Road running is beautifully simple: Lace up your sneakers, head out the door and put one foot in front of the other. The pavement doesn’t care if you’re a racer or a beginner. That makes running delightfully uncomplicated—and the gear for hitting the road can be just as straightforward, so long as you understand a few key decision points.
If you want to brush up on heel drop, types of cushioning, support and more, read our complete guide on how to choose running shoes or our buying advice below. Then, get started logging miles with our staff’s favorite picks for road runners.
Best Traditional Shoe
Weight (pair): 1 lb. 3 oz. (men’s 9)
Running isn’t necessarily bad for your knees, but runners can have bad knees. Enter the Adrenaline GTS 20. This traditional running shoe (the height of the cushioning drops 12mm from the heel to the toe of the shoe; called “drop” in running parlance) from Brooks helps protect our weak-jointed brethren by replacing the standard medial posts on either side of the midsole with guide rails. Like with bowling, the bumper-like guide rails on each side gently redirect the foot into the proper positioning when it rolls inward (rather than a more obtrusive post, which can jam your arch).
It’s an effective formula for a shoe entering its third decade in the running world. One co-op editor says: “My dad is a lifelong runner, devoted Adrenaline fan and who I go to for all of my running advice (notable lessons include: Don’t wear your race shirt on race day, run down a hill like your feet are on fire, don’t eat peanut butter before running, etc.), so I know that when he likes a shoe, it’s a solid choice. He has been known to buy multiple pairs of the Adrenaline at a time, and now so do I.” Buy here.
Best Minimalist Shoe
Weight (pair): 15.6 oz. (men’s 9)
The featherlight Kinvara feels a bit like a racing flat at first, but it’s more supportive than one. The shoe’s height under the heel (called “stack height” in runner’s parlance) is a hefty 28.5mm—big cushioning that belies the shoe’s race-ready 4mm drop. Additional support comes from Saucony’s proprietary PWRRUN midsole, which makes the Kinvara 11 bouncier than previous models and cushioned enough to protect your feet from debris and harder strikes. “Pretty good for a pair of shoes that slides in under the 1-pound mark,” says one co-op editor.
A shoe this lightweight is, of course, well-suited for going far and fast, but the 4mm drop is best for mid- and forefoot striking. (Read more about cushioned minimalist running shoes.) If that sounds like you, there may be no better workhorse of a shoe for the weight. Buy here.
Best Zero-Drop Shoe
Weight (pair): 1 lb. 1.6 oz. (men’s 9)
Whether you have hobbit feet or simply prefer a little wiggle room, consider the luxurious Altra Escalante 2. A super roomy toe box and sock-like upper beget the sort of all-around comfort that made our staffers noticeably happier while trotting down the sidewalk. “Ordinarily, I avoid pavement at all costs, but these have become my go-to shoes while sheltering-in-place,” one says.
Even though it looks trim, the Escalante 2 has a proprietary foam midsole that ups the cushioning a surprising amount (the stack height is 24mm). Our testers deemed it enough to help protect their feet from road debris and rogue heel strikes. Zero-drop and low-drop shoes (0mm up to about 8mm) are typically best for midfoot- and forefoot-strikers. With a 0mm heel-to-toe drop, the Escalante 2 falls decidedly into that category, so only take a flyer if you land on the middle or ball of your foot when running. (Tip: If you aren’t used to zero-drop shoes, ease into them. Your foot muscles may experience soreness as you transition. Read more.) Buy here.
Best Shoe for Racers
Weight (pair): 1 lb. 0.6 oz. (men’s 9)
Embrace physics with the Cloudflow from Swiss brand On. The distinct-looking hollow pods on the bottom of the shoe flex when you land, then help provide energy return like a spring or trampoline when you drive forward. Coupled with a 6mm heel-to-toe drop and scant weight, the Cloudflow is ideal for speedsters looking for any sort of edge.
On softened up the midsole a bit with extra foam cushioning under the heel (it’s colored differently on the outsole) to uptick the comfort factor while keeping ounces down, though the Cloudflow is still best for midfoot strikers. The result: fast-as-lightning sneakers that you won’t need to immediately rip off your feet at the end of a race. And we know looks don’t matter, but the Cloudflow is slick. *kisses fingers like chef* Buy here.
Best Shoe for Overpronators
Weight (pair): 1 lb. 4 oz. (men’s 9)
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. More than a quarter-century after ASICS released its first iteration of the GEL-Kayano in 1993, it gives us an ever-so-updated version of the venerable classic, specifically built for runners who want cushion, comfort and pronation control. Here’s the shtick: If your feet roll inward when you run, you’re an overpronator—and might be wise to try out the GEL-Kayano, which has a stiff, plastic medial wedge that beefs up underfoot support so you are less likely to run knock-kneed. It also has a foam midsole that, combined with gel inserts, serves up a dreamy-soft ride for the overpronators among us.
Other than that, the GEL-Kayano has all the tried-and-true hallmarks of a traditional running shoe. A supportive midsole and wide toe box make it comfortable for most feet, and its 10mm heel-to-toe drop hits the sweet spot for heel striking. This year’s version has a redesigned gel pad in the heel. Sure, the GEL-Kayano is bulkier than what most competitive runners want, but it’s a solid option for everyday heroes. Buy here.
Best Shoe for Recovery Runs
Weight (pair): 1 lb. 4 oz. (men’s 9)
No doubt: Running takes work. Still, our staffers think a 5-miler in the Elevon 2 feels decidedly easier. Credit the cushy EVA midsole and HOKA’s characteristic pillowy stack height (32mm under the heel for men, 30mm for women). The outsole extends slightly around the heel, which, combined with the shoe’s rocker (or gradual upturn at the front) creates a rocking-chair effect that helps runners roll through a natural, heel- or midfoot-striking gait. The brand claims it’s easier on the joints and should aid in recovery time (and its advocates on our team agree).
Bonus: All this goodness comes without a weight penalty, so you’re still fleet-footed and fancy-free. Now, if only we could learn to sleep on the run. (Maximalist shoes feel different and they’re not for everyone. Learn more.) Buy here.
Best Shoe for Tempo Runs
Weight (pair): 1 lb. 2.8 oz. (men’s 9)
Runners who move quickly and cover a lot of ground will love the snappy turnover of the Zephyr from Topo Athletic. It mimics the rebound you might feel in a more expensive shoe that uses a carbon-fiber plate in the midsole, but—in lieu of carbon—it has an elastomer. This naturally bouncy material aids with energy return, helping you to run farther with less fatigue.
The 5mm heel-to-toe drop is best for midfoot- and forefoot-strikers, but the Zephyr doesn’t lack cushioning. It sports a 28mm stack height under the heel, which includes the soft EVA midsole. All that adds up to a shoe that made one of our staffers proclaim, “You’ll be like Forrest Gump: Just keep running.” Buy here.
Consider these three factors when choosing the best road runners for you.
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. 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 10mm and 12mm, like the Brooks Adrenaline GTS 20 or ASICS GEL-Kayano 26.
If, however, you’re a midfoot striker, look for a shoe with a more neutral profile—indicated by a heel drop in the ballpark of 4mm to 8mm like the Saucony Kinvara 11, On Cloudflow or Topo Athletic Zephyr. Forefoot strikers and racers may prefer zero-drop shoes like the Altra Escalante 2.
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 Elevon 2) because they have maximum cushion and protection, which often comes at the expense of weight and nimbleness.
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 where they should, in the middle).
If you supinate, look for a more neutral running shoe that lacks structure like posts and arch devices like the On Cloudflow or a more cushioned shoe that will help prevent you from feeling the road more than you want like the HOKA Elevon 2. 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 ASICS GEL-Kayano 26. Neutral runners tend to feel comfortable in most shoes and don’t require much additional cushion or stability.
The truth of the matter is that a shoe isn’t going to affect your gait all that much, so get the ones that feel best.
We asked our REI Co-op editorial staff and crew of member-testers what their favorite road-running shoes are on shelves at REI. They reported back with their top picks for quick jaunts, tempo runs, epics and everything in between. These seven pairs are their can’t-go-wrong faves.
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. Her organization WildKind educates and empowers 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. Things she does not like: rock climbing. REI member since 2008.