How to Choose Running Shoes
Most running shoes feel comfortable when you're standing in a shoe store, but the true test comes several miles into your run. You'll soon realize that the ideal shoe has more to do with your running style and the shape of your foot than it does with the logo stitched on the side.
Choosing the running shoes that will fit you best is easy:
- Determine the type of running you do and your running style
- Pick the category of shoe and features that match your needs
- Try on shoes to find the one that fits best
In general, a pair of running shoes should last between 400 to 500 miles of running (3 or 4 months for regular runners). Take a look at your shoes and check if the midsoles and outsoles are compressed or worn. If they are, it may be time for a new pair.
Video: How to Choose Running Shoes
Running Shoe Categories
Road-running shoes are designed for pavement and occasional forays onto packed surfaces with slight irregularities. Light and flexible, they're made to cushion or stabilize feet during repetitive strides on hard, even surfaces.
Trail-running shoes are designed for off-road routes with rocks, mud, roots or other obstacles. They are enhanced with aggressive tread for solid traction and fortified to offer stability, support and underfoot protection.
Cross-training shoes are designed for gym or Crossfit workouts or any balance activity where having more contact with the ground is preferred over a thick platform sole.
Shop REI's selection of running shoes.
How Do You Run?
If you own a well-used pair of running shoes, check the wear pattern on the soles to help determine your running mechanics.
Pronation shows a wear pattern centralized to the ball of the foot and a small portion of the heel. It is the foot's natural inward roll following the heel striking the ground.
Basic (neutral) pronation helps absorb impact, relieving pressure on knees and joints. It is a normal trait of neutral, biomechanically efficient runners.
Overpronation is identified by wear patterns along the inside edge of your shoe, and is an exaggerated form of the foot's natural inward roll.
Overpronation is a common trait that affects the majority of runners, leaving them at risk of knee pain and injury. Overpronators need stability or motion control shoes.
Supination (also called under-pronation) is marked by wear along the outer edge of your shoe. It is an outward rolling of the foot resulting in insufficient impact reduction at landing.
Relatively few runners supinate, but those who do need shoes with plenty of cushioning and flexibility.
Barefoot/minimalist running: In traditional running shoes, feet tend to hit the ground heel first. This is because a shoe heel has an elevated cushion. With barefoot runners, it is the mid-foot or forefoot that strikes the ground first.
Types of Running Shoes
Neutral shoes: They can work for mild pronators, but are best for neutral runners or people who supinate (tent to roll outward). These shoes provide some shock absorption and some medial (arch-side) support.
Some super-cushioned shoes provide as much as 50% more cushioning than traditional shoes for even greater shock absorption.
Stability shoes: Good for runners who exhibit mild to moderate overpronation. They often include a firm "post” to reinforce the arch side of each midsole, an area highly impacted by overpronation.
Motion control shoes: Best for runners who exhibit moderate to severe overpronation, they offer features such as stiffer heels or a design built on straighter lasts to counter overpronation.
Barefoot shoes: Soles provide the bare minimum in protection from potential hazards on the ground. Many have no cushion in the heel pad and a very thin layer—as little as 3–4mm—of shoe between your skin and the ground.
All barefoot shoes feature a “zero drop” from heel to toe. (“Drop” is the difference between the height of the heel and the height of the toe.) This encourages a mid-foot or forefoot strike. Traditional running shoes, by contrast, feature a 10–12mm drop from the heel to the toe and offer more heel cushioning.
Minimalist shoes: These feature extremely lightweight construction, little to no arch support and a heel drop of about 4–8mm to encourage a natural running motion and a midfoot strike, yet still offer cushioning and flex.
Some minimalist styles may offer stability posting to help the overpronating runner transition to a barefoot running motion.
Minimalist shoes should last you roughly 300 to 400 miles.
Running Shoe Features
Running Shoe Uppers
- Synthetic leather is a supple, durable, abrasion-resistant material derived principally from nylon and polyester. It's lighter, quicker drying and more breathable than real leather. Plus, it requires no (or very little) break-in time.
- Nylon and nylon mesh are durable materials most commonly used to reduce weight and boost breathability.
- TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) overlays are positioned over the breathable shoe panels (such as in the arch and the heel). These small, abrasion-resisting additions help enhance stability and durability.
- Waterproof/breathable uppers use a membrane bonded to the interior of the linings. This membrane blocks moisture from entering while allowing feet to breathe. Shoes with these membranes keep feet dry in wet environments with a slight trade-off in breathability.
Running Shoe Midsoles
The midsole is the cushioning and stability layer between the upper and the outsole.
- EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) is a type of foam commonly used for running-shoe midsoles. Cushioning shoes often use a single layer of EVA. Some will insert multiple densities of EVA to force a particular flex pattern.
- Posts are areas of firmer EVA (dual-density, quad-density, multi-density, compression-molded) added to create harder-to-compress sections in the midsole. Often found in stability shoes, posts are used to decelerate pronation or boost durability. Medial posts reinforce the arch side of each midsole, an area highly impacted by overpronation.
- Plates are made of thin, somewhat flexible material (often nylon or TPU) that stiffens the forefoot of the shoe. Plates, often used in trail runners, protect the bottom of your foot when the shoe impacts rocks and roots.
- Shanks stiffen the midsole and protect the heel and arch. They boost a shoe's firmness when traveling on rocky terrain. Ultralight backpackers often wear lightweight trail runners with plates for protection and shanks for protection and support.
- TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) is a flexible plastic used in some midsoles as a stabilization device.
Running Shoe Outsoles
Most road shoes are made with rugged carbon rubber in the heel. Blown rubber—which provides more cushioning—is often used in the forefoot. Trail runners tend to have all carbon rubber outsoles to better withstand trail wear, while road-racing shoes are frequently all blown rubber to reduce weight.
The drop of a shoe represents the difference between the height of the heel and the height of the toe. This primarily affects how your foot strikes the ground when you land. A low or medium heel-to-toe drop (zero to 8mm) promotes a forefoot or mid-foot strike, while a high-drop shoe (10–12mm) promotes heel striking.
Note: Heel drop and cushioning are independent of each other. It is possible to find ultra-cushioned shoes that still have a zero or low heel-to-toe drop, for example.
This refers to the rigid structure around the heel. It provides motion control and is sometimes supplemented with a heel wedge, which adds support and cushioning to the heel. It can help those runners who are bothered by Achilles tendonitis.
Medial Post or Torsion Bar
These are located on the sides of shoes to help control excessive inward or outward motion. They are designed for the over-pronator or supinator.
Running Shoe Fit Tips
Foot size: Shoe lasts (which determine shoe sizes) vary by manufacturer and even from one shoe model to another. You may need a half-size or even a full size smaller or larger than you think. If you're unsure, have your feet measured.
Try on shoes at the end of the day. Your feet normally swell a bit during the day's activities and will be at their largest then. This helps you avoid buying shoes that are too small.
Aim for a thumbnail's length of extra space in the toebox. The width should be snug but allow a bit of room for your foot to move without rubbing. Laces should be snug but not tight. Barefoot shoes are an exception: Heel and toes should “fit like a glove” without any extra space in the toes.
If you wear orthotics, bring them along. They impact the fit of a shoe.
Consider aftermarket insoles (a.k.a. footbeds). Insoles come in models that can enhance comfort, support or fit—or all 3. See our Expert Advice article, Insoles: How to Choose.