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Whether you’re training for your first marathon or just trying to get into a treadmill habit, the most important gear for any runner is your shoes. These pieces of foam and plastic are the only thing protecting your body from the impact of pounding the pavement, track, or trails. And while it might be tempting to buy the model your best friend who has ran 10 marathons swears by, choosing a running shoe is a very personal decision, and chances are you and your friend have different feet and different needs.
For two years, I worked at a specialty running store helping hundreds of customers find the best sneakers for their particular issues. So for this guide, I’ve laid out some of the most common questions and concerns I’ve heard from shoppers — like the fear of losing toenails or knowing when to replace your shoes — plus the best places to start your search.
Where should I buy shoes?
Specialty running stores, like New York’s JackRabbit Sports, Boston’s Marathon Sports, or one of the many Fleet Feet Sports locations around the country, that employ well-trained and knowledgeable staffs will always be your best bet. The sales assistants will spend time getting to know you and asking questions about your running habits and injuries. A good sign you’re in the right place is if the person helping you actually watches you run in the shoes to see how they affect your stride.
It’s also possible to successfully buy running shoes online, especially if you’re armed with a good guide (like this one!) and you choose a retailer that will let you exchange or return shoes after you’ve gone on a trial run (because no matter how comfortable a shoe is straight out of the box on the carpeted floor of your living room, it’s no indication of how it will feel pounding the pavement on a run).
Running Warehouse offers store credit or an exchange within 90 days; Brooks offers returns within 90 days; Road Runner Sports offers an exchange within 90 days for VIP members; Fleet Feet Sports offers returns within 60 days; and Hoka One One offers returns within 30 days. If you’re really not sure how long it’s going to take you to test your sneakers out, try Athleta: It offers returns with no time restrictions.
I’m prone to injuries like shin splints, knee pain, or Achilles tendinitis.
Your running injuries may be due to overpronation, which is the excessive inward motion of the arch of your foot when you’re landing on the ground. The arch works like the trusses of a bridge to distribute the impact of your foot strike. A less flexible arch (identifiable as a high arch) is more efficient at absorbing shock and keeping your feet and legs in alignment.
If you have flexible arches (lower arches or “flat feet”), the arch collapses inward, bringing the foot and lower leg along with it and putting you at risk for injury. This is only a general rule, though, and the best way to find out if you do overpronate is to have someone watch you running from behind and see if your feet are rolling inward. Speciality running stores will usually have a camera setup behind their treadmills and can show you this in frame-by-frame slow motion.
The running shoes designed to correct for overpronation are known as stability shoes. These models have a piece of denser foam on the inside of the shoe — known as the medial post — that supports the arch during the impact phase and prevents inward movement. Shoes without medial posts are called neutral and are best for runners who don’t tend to overpronate.
A great stability shoe is the Brooks Adrenaline GTS 17, which has been one of the brand’s best-sellers since its introduction in 1999. With a solid medial post that will keep even the most extreme overpronators in line, the Adrenaline may help prevent some of the common injuries that could be caused by a less supportive shoe.
Running has always felt hard on my joints.
If you find the high impact of running causes pain in your ankles, knees, or hips, a shoe with more cushioning may absorb some of the shock that’s leaving you sore.
Asics, which names some of its most popular shoes after clouds and features silicone-based gel along with foam for cushioning, has long been a favorite for runners seeking a softer ride. If you’re a neutral runner, the Asics Nimbus 19 offers generous cushioning in a lightweight, comfortable package. If you need stability, try the Kayano 24, which offers the same comfort as the Nimbus but with support to protect against overpronation. Asics have a figure-eight shape with a snug midsection that holds on to the foot and a wider heel and forefoot; narrow-footed runners tend to prefer the Asics fit.
If you need a wider high-cushioned shoe, try the Brooks Glycerin 15 for neutral runners or the Saucony Hurricane ISO 3 for overpronators. These plush shoes are also good to consider if you’re running your first half- or full marathon and feel like you want some more cushion between you and the ground on those longer runs.
If you want even more cushioning, the brand to go to is Hoka One One. Originally a favorite of ultrarunners who rely on Hoka’s maximal cushion for epic runs of 50 to 100+ miles, the same softness that keeps them going superhuman distances can also help keep you chugging along on your daily runs. While they look bulky, the Hoka midsole is constructed from an extremely lightweight “marshmallow” lining that allows the shoes to feel incredibly soft without any added weight. The Clifton 4 is a good introduction to the brand.
But didn’t I hear barefoot running is the way to go?
Minimal — or barefoot — running shoes had a moment in the early 2010s following the 2009 publication of Born to Run, Christopher McDougall’s inspiring account of the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico whose members regularly run hundreds of miles barefoot or in flat, flimsy sandals. The book’s popularity led to a huge demand for natural running shoes that have very little between you and the ground.
While many runners went minimal and never looked back, others found themselves suffering from injuries like stress fractures of the foot from the intense impact of pounding the ground with no cushioning. Unlike the Tarahumara, those of us in developed countries have been wearing shoes with some degree of cushioning since we learned to walk, and we simply do not have the foot strength to suddenly jump into barefoot running.
Vibram, makers of the often-mocked FiveFingers “toe shoes,” learned this the hard way when it was forced to settle a class action lawsuit by runners who had been injured in their barefoot-style shoes.
If this is still something you’d want to try, I’d recommend adding a minimal shoe as a supplementary training tool that you very gradually build up more running time in. You’ll find the sweet spot between strengthening your foot in a minimal shoe in short intervals and keeping your bones and joints protected in a cushier shoe for longer runs. The most popular shoe to emerge from the minimalist movement is the Nike Free, and the current version, the Free RN 2017, offers a natural running feel with just enough cushioning.
I’m not going to run more than a 5K and/or I need something light to throw in my gym bag.
While the minimalist running bubble may have burst, the trend did have the positive side effect of encouraging brands to come out with more streamlined offerings that are lightweight and responsive (that is, you feel more connected to the road under your feet) but aren’t as hard on your soles. If you’re running shorter distances, don’t need a ton of cushioning, and want something light, a great neutral option would be the bouncy and responsive Saucony Kinvara 8.
If you’re looking for a shoe in this category but need stability, consider the Mizuno Wave Inspire 13. Unlike other brands that use foam for cushioning, Mizunos feature a plastic “wave plate” that distributes impact throughout the foot, keeping the shoe lightweight and flexible. Mizuno shoes are shaped like a V, fitting snugger around the heel and tapering out toward the toes. If you have narrow heels that tend to slip out of other shoes, Mizuno models might be a better fit.
I generally run 3-6 miles at a time, or around 20-25 miles per week.
What you’re looking for here is a solid, everyday trainer that can handle the meat and potatoes of your running. It’s up to you to determine how much cushioning you’ll need on these regular runs. You’ll likely want more softness compared to a minimal shoe, but maybe won’t need a ton of cushion as long as you’re not injury-prone.
Moderately cushioned neutral options include Brooks Ghost 10, Saucony Ride 10, and Asics Cumulus 19 (if your feet are a bit narrower). In the stability range, the equivalent models would be Brooks Ravenna 8, Saucony Guide 10, and Asics GT-2000 5.
I have wide feet or bunions that make running shoes uncomfortable.
While brands like Brooks and Saucony run a little wider than average, if you need an even wider shoe, let me introduce you to Altra, the saving grace of wide-footed and bunion-afflicted runners everywhere. With an extra wide toe box that allows your toes to splay and flex in the most natural way possible, the Altra Intuition 4.0 has been the shoe I pull for runners who don’t think anything will accommodate their feet. And more times than not, they end up loving it.
Am I going to lose my toenails?
Among runners, it’s often considered a point of pride to post Instagram shots of blackened, bloody, or even missing toenails following long runs. When I see pictures like that, I don’t admire these runners for being extra hardcore; I feel bad that they have to suffer from running in the wrong shoe size. Your feet swell when you run, and if there isn’t enough room in your shoes to accommodate them, your toes will painfully rub up against the front of the shoe.
This never has to happen if you buy the correct shoe size, and the right running shoe size probably won’t be the same number that’s on your favorite pair of flats or boots. Be prepared to go a half-size to a 1.5 sizes larger in your running shoes. You should be able to comfortably fit the width of your thumbnail between your longest toe and the front of the shoe. This will give your foot enough room to expand while protecting your pedicure — and your toenails themselves.
When is it time to buy a new pair?
This is where keeping track of your miles comes in handy, because the general rule of thumb for replacing your shoes is 300 to 500 miles. Minimal shoes will fall on the lower end of that spectrum, while shoes with more cushioning can go a little longer.
It might seem like a pain to have to go through this whole process again, but once you’ve found a shoe you like, replacing it will be a whole lot easier. Brands generally release new versions of each model annually, so if you love the Brooks Ghost 10, chances are you’ll be able to easily transition to next year’s Ghost 11. It’s still super important to try on the new model, though, because something as simple as a new stitching pattern on top of the foot could rub you in the wrong way.
What I personally like to do is scour discount sites for previous versions of a shoe that may now be on sale. So if the Saucony Kinvara 7 was your jam but something about the Kinvara 8 doesn’t sit right with you, it’s worth doing some internet scouting for leftover 7s that may now be half-price or cheaper.