The Best Running Shoes of 2021: Tested

Pound the pavement with our seven favorites.

19 reviews with an average rating of 4.4 out of 5 stars
A runner flies along the road in the HOKA ONE ONE Rincon 2 road-running shoes.

Let’s talk logistics: At its core, road running doesn’t require much. Sure, you can add in fancy watches and high-tech apparel, but really it’s you, the road and a pair of shoes. Which kicks should you choose? Between cushion, support, drop and traction, there are lots of choices to make.

Below, find our seven favorite road-running shoes of 2021. Our 22 testers hit the road, logged miles and endured more than a couple blisters to bring you the best of the best available at REI this season. We have options for folks who pronate as well as runners who like to go fast, log big miles and more. Read on to find the right road shoes for you, or jump ahead:

Brooks Glycerin 19

Best for Runners Who Want a Traditional Shoe

Score: 98

A runner flies across the frame in the Brooks Glycerine 19 road running shoes.

  • Versions: Women’s, Men’s
  • Weight: 1 lb. 2 oz. (women’s 7), 1 lb. 4 oz. (men’s 9)
  • Heel-to-toe drop: 10 mm
  • Stack height: 31 mm
  • Price: $150

Test Results: Ninety-nine percent of us aren’t racers, and for that, we’re thankful for the newly redesigned Brooks Glycerin—also known as The Peoples’ Shoe. It’s somehow both plush and fleet-footed, perfect for the everyday jogger’s multipurpose needs. The secret is in the midsole, where Brooks added even more DNA Loft than previous versions. This soft EVA foam with harder rubber and air pockets creates a best-of-both-worlds lightweight shoe. “I know it’s cliché but these feel like I’m running on clouds,” said one New York-based tester after a month in the Glycerin.

The story doesn’t end at the midsole, though. Thanks to a breathable mesh upper and padded tongue and heel collar, the Glycerin is cushier than a lot of shoes, which led one tester to call the 19s her “dream shoes.” A traditional, 10 mm drop from the heel to the toe makes the Glycerin a safe bet for neutral runners with a heel- or midfoot-striking gait.

Our testers also praised the outsole. Various channels and siping create a grippy surface, while tiny patterning on the rubber adds more friction. It was enough that one tester even ditched her traction devices on winter runs on Lake Ontario. “My husband slipped on the ice a number of times, but I never did,” she reports. Also nice: It’s available in wides. Buy here.

 

Bottom Line: A bouncy midsole, comfy fit and traditional design make the Brooks Glycerin 19 a great choice for neutral runners looking for an everyday option.

 

Testing stats:

  • Total distance run: 142 miles
  • Testing states: Colorado and New York
  • Best testing story: Thanks to a recently built barrier island, our New York tester can now “run across what will be the channel in Braddock Bay that separates the spit from the island.” In the spring, increased water levels washed away her private path, but before that, she enjoyed her secluded wanderings in the Lake Ontario region: “Exploring that little island has given me so much joy this winter.”

Altra Rivera

Best for Runners Who Want a Zero-Drop Shoe

Score: 92
A runner pounds the pavement in the Altra Rivera road-running shoes.

  • Versions: Women’s, Men’s
  • Weight: 14 oz. (women’s 7), 1 lb. 2 oz. (men’s 9)
  • Heel-to-toe drop: 0 mm
  • Stack height: 26 mm
  • Price: $130

Test Results: Zero-drop loyalists: We see you. Altra’s latest offering uses its trademark zero-drop platform so your toes and heels are level with each other, but tightens up the foot-shaped toe box just a tick. The result: a wide toe box that allows for plenty of toe splay but doesn’t feel bloated or sloppy. “I tend to like what I know with running shoes but I’m totally falling for the natural fit and gait of the Riveras,” says one California tester after his first run at San Bruno Mountain State & County Park.

The svelte design promotes speed. Also adding to the Rivera’s fleet-footedness are its thin, seamless mesh upper and angular collar, which each slash a couple of grams from the overall weight of the shoe—and it’s already one of the lightest in test.

But the streamlined design doesn’t compromise the shoe’s performance. The Rivera uses an elastic foam midsole (called Altra EGO) that serves up springy rebound with more durability than a traditional EVA midsole. Combined with the chunky, 26-millimeter stack height, the shoe provides a smooth, smooth ride: “They’re a forgettable shoe because once they are laced up and on your feet, you don’t even notice them,” says one tester.

Caveats: While other Altras are offered in wide sizes, the Rivera comes in just one width. Also, this shoe won’t likely have enough support for overpronators. Buy here.

 

Bottom Line: Thanks to the generous toe box and lightweight design, the Altra Rivera is a top selection for zero-drop runners in search of a cushioned shoe.

 

Testing stats:

  • Total distance run: 79 miles
  • Testing states: California
  • Best testing story: Our California tester frequents San Bruno State Park, routinely running around an S-bend along a highway guardrail where he will scoop up trash on his return. “These shoes help me scramble along the edge of the escarpment on my trash-collecting runs just as much as they propel me forward during my road runs,” he says.

On Cloudswift

Best for Runners Who Like to Go Fast

Score: 91

A runner navigates a city sidewalk in the On Cloudswift road-running shoes.

  • Versions: Women’s, Men’s
  • Weight: 15.4 oz. (women’s 7), 1 lb. 3.8 oz. (men’s 8.5)
  • Heel-to-toe drop: 7 mm
  • Stack height: 23 mm 
  • Price: $150

Test Results: The On Cloudswift pulled off the biggest surprise in this test: Though its funky tubular sole and the word “cloud” in its name scream “plush and lush,” we discovered a firm-yet-responsive ride that pleased even the most discerning runners. That big ol’ outsole is constructed with large foam pods that compress upon impact. When the pods collapse, they spread into one another, creating a firm, level base much like a race flat. “The ground feel almost reminded me of a barefoot shoe,” reports one Colorado-based tester. When you toe off the ground, the pods engage for a smooth transition.

On keeps the shoe on the firmer side with a full-length, thin polypropylene board, which sits on top of the EVA foam midsole, enhancing the responsiveness of the shoe. “They felt surprisingly springy on harder surfaces like pavement,” says one Washington-based tester. Since the shoe won’t fold over or crumple when you weight it, you save energy on the turnover.

The sock-like upper breathes well and uses an internal support band that wraps the forefoot before integrating into the laces. The result: top-shelf support but a fit that caused narrow-footed testers slight discomfort. Also, if you have flatter feet, the arch support may cramp you. The Cloudswift runs small; consider going up a half size. Buy here.

 

Bottom Line: The unique outsole and snug-fitting upper of the On Cloudswift make for an agile shoe built for runners who like to go far and fast.

 

Testing stats:

  • Total distance run: 82 miles
  • Testing states: Colorado and Washington
  • Best testing story: Our Washington-based tester’s favorite running companion is her leash-trained pooch. During one classically “overcast and rainy” Pacific Northwest training day, Fido delicately stepped on the pristine-white Cloudswifts. “Now I’ve got some cute paw prints that give the white upper some nice, rugged flair.”

Saucony Guide 14

Best for Runners Who Overpronate

Score: 94

A runner takes off in her driveway in the Saucony Guide 14 Road-Running Shoes

  • Versions: Women’s, Men’s
  • Weight: 1 lb. 3 oz. (women’s 7),  1 lb. 5 oz. (men’s 9)
  • Heel-to-toe drop: 8 mm
  • Stack height: 34 mm 
  • Price: $130

Test Results: The newest iteration of Sauconys workhorse of a shoe stays true to the Guide’s DNA: support, support, support. That means that those of us looking for more stability than we’d find in a typical road-running shoe may want to take a flyer on the Guide 14.

A firm TPU medial post in the midsole acts like a guardrail, preventing the ankle from rolling inward and gently guiding the foot toward the middle of the shoe. So if you overpronate when you run (look for patterns of wear near your big toe and the ball of your foot to see), the Guide 14 may offer the support you need to stay neutral. This shoe also has densely packed TPU overlays on the mesh upper to create an exoskeleton that further holds your tootsies in place. “I usually get a slight tweak in my ankle on high-mileage runs from my foot rolling inward, but that never appeared while wearing the Guides,” said one Colorado-based tester after her first 45 miles in the shoes. “I loved the light support: effective but not obtrusive.”

Even with all that support, you won’t feel like you’re running on plywood boards with the Guide 14. Saucony uses a hybrid midsole inside the shoe that draws pillow-like cushioning from EVA along with the bounciness of TPU. But, the brand streamlined the silhouette from past iterations, so the Guide 14s are soft—but not clunky. “These never felt hard or stiff,” says our Colorado tester. “They’re a good blend of support and cushioning.”

Our testers also lauded the padded heel collar and gusseted tongue, which create a secure fit without a lot of bulk. That said, some testers found the toe box a bit low in volume. Buy here.

Bottom Line: Unobtrusive support makes the Saucony Guide 14 a great choice for runners who struggle with overpronation.

 

Testing stats:

  • Total distance ran: 138 miles
  • Testing states: Colorado and Washington
  • Best testing story: Our Washington tester sought to beat back her Monday blues by heading out for an early-evening jog, which led her to a meadow “where everything felt green and joyful and sunny.” That is, until she found herself shin-deep in a wintry mix of “mud and goose poop slurry.” Still, there was a silver lining: “I ruined the beautiful color of the shoes, but it was worth it for the joy of the first real spring afternoon.”

HOKA ONE ONE Rincon 2

Best for Runners on a Budget

Score: 96

A runner gets ready to take off in the HOKA One One Rincon 2 road-running shoes.

  • Versions: Women’s, Men’s
  • Weight: 13 oz. (women’s 7),  15 oz. (men’s 9)
  • Heel-to-toe drop: 5 mm
  • Stack height: 32 mm 
  • Price: $115

Test Results: Looking for a maximalist, big-cushion shoe for pounding the pavement? Look no further. The venerable HOKA ONE ONE Rincon 2 delivers a mega plush ride thanks to a best-in-test 32-millimeter stack height under the heel (27 millimeters under the forefoot). Oh yeah, and it’s the most affordable shoe in this lineup. Those are numbers we can all get behind.

As the most wallet-friendly shoe in test, it would be easy to skimp on quality but the Rincon 2 does the opposite with a full-compression EVA midsole (to make it, HOKA ONE ONE uses a process similar to waffle making, where they pour EVA into a metal mold, close the mold, and then open it to remove the redesigned midsole). It is a couple millimeters thicker than most running shoes for uber comfort, but the shoe still delivers a springy turnover thanks to the brand’s trademark Meta-Rocker shape, a smile-like curvature that allows for a natural, rolling gait. “I’m more of a plodder than a speedster but these shoes just feel fast,” says one Colorado-based tester. “They practically disappear on my feet.”

That’s not a magic trick. HOKA ONE ONE trimmed weight wherever possible. A fine mesh upper keeps the shoe breathable and lightweight, while a trim-and-slim tongue saves a couple more grams. Caveat: One tester noted that her forefoot felt slightly pinched during high-mileage jaunts. There’s not a ton of room for toe splay as with someone more akin to an Altra or similar. Buy here.

 

Bottom Line: Ample cushioning and a snappy turnover at this price make the HOKA ONE ONE Rincon 2 an awesome pick for neutral runners.

 

Testing stats:

  • Total distance run: 101 miles
  • Testing states: Colorado
  • Best testing story: One Aspen-based tester enjoys early-morning jogs before her daughter wakes up, “even though it tends to be dark and freezing.” On one such morning, she found herself “face to face” with a herd of elk. “It was so beautiful and peaceful,” she says. “They looked at me, and I looked at them and we just kind of stared at each other. I think we were all out there to enjoy the predawn silence together.”

Other Top Performers

Brooks Adrenaline GTS 21

Score: 90

A runner makes their way through town in the Brooks Adrenaline GTS 21 road-running shoes
 

  • Versions: Women’s, Men’s
  • Weight: 1 lb. 2 oz. (women’s 7), 1 lb. 5 oz. (men’s 9)
  • Heel-to-toe drop: High (12 mm)
  • Stack height: Maximum (32 mm stack height)
  • Price: $130

Test Results: When a shoe is on its twenty-first version, you know it's a fan-favorite. That’s the case with the Adrenaline GTS 21 (GTS stands for go-to support), a crowd favorite among runners seeking stability and a workhorse of a shoe for long and easy runs. With the 21, Brooks extends the aerated EVA midsole foam to cover the entire length of the shoe, boosting overall cushion.  The shoe still has guide rails on either side to help prevent against overpronating or supinating, but the lack of a real medial post keeps them soft underfoot. The new mesh upper in the 21 is also more breathable and adds additional structure to the forefoot than previous iterations. All of this led one tester to exclaim: “I’m not 21 anymore but I’m glad the Adrenaline is!” Buy here.

HOKA ONE ONE Clifton 7

Score: 89

  • Versions: Women’s, Men’s
  • Weight: 14 oz. (women’s 7), 1 lb. 1 oz. (men’s 9)
  • Heel-to-toe drop: Low (5 mm)
  • Stack height: Moderate (29 mm stack height)
  • Price: $130

Test Results: Hey, recovering runners: We’ve got the shoe for you. The HOKA ONE ONE Clifton 7 boasts a massive, 29-millimeter stack height beneath the heel and the brand’s trademark full-compression EVA foam midsole to create a pillowy platform that’s prime for runners nursing injuries or logging base mileage. The 5-millimeter heel-to-toe drop places the Clifton 7 squarely in the minimalist category, and a comfortable toe box accommodates average feet. This is a shoe that probably won’t win you many races, but feels comfortable on chill runs for many folks. Bonus: The tone-downed appearance was a hit with our testers who proclaimed the Clifton 7 “much better than those old space shoes.” Buy here.

Shop All Road-Running Shoes 

 

Buying Advice

Two runners make their way through an urban landscape at dusk

Consider these three factors when choosing the best road runners for you.

Profile

When you run, how do you land? Unless you’ve trained yourself, you likely hit the ground heel first, then roll forward to the ball of your foot. This is called heel striking. (Not sure where you foot strike? Ask a friend or family member to film your stride so you can see whether your heel or toe hits the ground first.) Heel strikers will want a running shoe with a traditional profile, meaning a taller heel and a forefoot closer to the ground. That tends to include shoes with a drop between 10 mm and 12 mm, like the Brooks Glycerin 19Saucony Guide 14 and Brooks Adrenaline GTS 21

If, however, you’re a midfoot striker, look for a shoe with a more minimalist profile, indicated by a heel drop in the ballpark of 4 mm to 8 mm, like the On CloudswiftHOKA ONE ONE Rincon 2 or the HOKA ONE ONE Clifton 7. Forefoot strikers and racers may prefer zero-drop shoes like the Altra Rivera.

No one around to help? Flip your shoes over and analyze the wear pattern on your outsoles. Most runners’ shoes will show the most wear in one of three places: medial wear, neutral wear or lateral wear. If the most wear occurs on the inside (medial) of your outsoles, you may be overpronating and benefit from a support shoe. If the wear is most visible in the center, this likely means you’re a neutral runner. Finally, worn patches on the outside of the outsoles (lateral) mean you may be underpronating, or supinating. This is less common. 

Cushion

All of the shoes in this roundup are cushioned (meaning there are no barefoot-style shoes). They all have midsoles or layers of some sort of foam material between the insole and outsole that absorb shock. Some shoes here are considered maximalist (like the HOKA ONE ONE Rincon 2 and HOKA ONE ONE Clifton 7) because they have maximum cushion and protection, which often comes at the expense of weight and nimbleness.

Your Tootsies

Ultimately, the best shoes for you are the ones that fit your feet best. Runners all fall into one of three categories: supinators (your feet roll outward), overpronators (your feet roll inward) or neutral runners (your feet stay roughly in the middle).

If you supinate, look for a more neutral running shoe that lacks structure like posts and arch devices like the On Cloudswift, or a more cushioned shoe that will help prevent you from feeling the road more than you want like the HOKA ONE ONE Clifton 7. Overpronators should look for shoes with added structure to prevent your feet from rolling too far inward and creating stress on the ankle or knee joints, like the  Saucony Guide 14 or Brooks Adrenaline GTS 21. Neutral runners tend to feel comfortable in most shoes and don’t require much additional cushion or stability.

Methodology

In the spring of 2021, we asked 22 co-op members from around the country to pound the pavement for some good ol’ fashioned testing. They tried out the best road-running shoes available at REI, suffered through some blisters, and then ran some more. The seven shoes listed here are the kicks that rated the highest in our field test; the scores are the averages as provided by our testing crew.

After we busted out our calculators and did the math, the Brooks Glycerin 19, Altra Rivera, On Cloudswift, Saucony Guide 14 and HOKA ONE ONE Rincon 2 took the top spots with the highest scores in all categories. The Brooks Adrenaline GTS 21 and HOKA ONE ONE Clifton 7 scored high in most of the categories, still hitting solid numbers in specific niches.

We’d like to thank our crew of testers for safely and responsibly getting after it, even if it meant a few blisters. All photography by William M. Rochfort, Jr.


Article by Heather Balogh Rochfort. Heather is a freelance writer and author specializing in the outdoors and adventure travel, particularly as they apply to women and families. She is the co-founder of WildKind, an organization educating and empowering families to find their wild. As a lifelong Colorado resident, Heather loves Type-II fun above treeline where the sun is hot and the oxygen depleted. Thing she does not like: rock climbing. REI member since 2008.

 

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