Looking to find your next pair of running shoes? Or even your first? Here’s our definitive guide to finding the right running shoes for you. We look at how to define your running shoe needs, finding the best place to get shoe advice, what to look for when you try on the running shoes, and explain gait analysis.
Choosing Running Shoes
Trying to find a good running shoe lead to a minefield of advice, science, marketing and hype. Finding the ‘right’ pair of shoes for you can be a confusing battle.
In this article, we look at:
- How to establish your criteria for your running shoes
- What you need from a running store and it’s staff
- What to look for when you try on the shoe
- Gait analysis – how it can be interpreted (and misinterpreted)
- What the experts, shop workers and experienced runners look for
- Running shoe advice specifically for beginners
- Minimalist shoes – what you have to consider
For those who like things summarized, here’s the main findings from the article that follows:
- Be clear in what you are going to use the shoe for before you hit the stores.
- Finding a good shoe store and knowledgeable, helpful staff is paramount.
- Comfort trumps every other variable. Regardless of gait, pronation, foot shape, etc., how comfortable you find the shoe is a strong correlator to the chances of avoiding injury and having a shoe you are happy with for many miles.
- Try on the shoes, spend time in them and beware of sales and marketing. What to look for when trying shoes is detailed below.
- Gait analysis and other tools are useful – BUT they are only of value if the store person knows how to interpret them. Gait analysis / foot type alone isn’t enough to recommend a running shoe. These are tools that can help guide you to the most appropriate shoe.
- If you’re a beginner, stick to the most common and popular beginner’s shoes. The average beginner runner shouldn’t go for anything too extreme or exotic (barefoot, maximalist) – stick to the popular, tried and tested brands.
The short answer to ‘which shoes should I buy?’ is whatever shoes you feel comfortable running in. However, finding that pair of shoes might not be that straight-forward. Let’s dive in:
Buying Running Shoes Is Not An Exact Science
This is the most important point– there’s no ‘perfect’ shoe out there that fits everybody’s feet and suits everyone’s running style. There’s no exact formula to follow that’ll lead you to your perfect shoe. It’s trial and error, and a your body and running develop, your shoe requirements will change. So instead, your goal is to find a pair of shoes amongst the many that helps you achieve your running goals, keeping you happy for many miles while not getting you injured.
(Remember to look at changing your running shoes after around 500 miles.)
How Will You Use Your Running Shoes?
The first thing you want to be clear on is what are your requirements of your running shoes. It might sound obvious at first, (i.e. “I’m going to use them for running, dumbass”) but taking the time to think about your needs will make it easier to choose the right pair of shoes. This will be important in selecting the type and various features of the shoe, and will be useful to tell the assistant at the running store when you go and start your search.
Things to consider:
- What are your running goals for these shoes? Are you training for your first 100km? Or your first 10km? Are you going to only be using them once a week on the treadmill, or are you going to run the streets every morning on the way to work?
- What terrain will I use the shoes in? Running shoes broadly fall into two categories – trail and road. Trail shoes have more grip and tread on the sole, road shoes have flatter, more efficient soles. If you plan to do a bit of street running and a bit of trail running, opt for trail shoes that have comparatively little tread.
- What’s your running shoe experience and history? Did that pair of New Balance you had fit you perfectly? Great! You can start to explore similar models. Did those cushioned shoes leave you with shin splints? OK good, we know what to avoid.
Have a clear picture of what your criteria is going to be before you head to a running store.
Choose a good running store
A good running store with interested, knowledgeable staff is worth it’s weight in gold. Discount sports stores will give you just that – a discounted experience. Brand stores will have the latest shoes, but won’t have the range of brands, or quite likely the knowledgeable staff to help you. So unless you already know exactly the type of shoes you need, head to a running store that sells several brands of shoes.
If you’re not sure where these are, google one in your area or ask a friend for a recommendation.
Once inside, the staff will be able to guide you in choosing running shoes. A good running store assistant will want to know a host of information before looking at a good shoe for you – your running experience, your current mileage, injury history (what it is, where it is, what aggravates it) and shoe history.
But our advice doesn’t end here – keep reading to find out what you need to look for when you try on running shoes, and what you need to know about gait analysis (that’s the treadmill and camera set-up in the running store).
TryING On Running Shoes
The one way to truly know that a shoe works for you is to try it on, and then go for a run with it.
Before you visit the store:
- Take your running socks with you. If you don’t have a pair, look to try and buy socks in the store – then use these when trying on running shoes. Some running stores provide socks for trying the shoes, but you should be using the socks you plan to run with.
- If you use orthotics, insoles, or thick socks with your shoes normally, bring them with you when testing shoes.
- Ladies, don’t forget a sports bra as the gait analysis will have a bit of running.
Some tips for trying and buying running shoes in a shop:
- Comfort is king. More than any other possible factor, a shoe that feels right is the one for you. If a shoe rubs or irritates you in the store, that will only get exponentially worse when you go out for a run with them.
- Don’t assume you know your size– every brand varies slightly. You want a thumbspace between the longest toe and the shoe box. This avoids the repetitive motion of the toe hitting the toebox, which leads to sore toes / lost toenails. At the same time, if the shoe is too big your foot will move inside it and your toes will strike the toebox anyway – so it’s important to find the correct size in the middle of these two situations.
- The shoes should NOT give friction, pain, discomfort or feel too solid / hard. If you experience any of these, this isn’t the shoe for you.
- Overall feel. Get up and walk around, if the shop has some little ramps go and see how the feet move inside the shoes when going up and down hills.
- Trial them. You should always try running with the shoes on, preferably not on the treadmill – but occasionally this in unavoidable.
- In the end, listen to your gut – don’t buy a shoe you don’t feel 100% comfortable in. If the staff aren’t listening to your needs, you can find another store.
There is a myriad of different foot shapes – narrow feet, flat feet, narrow ankles, major pronation, etc. that would be too extensive to cover here. A good store assistant will take these into account and be able to steer you towards suitable options.
Words of Advice from experienced runners and running store assistants
Atlanta Drummond – Runner, Gait Analysis Specialist and Running Store Assistant
“I do believe that the perfect shoe is one that supports you where you need it but also allows your feet to move freely and naturally without compensating on the support.
Currently I have found that the brand that covers a wide range of runners and has very high recommendations is Asics and in some cases Brooks. For medium-major over pronators I have been recommending the Asics Gel Kayano and all of those runners have come back to me with 0 complaints. One shoe that does well due to it’s DNA gait adapting midsole is the Brooks Ravenna 8. Adidas Ultra Boost is great for neutral runners wanting a highly cushioned, light, and smooth ride with maximum foot room.”
Nick Newman – Runner, Runners Need Assistant Manager
“I work for Runners Needs and the big thing for me is comfort. Although gait analysis is a useful tool I don’t personally think that it’s something that should be taken for gospel!
When I’m serving someone I try and find out the customer’s history. Things like what type of running they’re doing, is it for general fitness or are training for an event. I try and find out some of their running history and what other activities that they are doing. Ultimately I think that runners should go for a shoe that is comfortable. A couple of brands are going towards “preferred motion” and letting the body move in the way that it wants to move and the runners work to strengthen their body to cope with running.
The gait analysis doesn’t really show the entire picture of a runner, things like shin rotation and hip position, it is a guide.”
For some great specific shoe recommendations and reviews, check out Nicer Shoe’s Best Running Shoes blog.
Gait Analysis and Pronation
Gait analysis is the study of how a person’s body moves – specifically while running, for our purpose. If you’ve ever seen a treadmill and camera set-up in a running store, that’s what they are for.
The store assistant will usually have you run on the treadmill for a few seconds while she records a video of your feet and legs in motion. She’ll then play back the footage, and use it to analyse your running style and prescribe running shoes.
One of the key pieces of information gained from gait analysis is how much you pronate. Pronating is the roll of the foot on each foot-strike, and the corresponding angle the lower leg takes on.
Someone who ‘pronates’, has a foot/heel movement that rolls inwards with each stride. The opposite is to ‘supinate’, wherein your foot/heel rolls outwards.
It’s perfectly common for runners to either pronate or supinate – pronation is more normal. It is caused by the complex biomechanics of our bodies, and while it may be a sign of an imbalance, it doesn’t necessarily need to be remedied if it isn’t excessive and doesn’t cause any issues.
“Over-pronation” is a term used a lot – it can be used to mean that you simply pronate, or that you pronate to an excessive level that is likely to cause injury.
A good running store assistant will be able to take your pronation / supination into account and guide you towards a shoe that works for you. Remember however, that pronation and supination are not ‘conditions’ that need addressing. And even if it needs addressing, the answer isn’t always to find a pair of shoes that compensates for the movement.
This is our key point for gait analysis – it should be used as a tool for diagnosing a runner’s requirements. The danger of gait analysis is that the results are often over-simplified. There are many well-meaning, but under-trained, shoe store assistants who advise runners incorrectly based on the results of gait analysis. They will simply look at how a runner pronates and break them into one of three groups (pronation, neutral or supination) and recommend a shoe based on those three broad categories. They fail to consider other important factors – such as the runner’s history, previous shoes, and any injuries the runner has suffered.
Another common tool used in a similar fashion is a pressure plate, or a wet foot test. The pressure plate is an electronic tool that shows the weight distribution of your feet. The wet foot test is a very basic version of the same thing – you wet the soles of your feet then step onto a sheet of paper. The outline left over gives the shop assistant an idea of the shape and style of your foot.
In a similar style to gait analysis, many un-trained shop assistants use this method to then directly recommend a pair of running shoes. The problem is that again, this method doesn’t consider other factors, such as your running experience, previous shoes, and injury history. Furthermore, several recent studies have shown that pressure plates and the wet foot test aren’t applicable as they study the foot at rest. Your feet at rest and while running work very differently, and it has been shown that recommending shoes based on foot type does not lead to a reduction in injury rates1,2 .
In conclusion, gait analysis is a great tool when used by a reputable and knowledgeable running store assistant. It can help them establish your running style and recommend the best shoe for you. But in un-trained hands, it can be used to over-simplify the shoe selection process.
Minimalist shoes are shoes with very little cushioning (such as Vibram Five-Fingers, Nike Frees) intended to mimic the act of running barefoot.
Minimal-style running is, in theory, better for your feet – they can develop more strength and agility, and in turn help you develop a better running gait.
However, for the vast majority of us, our bodies are just not used to the kind of movement and stresses that minimal running subjects us to. We’re used to walking around in comfortable shoes, and have probably learned to run in cushioned trainers – so to suddenly shed all that cushioning and support can be inviting trouble.
The key to running in minimalist shoes is a slow transition period and a very gradual increase in mileage – the lack of cushioning really does make things a lot harder when you’re starting to run on empty. If you are just starting out and want to try barefoot running, we’d recommend you get into it gradually, and consider alternating between a minimal shoe with a more traditional running shoe.
What Shoe Brands Are Popular?
There are dozens of brands out there churning out quality shoes these days, and it would be impossible to mention them all – but there are a few brands that have unwavering popularity and have came up time and time again when I’ve spoken with other runners and running store employees (remember, we are not affiliated with any brands.)
Asics, especially the Nimbus line, prove to be a perennial favourite for part-time runners and people starting out. They provide good cushioning and support and have a decent build.
Brooks are dependable and often used by novice – intermediate runners.
For the more seasoned runner, Salomon shoes have become the ‘go-to’ for many seasoned distance runners – their trail running models such as the Speedcross have got a great build and a good reputation. For long distance ultras, Hoka One Ones, and other maximalist styles, have also taken over a huge section of the market and are probably a close second in popularity to Salomon. Inov-8, New Balance, Saucony, and many more are always visible at the start line of any good race.
But don’t feel obliged to go with the herd if you already have a pair of shoes you’re comfortable with!
Reference 1: Effect on Injuries of Assigning Shoes Based on Foot Shape in Air Force Basic Training – http://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(09)00664-3/abstract
Reference 2: Injury Reduction Effectiveness of Selecting Running Shoes Based on Plantar Shape http://journals.lww.com/nscajscr/pages/articleviewer.aspxyear=2009&issue=05000&article=00001&type=abstract