So you're in the market for new running shoes. You're in luck. That's exactly what we do here. We take a deep dive on the best running shoes on the market. No matter what you're looking for, we can help get you pointed in the right direction whether it's something we've reviewed or not. The aim of this article is to familiarize you with the world of running shoes so you know what you're getting into when you eventually make the leap and buy a pair. We expect that readers will be newer to the sport, so it's written as an overview or introduction to running shoes, but we cover some things that even seasoned runners might learn. We certainly learned a lot of new things in doing the research for this piece.
We first draw a line between road running shoes, cross-training shoes, and trail running shoes. Sure, there's some crossover, but for the most part the three are different disciplines with different performance demands. We then move into a discussion about what makes a shoe the best model for you. We then go into the major types of road running shoes — neutral, stability, racing flats, maximalist, and minimalist — so you can get a better idea of what's out there, why they're designed as they are, and what might work best.
Related: The Best Trail Running Shoes of 2020
Road Running, Cross-Training, 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 and what you'll be doing in your shoes. Will you be mostly on the road? Out in a field cross-training? Training in a gym? Venturing off-road? Maybe a little bit on the trails? All trail? What kind of trails? Gentle, serendipitous little things with hard-packed earth or treacherous treks into the wilderness not for the uninsured? Keep your answers in mind.
There's a real difference between shoes designed for uni-directional attack on asphalt or paved terrain, those meant for quick, jerky, explosive movements all over the place in the gym, court, or field, and those intended for rugged trails, but a lot of runners are happy crossing them all and never really notice a difference in performance. That doesn't mean they're getting the most out of their shoes, just that it's not a big enough factor to matter to them. If you're all about getting maximum performance out of your gear, you'll probably want to pay more attention to design and intended purpose.
Lots of road runners love running in trail shoes, even if they're minimalist shoes meant for rough terrain. So let's look into what makes the three styles different and why you might choose one over the other.
The first noteworthy difference is that road running shoes put a lot less into the outsole, especially when it comes to tread. The material is usually lighter, more uniform or flat, and not as tough or long-lasting. That's because on the road you're typically stable enough not to have to worry about slippage unless there's tons of loose or wet gravel requiring quick changes in foot speed or direction. Road shoes are designed to take hard, consistent pounding on unforgiving paved surfaces. The sole needs to be springy and responsive to maximize speed and stability while minimizing hurties.
Cross-training shoes need to strike a balance between versatile, off-roading ATVs, and the smooth-track, single-purpose, road shoe. That means they need to have a good deal of stability features to take all of the jumping, kicking, sprinting, lifting, sashaying, and whatever other sorts of excited bricolage cross-training types can come up with to get fit. You don't want to be mid-wind-sprint and have your shoe fly off because there's no heel retention. You don't want want to lose your power because the shoe isn't adhering to your foot. At the same time, you don't want to have such a rigid shoe that you snap your foot off at the ankle when you pivot and hit a lateral lunge with an inadvisably large kettlebell. Even their outsole needs to be a balance. They need to be more like radial tires than mud tires (trail shoes) or drag slicks (road shoes; we're…stretching real hard here to make the metaphor work, but you get the point). Cross-training shoes live somewhere in the middle of supportive road shoes and trail shoes.
Trail shoes, on the other hand, need to withstand stabbing, tearing, and scraping from rough terrain, so they offer significantly more protection. They tend to be heavier, use more durable rubber, and are more rigid 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 and barefoot companies. Traditional trail shoes are typically fine for traversing a jagged boulder field, while the minimalist and barefoot models might not be enough protection or support for sharp rocks and the other precarious obstacles you encounter out in the wild. At the least, the less protective shoes will require you to slow down more over the most craggy bits.
Trail shoes also come with a wider landing platform than road shoes to allow for more control during landing. The more of your shoe that makes 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.
Now, is it safe to be out in the woods on top of rocks and sticks in your road shoes? That sort of depends on you and the trail. Arguably, if there's a will, there's a way, and it's up to you. But on the gear side, it certainly can make a difference to have the right shoes. Road shoes aren't really the best for scrambles, tricky, sheer drops, or super craggy, hurty rocks covered in clay mud. You'll want trail shoes for that, or maybe even boots if the rocks are sharp and mean enough.
So it depends on what type of terrain you'll be logging the majority of your miles on. We logged at least a mile per shoe on moderate trails just to see if any stuck out as incredible crossovers. Many did fine on all but the most jagged rock surfaces, though mud and water were understandably problematic. 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, 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 have no problem using road shoes all the time. At that point, it's really whichever shoe feels the best to you.
Selecting the Right Road Running Shoe
Once you've narrowed it down to a road shoe, you need to ask yourself what your running style is so you can determine the most complimentary shoe. Not only will that help you feel better in your new kicks, it may also reduce the chance of injury that could result from buying a shoe that forces you to work new muscles or hits joints differently.
If you want to get the most out of your running shoes, you shouldn't wear something that doesn't work for your body. Make sure you have a clear view of how your feet work and what kind of gait you have. Lots of running stores will be eager to help you out with a free gait analysis. You can also take a look at the bottom of your shoes and read the tea leaves, as it were, to make an educated guess, but be sure to consult professionals for gait analysis, not the internet.
Generally, you shouldn't have to fight against the structure and design of your shoe when you go out for a run. A runner with a neutral gait might have some serious discomfort wearing a stability shoe meant for pronators. Conversely, a supinator that needs stability might actually have trouble in a stability shoe. Most stability shoes are meant to limit excessive inward movement of the ankles (overpronation), but this can reinforce the excessive outward rolling of a supinator. We'd encourage you to see a sports physiologist for proper advice on specifics.
That brings us to the two major shoe styles: neutral and stability. We'll go over some reasons why you might prefer one over another. But don't worry if you don't fit into one of these broad categories. There are tons of shoe companies, and the diversity of options is almost endless. One way or another, you will find something out there that works for you. Now let's find it!
Types of Road Running Shoes
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. Most neutral running shoes lack the rigid midsole posting found in stability shoes. These omissions reduce weight and improve 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 17, one of the most comfortable shoes in our group.
As previously mentioned, stability road shoes are designed to reduce excess movement, and most are specifically meant to provide extra support for those who over-pronate, which is where the ankle rolls inward too much. Supination is when the ankle rolls the other way, to the outside. Both gaits can impact the knees and put more or less pressure on different bits not meant to take a beating or see that range of motion, causing a slew of issues and running-related injuries.
But the need for stability shoes and corrective devices is a highly debated topic in the running community, especially with the current minimalist and barefoot movements battling it out with both stability and maximalist folks. If you've logged consistent injury-free miles in stability shoes, you probably want to keep doing what you're doing. 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.
One way to find out if you over-pronate is to go to a specialty running shoe store and have a gait analysis done. These are usually free, and the store will have a treadmill to 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 postings work better for them.
Racing flats are generally arranged along a spectrum from neutral cushioned to minimalist. They tend to weigh less than non-racing shoes and don't usually have the padding of the big comfort models and stability shoes. There are minimalist racing flats, but they're usually a little less lean than true minimalist shoes, using a bit more cushioning in both the sole and the upper and typically having a larger drop from the heel to the toe.
Some runners tend to have their race day shoes that they only break out when they're racing. There are pros and cons to that practice. It can give a psychological boost, and it does a lot to preserve the race shoes. It might also help preserve your joints if you're training in more cushioned shoes. But you might risk injury by quickly moving to a less padded racing flat and suddenly going all-out. Regularly training in a style closer to your race day shoe is probably the best practice. And it's better to go with the shoe most suited to your running style than to risk injury by forcing something ill-suited on yourself.
If moving in a minimalist direction is appealing, 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 a 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 important advice we can give you is not to 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.
If you are not a fan of traditional running shoes' outsized heel stacks but need more padding between your feet and the pavement, then you might be happy about 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 companies 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.
These are popular with runners who tend to feel the percussiveness of running a little more than the average runner or 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 with all the 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 shoes a chance? Many runners are attracted to the idea of using them 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 most important factor when deciding to switch to minimalist shoes, or any shoe other than your current one, is taking your time. After years of using footwear 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 with short walks in your new minimalist shoes and 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 minimalist shoes. There is no perfect time frame for adjusting your feet, but it's better to take your time than cause injury. Everyone's feet are different, and some will take more time to change than others. If you feel any pain, give yourself more time. If you feel great, continue to work up your mileage gradually.
So what now? You've read all of our advice on what you need to think about when you go forward into the road running world, and you're ready to get yourself shod. Well, hang on a second. You probably want to look at a few shoes and do some research on their actual performance. Once you've read a little more about individual running shoe performance, then you'll be ready to start pulling the trigger on the buy button. You might also consider doing some shop demos. Just head into your local store, run around the parking lot like a hellion for a few laps to see what you can feel, and make sure the shoes are speaking to you. Once you're satisfied that the shoes sing and the price is right, go ahead and pull out the ol' P-card and make sure you get a good return policy — just in case. Happy running!