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.
Article By:
Ryan Baham
Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Tuesday
August 22, 2017
So you are in the market for running shoes. But what kind? There are trail shoes, road shoes, minimal shoes, maximal shoes, and even barefoot shoes. Then within each of those categories are different styles of shoes targeted at different styles of running. So how do you narrow down the thousands of options to just the right pair for your runs? Here is some of our advice.

Road or Trail Running Shoe?


What are the most significant differences between road and trail shoes? The first noteworthy difference is that road shoes use much lighter, smaller, and less durable tread on the outsole. You really don't need much tread given that roads provide plenty of consistent traction to begin with. Road shoes are designed to allow for more speed and responsiveness than trail shoes. Given that trail shoes are intended to take a more substantial beating from rough terrain, they offer significantly more protection, are heavier, use super durable rubber, and are less flexible than road shoes. 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 Running Shoe


The initial and most important question you need to ask yourself before choosing a new road shoe is "What type of shoe will best fit my running style?" It could be detrimental to your running if you pick a shoe that doesn't fit your specific running style. For example, if you're a neutral runner and you pick a stability shoe to use for training, it could cause some serious mechanical problems. Your decision on what new road shoe to buy should be based on a few different factors. The first is knowing if a neutral or stability shoe will suit you better. You most likely already know this.

But if not, 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 and more minimal 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 high durability. There are so many varieties of shoes 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 Adidas Adizero Boston 6, that helps absorb impact from a standard foot strike. Expect to see about a 10mm heel to toe discrepancy in most neutral shoes, though they can range higher, as in the Brooks Ghost 10, 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


Stability road shoes are made to provide extra support for those who over-pronate. What is over-pronation? To put it simply, over-pronation occurs during foot-strike when your feet excessively roll inwards. 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 who have 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. If you have 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 the direction towards 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 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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