Some runners love to geek out over running shoes. They like to keep track of the latest models and have tried nearly every major running shoe brand.
Running shoe fiends can even identify the model of a running shoe from a distance and tell you something about it. They’re the first to order a new release and have dozens of pairs of various running shoes toppling from their closet.
Other runners are wedded to their one trusty pair of comfortable running shoes. When the model is replaced by a new iteration, they’ll do whatever they can to scour the internet for their former model when it’s time to replace their shoes.
Then you have runners who aren’t sure which running shoes they’ll get when they check out their local running specialty store. They would never order running shoes online because they go by comfort—choosing comfortable running shoes that feel the best, regardless of the brand, model, or even the type of running shoe.
But what’s the best approach? Though they all have their merits, according to a systematic review recently published in the European Journal of Sport Science, if you want to improve your running economy, choosing comfortable running shoes may be the way to go.
In this guide, we will discuss the findings from the review, along with other evidence about what makes for the “best” running shoes.
We will look at:
- How Running Shoes Affect Running Economy
- Want to Optimize Your Running Economy? Buy Comfortable Running Shoes
- What Are Comfortable Running Shoes?
- Do Comfortable Running Shoes Reduce the Risk Of Injuries?
Let’s get started!
How Running Shoes Affect Running Economy
Running economy is one of the primary factors that impact running performance.
Runners with better running economy are able to run faster when exerting the same effort as runners with lower running economy or can run the same pace with less effort.
Therefore, improving your running economy can help you run faster and longer.
Research has found several factors influencing running economy, such as stride length, stride rate or cadence, leg stiffness, and leg extension at push-off.
Running shoes, with or without custom foot orthotics, can potentially reduce soft tissue vibration, muscle activity, and fatigue and increase perceived comfort while running, though heavy shoes have been shown to reduce running economy due to excessive weight.
Want to Optimize Your Running Economy? Buy Comfortable Running Shoes
The recent meta-analysis looked at six experimental studies examining the impact of running footwear on running economy. Four of the included studies found that the most comfortable running shoes are associated with reduced oxygen consumption during steady state running at submaximal effort levels.
One study also found that comfortable footwear reduced perceived exertion (RPE) ratings and pain.
After adjusting for different variables, the results from six studies in composite also demonstrated a small but significant reduction in oxygen consumption at submaximal intensities during treadmill running when wearing the most comfortable running shoes as rated by the runner.
This indicates that more comfortable running shoes enabled the runner to run at a submaximal intensity more efficiently, meaning that running economy improved.
It is important to note that most of these studies had a relatively small sample size and included only male recreational runners. Although it’s possible that these findings can be generalized for females and potentially elite runners, these particular studies did not include any appreciable data on such demographics.
What Are Comfortable Running Shoes?
What exactly are comfortable running shoes? How is “comfort” measured?
Comfortability is ultimately a subjective factor. Running shoes that are comfortable for one runner might be wildly uncomfortable for another.
There are quite a few objective and subjective characteristics of any pair of running shoes that can influence one’s perception of comfort. Examples include overall fit, cushioning, support, weight, ventilation, heel cup depth, pain or pressure points, responsiveness, fatigue, and ride.
This is essentially the point of the “comfort filter” when selecting running shoes, a paradigm proposed in a recent article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
According to the authors, runners have an intuition when they try on shoes, whether they are comfortable or uncomfortable. If they are indeed comfortable to that runner, the shoe inherently and automatically reduces the risk of injury.
In other words, if you go with your gut and choose running shoes that feel good, there’s a better chance that you won’t incur a running-related injury in those shoes. Your body is naturally rejecting shoes that are likely not a good fit and that would increase the risk of injury.
Indeed, the review found that runners who chose shoes using their own personal comfort filter (Are the running shoes comfortable? Do they feel good?) experienced fewer running-related injuries.
Notably, this review also confirmed the results of the other meta-analysis, reporting that wearing running shoes deemed most comfortable by the runner reduced oxygen consumption at sub-maximal exercise.
This, again, means that when a runner is wearing a running shoe that he or she finds to be comfortable, they are able to run more efficiently with less effort at a given pace.
Do Comfortable Running Shoes Reduce the Risk Of Injuries?
Running economy aside, there’s also evidence to suggest that choosing the most comfortable running shoes can reduce the risk of running-related injuries.
Historically, the two primary characteristics of running shoes that were thought to influence musculoskeletal injury risk were cushioning and pronation control.
Running shoes that provide insufficient cushioning were thought to increase the risk of running injuries, and running shoes that permitted overpronation or did not correct for overpronation in particular (and supination to a lesser degree) were also thought to increase running-related injuries.
For this reason, the running shoe industry saw the birth and expansion of the three primary categories of running shoes: cushioned neutral shoes, stability shoes, and motion-control running shoes.
Runners were encouraged to select the type of running shoe that did the best job correcting any pronation issues to yield a neutral stride.
There are surprisingly few research studies that really examine the relationship between running shoes and running injuries, particularly over time, despite the fact that most runners cite improper footwear as one of the primary perceived risk factors for running injuries.
The relative dearth of studies is due to a variety of factors, including the vast changes in the construction and types of running shoes available, the demographic shifts and changes in the running community over the decades, and even what we consider running injuries.
Another complicating factor that makes it difficult to compare the few studies investigating running shoes and running injuries is that some of these research studies have included the use of foot orthotics.
Not only does an orthotic or a custom insole inherently change the running shoe itself, but also runners who have been prescribed foot orthotics because of overpronation or other biomechanical or structural abnormalities likely have a higher risk of running-related injuries already, a variable that would be hard to tease out.
Interestingly, despite the emphasis on cushioning, very few studies have actually been conducted on the impact of insole hardness, or relative cushioning of a running shoe, on injuries. One study that did investigate this relationship failed to show any relationship between the two.
The authors of the review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine report that the “comfort filter,” as well as a factor they termed “preferred movement path,” should actually be used in place of cushioning and pronation when assessing the key factors involved in the relative injury risk with running shoes.
They present the case that there’s a clearer association between choosing the most comfortable shoes and reducing injury risk.
Taken together, it sure sounds like trusting your gut and choosing the most comfortable running shoes is a good route to take. Comfortable shoes might help stave off injuries and help you run a little faster with less effort. Win-win.
For guidance when buying your running shoes, check out our How To Pick The Right Running Shoe: Our Complete Guide.