running on harsh surfaces. If you've logged consistent injury-free miles in stability shoes, you probably want to keep doing what you're doing and keep using stability shoes. If you consistently find yourself getting injured in stability shoes, it might be time to try something different. Regardless, studies have also shown that stability shoes can help correct over-pronation and facilitate a more natural foot-strike for over-pronators.

Stability features help bring the foot back to neutral  but excessive use can interfere with landing comfort and feel unnatural.
Stability features help bring the foot back to neutral, but excessive use can interfere with landing comfort and feel unnatural.

One way to find out if you over-pronate is to go to a specialty running shoe store like Fleet Feet and have a gait analysis done. These are usually free and the store will have a treadmill there so they can examine your stride. Or, you can find out if you're an over-pronator from the comfort of your own home as long as you have some old shoes to look at. Examine the tread on your used shoes and if the inside of the heel area is significantly more worn than the outside, you're likely over-pronating. Also, many of those with flat arches as well as heavier runners find that stability road shoes offering denser posting work better for them.

John testing out the Saucony Hurricane ISO 3.
John testing out the Saucony Hurricane ISO 3.

Racing Flats


When it comes time for a race or speed workout, and you want to make the transition towards minimalism, or if you just want to feel fast, racing flats can be a great option. Most racing flats fall between neutral cushioned shoes and minimalist shoes. Racing flats are significantly lighter and generally less cushioned than neutral road shoes, but tend to have a bit more cushioning when compared to minimalist shoes, though the On Cloud can be considered a racing flat despite having as much cushioning as many neutral road shoes.

Training on a regular basis in racing flats subsequently creates a smoother transition for those planning to use minimal shoes. Though, many runners wait for that race day to take them out of the closet so they can feel their fastest. This is especially important as the low-mass racing flats may wear out faster than the bulkier neutral shoes with their extra padding and reinforcement. Of course, it's probably better just to go with the shoe most suited to your running style and preference.

Some of the top racing flats: Adizero Boston 6 (left)  Saucony Kinvara 8 (middle)  and Nike Free RN (right).
Some of the top racing flats: Adizero Boston 6 (left), Saucony Kinvara 8 (middle), and Nike Free RN (right).

If moving toward minimalism sounds interesting, you can facilitate the transition by using racing flats and more minimal footwear on a regular basis. Logging short runs (one or two miles) on a soft grassy surface is also good way to strengthen all those muscles in your feet more quickly. Please keep in mind, any time you change shoes or running style you're increasing the risk of injury. The most significant advice we can give you is to not make big, drastic changes in your training or the type of shoe you're used to running in.

Make incremental, small changes to give your body time to adjust. Lastly, we know it's easy to get carried away when a brand new pair of road shoes show up at your doorstep, but if you're making a transition in shoes or mileage in any way, we find it best to take your time and switch out between your old and new shoes every other day.

Maximalist


If you are no fan of traditional running shoes' outsized heel stacks, but need more padding between your feet and the pavement, then you might be happy about the maximalist shoes. These are something like a hybrid between stability shoes, minimalist shoes, and a Boeing 777 jumbo-jet tire made of plush pillows. Maximalist shoe firms have taken the zero drop heel-to-toe discrepancy of minimalist shoes and slapped on thick midsoles and outsoles beneath a layer of cushioning inside the shoe to produce an even, padded ride.

The Arahi's maximalist stack gives a ton of cushion for heavy landers and distance runners.
The Arahi's maximalist stack gives a ton of cushion for heavy landers and distance runners.

These are popular with runners who tend to feel the percussiveness of running a little more than the average runner or just prefer a little more pillow in their step. That range could be anything from an ultra marathoner plodding along at 5 MPH for 8 hours to a heavy stepper looking to have a comfortable 5K and everything in between. It really comes down to comfort level and buying the shoe most appropriate to your body and running style. In this reviewer's case, barefoot or minimalist shoes are the first choice, followed by maximalist shoes, whose relatively even platform and zero- or near-zero-drop stack allows a more natural-feeling midfoot strike.

What About Minimalist Shoes?


What's up with all this hype about minimalist running shoes anyways? Our ancestors didn't have all this cushion, gel, and foam to protect their feet, so why should we? They also didn't have endless asphalt roads to log their miles on. The current minimalist movement is encouraging many runners to switch styles of shoes. As the name implies, "minimalist" shoes are a much lighter and less supportive shoe than traditional road shoes.

Minimalist shoes are less responsive and lack the cushioning that road shoes provide. So why would anyone want to give minimalist running shoes a chance? Many runners are attracted to the idea of using a minimalist running shoe to obtain a more natural gait cycle. The average road shoe has an approximately 10mm heel to toe discrepancy. This forces your heel to strike the ground first, which actually causes you to slow yourself down. If you were to take the shoes off and watch your barefoot stride, you'd notice that you land more evenly on your foot and have a more efficient stride. Most minimalist shoes offer a 0 mm to 4 mm heel to toe discrepancy, which results in a more natural and efficient foot strike.

The minimalist Minimus 10v1 offer a more natural landing than the maximalist Kinvara 8  but have very little padding.
The minimalist Minimus 10v1 offer a more natural landing than the maximalist Kinvara 8, but have very little padding.

The most important factor when deciding to switch to minimalism, or to any shoe other than your current one, is taking your time. After years of using shoes with abundant cushioning, the muscles and tendons in your feet and lower legs become weak. It will take some time to build them up. Start off with only short walks in your new minimalist shoes. Slowly work up to one or two short runs a week.

We recommend doing this for at least a month before increasing your use to over two runs a week in the minimalist shoes. There is no perfect time frame for adjusting your feet to minimalist shoes. In conclusion, everyone's feet are different and some will take more or less time to the change. If you feel any pain, give yourself more time. If you feel great, continue to gradually work up your mileage with the minimalist shoes.


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