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. The first thing to figure out when you're in the market for a new pair of kicks is where you'll use them. 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.
There's a real difference between shoes designed for road and pavement and those designed for rugged trails, but a lot of runners are happy crossing the two 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.
As an example of cross-over, lots of road runners love running in the New Balance Minimus 10v1s, even though they're a minimalist shoe meant for trails and rough or terrain. So let's look into what makes the two styles different and why you might choose one over the other or be fine dealing with the ambiguity between the two styles.
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 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 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 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 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.
Okay, but can you wear a road shoe out on trails or a trail shoe out on the road? The answer really rides on how technical the terrain is and how specific the shoe is. You just don't want to be running road in a trail shoe that's a step down from a hiking boot, and you don't want to be on a super muddy, root- and rock-filled trail in a big stability or comfort shoe. So it depends on what type of terrain you'll be logging the majority of your miles on. 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 in 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, 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. 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
Once you've narrowed it down to a road shoe, you need to ask yourself what your running style is and then you need to determine what style of shoe fits and complements your style. Not only will that help you feel better in your new shoe, but 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 don't want to wear something that literally isn't working for you. 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 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 structures 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 in need of 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. We'll go over some reasons why you might prefer one shoe over another. But don't worry if you don't think you fit into one of these broad categories. There are tons of shoe companies, and the diversity of options is almost endless, so there will be something out there that will work 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 and plastic space trusstic found in stability shoes. These omissions reduce weight and improve flexibility for most neutral running shoes. They 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, the most comfortable shoe 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 could also impact the knees and put more or less pressure on different bits not necessarily meant to take the beating or see that range of motion, which could potentially cause 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 movement battling it out with not only the stability shoes but the maximalist folks too. 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 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.
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 the 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 protect 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 probably better just to go with the shoe most suited to your running style than to risk injury by forcing an ill-suited shoe on yourself.
If the direction towards minimalism sounds interesting, you can facilitate the transition by using racing flats and more minimal footwear regularly. 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 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.
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.
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 5mph 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 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 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 minimalism, or 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 with 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.