How to pick your next pair of running shoes

By Takia McClendon

Have you ever tried to buy a new pair of running shoes? If you started your search by typing "good running shoes" into Google, you were probably presented with pages and pages of blogs and articles explaining what shoes are the 'best'. 

Unfortunately, when it comes to shoe reviews and recommendations, the internet can get a little overwhelming. Most reviewers have great intentions but many of them are so wrapped up in their love (or hate) affair with their shoe, they forget to remind readers that not all feet are created equally. The Mizuno Wave Rider may work great on my feet but that doesn't mean it will work on yours. 

With so many options, how can you find out which shoe is best for you? 

Get fitted for your next pair of shoes. 

Every running store is different but most do shoe fittings. A running shoe fitting usually means that a running shoe expert - someone trained extensively on shoe foams, types, materials, performance, etc. - will conduct a gait analysis (more on that in bit) by watching you walk or run on the floor, treadmill, outside and sometimes with video cameras, iPads or other recording devices. 

The purpose of these fittings is to get a better understanding of how your feet and legs interact with the ground. They will likely be looking at how your arches come in contact with the ground (do they flatten or are they rigid?), do your ankles drop completely in or do they roll out? Do you strike at the forefoot or heel? They will also measure your feet and talk to you about your running goals and history to help point you in the direction of which shoes may best fit your needs. 

Remember, the person fitting you for shoes is a shoe expert - not a physical therapist or a podiatrist. Be sure to consult with a physician to make sure you’re in good shape to run. 

Questions that will be addressed in this post:

  • Do you really know your shoe size? (Most people don't)
  • Are running shoes really different from cross trainers? 
  • Neutral vs. Stability shoes, what's the difference? 
  • How long do running shoes really last?
  • and more! 

Most importantly, remember that every runner is different and all shoes are designed differently. Every brand makes shoes that will work for you and some that just won't. Either way, be open to try new things - even brands that you may have been hesitant about in the past. Running shoes usually update once per year so even the shoe that you've been running in forever may be different when it's time for a new pair. 

Shoe Sizing

Are you wearing the right shoe size? Maybe not. When was the last time you got your feet measured? If it hasn’t been within the past few years, you may want to get a new measurement. Once you get your feet measured, be open to trying your running shoes a half-size or a full size bigger to leave room for swelling and movement.

P.S. Just because you wear a size 8 in your last running shoe doesn't mean you'll wear the same size in your next pair if the shoe has updated. Try it on!  

If your running shoes are too small, chaos will ensue. Okay, maybe not chaos but you will be prone to blisters, black toenails, loss toenails, and foot pain. By going up in size, you give your feet much needed room to make running comfortable and pain-free. 

What is a Gait Analysis?

You can get a gait analysis by your physical therapist, running coach or an employee at your running store. They'll analyze your gait cycle to find out if you are an over-pronator, supinator or have a neutral stride. The gait cycle starts when one foot hits the ground and it ends when that foot makes contact with the ground again. It has two phases - stance phase (when the foot is in contact with the ground) and swing phase (when your feet are in the air). 

Pronation - rolling in and flattening of the arch - is a completely normal part of walking and running. It's how our bodies absorb shock. However, over-pronation or under pronation (supinating) is what can lead to many common injuries in running. 

  • Over-pronators have arches and/or ankles that fall or roll in just a little too much. This can create instability in the stance phase and can lead to injury. 
  • Supinators' arches are usually very rigid and don't flex enough to absorb shock. This can lead to their calves taking on too much work and can also cause issues with plantar fasciitis and pain on the outside of the foot. 

Ask your physical therapist or the running store employee if your over-pronation or under-pronation is severe or moderate. Sometimes, adjusting your form, strengthening the core and increasing mobility in the hips and ankles can lead to a more efficient stride. 

Neutral shoes vs. Stability shoes: What's the difference?

Most running shoes are made up of three parts - the upper, the midsole, and the outer sole. The midsole is where companies really differentiate between neutral and stability shoes. 

Neutral running shoes: These running shoes use cushion throughout the midsole to help with shock absorption. They're common amongst runners who pronate regularly, roll out (supinate) and sometimes they even work well for moderate over-pronators. 

Brooks Glycerin 14 - Neutral running shoe

Brooks Glycerin 14 - Neutral running shoe

Stability Shoes: Stability shoes are designed with over-pronators in mind. Contrary to what many people believe, stability shoes don't really add additional arch support - the midsoles are flat (two-dimensional) like neutral shoes so the foot can lay comfortably inside the shoe. They usually use a 'post' on the inside of the shoe to reinforce the heel and arch. If you're an over-pronator, find out if a stability shoe is necessary for you. 

Nike Zoom Air Odyssey 2, stability running shoe

Nike Zoom Air Odyssey 2, stability running shoe

Medium cushioned vs. high cushion neutral and stability shoes: Not all running shoes have the same amount of cushion in the midsole. Since some brands use a very firm cushion, high-cushion doesn't always mean softer.

Are running shoes different from my cross-trainers? Yes. That's why it's important to get a good pair of running shoes that work well for your feet. Cross-trainers are usually made with midsoles that aren't designed to take on the impact (4-6x your body weight) of running. Wearing cross-trainers (or non-supportive running shoes) can lead to knee, foot, back and/or hip pain. 

In addition to the standard neutral or stability shoe, you can take your shoe search even further with these options depending on your running style, form, running goals, and terrain. 

Max-cushion running shoes: The most popular Max-cushion running shoe on the market are Hokas. They tout a midsole that's about twice the size of a traditional running shoe and do a great job at absorbing shock with all that extra padding. 

Hoka Clifton 3 - Max cushion neutral shoe

Hoka Clifton 3 - Max cushion neutral shoe

Minimal running shoes: Minimal running shoes are light-weight shoes that usually put your feet closer to the ground. They're great for runners who are looking to go faster and who typically strike the ground at the mid-foot but like the idea of having some padding on their shoes. 

Trail running shoes: These shoes typically have a rigid outer-sole with great tread to take on rough terrain. 

Racing flats: These shoes are designed to take on your speed training and race day running. They are usually light-weight with very little cushion to allow your foot to move faster on race day. They're great to use as a second pair to rotate throughout the week. 

Barefoot running shoes: These shoes may not always be very lightweight but they'll always have a "zero-drop". They will usually promote a mid-foot to forefoot strike so they're not always the best options for heel strikers.

How can I get more support?

In the event you need additional support, talk to your podiatrist about shoe inserts. You can get inserts customized or you can purchase a pair at your local running store. Inserts will cup your heel to help stabilize the foot and offer arch support for over-pronators and some supinators. 

Just like shoes, inserts don't work well for everyone's feet. If inserts make your feet feel uncomfortable, it's ok to skip them. Try strengthening your core and trying shoes that feel supportive. 

What if the shoe doesn't feel good?

It happens. Don't stress out or point fingers - remember, you purchased the shoes that felt best on your feet in the store. Find out your running store's return policy to see if the shoe can be exchanged for something else. 

It can take about 3 or 4 runs for your feet to get used to the feeling of a new shoe so don't panic if your first few miles feel uncomfortable. 

How long will my shoes last?

It depends on the runner and the type of shoe selected. Most medium cushioned shoes typically last for about 4-6 months or 300-500 miles. Some lighter-weight, minimal options may only last for about 200-300 miles.

I know what you're thinking, "why pay $120 on a shoe that won't work in 6 months?" The short answer is because it will make your body feel better in the long run and it's cheaper than the cost of surgery and treating injuries. It averages out to $20/month, which is less than what many people spend on coffee!

If you'd like to extend the life of your shoes, get a few pairs and rotate them. Rotating your shoes can also help strengthen your legs by working different muscles. Having at least 2 different pairs in your toolbox can be very helpful along the way. 

Final thoughts

As stated above, finding a shoe can be an ongoing battle. As long as you're patient and open-minded, you'll find a shoe that meets your needs. Although no shoe is perfect, with a little research and guidance, you'll be able to find a few options to get you through your training season. 

Takia is the co-founder of City Fit Girls. She works full-time at Philadelphia Runner, an independent run retailer in Philadelphia, where she has fitted hundreds of new and experienced runners for shoes.