How to Find Your Perfect Running Shoe

How to Find Your Perfect Running Shoe

The right pair of shoes could change your running life. Here’s how to make sure they’re a perfect match.

The average person takes approximately 2,000 steps in a mile. That is 2,000 initial contacts with the ground, 2,000 shock absorptions and 2,000 propulsions forward. Multiply those steps by the number of miles in a race, or even the miles in a training cycle, and you start to see the need for a good pair of shoes.

What makes a solid pair of shoes is a science, although not totally universal. A shoe that might be perfect for one person may be detrimental for another. In that way, we are all like Cinderella trying to find the perfect slipper. One of the worst things an athlete can do is purchase a pair of shoes based on a recommendation or just by reading a few reviews. When investing in a new pair of shoes, it is important you take the following into consideration: fit, where you will be running, and how various specs will affect your feet.

Fit

Poorly fitting shoes can quickly ruin a race or training cycle. Too big and you end up with blisters. Too small, you might get black toenails or cramps. And an ill-fitting arch can lead to plantar fasciitis. As such, the two most important components of proper shoe fit are size and width.

Size

Around 80% of the population has different sized feet. When purchasing shoes, it is important that you fit your larger foot. So, if one foot measures at a size 8 and the other is an 8.5, you need to buy a size 8.5. To help your smaller foot from sloshing about, you can put an extra insert in the shoe, wear a liner sock, or try out a different tying technique.

Width

Equally important is width. Just like our feet being different lengths, they are also usually different widths as well. Someone who has been running for a long time might have a collapsing arch, causing one foot to grow wider and shorter. Same as length, it is important to fit the wider foot while making accommodations for the more narrow foot. 

Other considerations

Just knowing your accurate size is not enough for properly fitting your feet, since shoe companies often have different size standards for each measurement. For example, Hoka One One fits long and a little wide, Solomon fit long and narrow, while La Sportiva fits narrow and short. Brooks usually fits true to size, Saucony is often wide, Asics can be narrow as is Nike. However, almost all brands have one or two shoe makes that do not follow this rule, so always try on a shoe before you buy it.

Trail vs. Road

The two major variations in shoes are road and trail. In these subgroups shoes diverge into varying levels of stiffness, aggressiveness, tread, durability, and flexibility.

Features of a Road Shoe

Road shoes are going to be more flexible, lighter, more cushioned and have a softer tread. Because a shoe manufacturer assumes that a road will not vary much, they create a corrective shoe that helps an athlete avoid over-pronation or supination. Wearing a road shoe on the trail will leave your foot unprotected, not to mention you will absolutely destroy the soft tread on your shoe as you slip and slide your way down.

Features of a Trail Shoe

Unlike the road, trails are completely variable. If you are running rockier, more technical trails, you might want a stiffer shoe with a rock plate and ample toe protection. If you are scrambling, you might want a stickier tread, if you are running muddy, wet, or snowy trails, a shoe with a more aggressive tread might serve you best. Due to the more unforgiving nature of a trail shoe, wearing them on the road will impose greater impact on your foot. The asphalt will also tear apart the tread. 

Is there an all-in-one shoe?

No…but there are some solutions to running on mixed terrain. Shoes like the Salomon X-Mission and the Brooks Caldera are more flexible and light in terms of trail shoes with a less aggressive tread. They are perfect for running to trailheads or on long runs that might involve both bike paths and trail. However, they are going to have less protection and durability on the trails and will grow uncomfortable if worn for a long period of time on the roads. They will also wear out faster than the average shoe as they are not designed specifically for either terrain. If financially reasonable, it is best to invest in both a pair of road shoes and a pair of trail shoes.

Heel Drop

Heel drop is the difference in height between the heel and the forefoot of a shoe. Drop ranges from 0-12mm.

High Drop (9-12mm)

Pros: High-drop shoes will have more padding on the heel of the shoe, which will provide more protection for chronic heel-strikers. High-drop shoes can also provide more support and save on fatigue if the athlete is engaging in steep hill climbing.

Cons: The high drop can make it more difficult for a runner to have a natural stride. The extra padding can also add some extra weight. While a couple of ounces might not seem like much 0.2oz multiplied by 2,000 steps in a mile repeated 26.2 times means you are carrying an extra 655 lbs with you in a marathon. That is a lot of energy.

Examples: Brooks Ghost (12mm) Salomon Speedcross (11mm) Adidas Ultraboost (10.6)

Mid Drop (5-8mm)

Pros: The majority of shoes fall into this small window. Mid drop shoes provide a great balance of neutral stride and cushioning.

Cons: What you gain in versatility you will lack specificity. Shoes in this category will provide less cushioning than a high drop shoe and, without the weight-savings of a low-drop shoe. Still, this is a safe zone, and a good place to start if you are unsure what you want.

Examples: Nike Vaporfly Next% (8mm) Hoka One One Clifton (5mm) La Sportiva Lycan (6mm)

Low Drop (1-4mm)

Pros: Low drop shoes are a great option if you dig the more natural stride, and favor a more responsive and lightweight shoe.

Cons: Low drop shoes provide far less cushioning, and put more strain on your achilles and calves than the high drop shoes. You will also need to engage your calves and feet more in climbing steep hills with a lower drop shoe. If you are new to low-drop, it is crucial you be proactive with your stretching and ankle strength.

Examples: Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger (4mm) Saucony Peregrine (4mm) Newton Gravity (3mm) 

Zero Drop (0mm)

Pros: Completely natural and neutral. Zero drop shoes are great for going back to basics, keeping weight low, and working on correcting your form.

Cons: Zero drop is going to put a lot of pressure on your tendons and muscles in the lower leg. If you do not ease into these shoes, you are at a huge risk of achilles, plantar, and calf injury. They are going to be far less supportive climbing hills and on varied terrain. Just like with low drop shoes, it is crucial the runner is proactive in their self-care.

Examples: Topo Magnify, Brooks Pure Cadence, All Altra running shoes

Variety is the spice of life

If financially available, figure out a few different levels of drop that work for you and use them for specific runs. Perhaps you want a higher drop cushy shoe for your recovery run or when doing a more challenging, hilly run. Then, you can wear your low drop shoes for speed work and building strength and correcting form. Changing out your shoes is a great way to prevent overuse injury and protect your body from over or underutilizing particular muscles and tendons.

Rocker

Rocker is the amount of downward rounded curve on the outsole of the shoe. With a neutral or minimal shoe, there will be less curve, on a more maximalist shoe, the rocker will be greater. Hoka One One is known for putting high rockers in their shoes.

Pros A high rockered shoe will mitigate the amount of strain and potential injury on the achilles. It also perfects efficiency and stride if the runner is landing on their forefoot and rocking forward off of their toes.

Cons: A heel striker using a heavily rockered shoe will use more energy pushing forward. This shoe is far from minimalist or even neutral.

Toe Box

There is a difference between the width of a shoe and toe box width. A person with a wide forefoot or heel might still prefer a fitted shoe and a runner with a narrow fitting shoe might still benefit from a wider toe box.

Wide

Pros: The big toe has three important roles in a single stride. First, it helps the athlete balance and stabilize if running over varied terrain, or while the athlete is fatiguing. Second, it provides power in taking off as it is the last point of contact with the ground as the athlete starts the next stride. Finally, it corrects the foot in landing, ensuring the athlete is landing efficiently as the toes spread and lift. If provided an ample amount of room, the big toe can do all three jobs uninhibited. When it is pressed into the other toes and the shoe, the big toe loses its power, which cuts back on efficiency. Pushing toes in together can also cause two major ailments: bunions and Morton’s Neuromas

Cons: A wide toe box will feel less responsive and quick when racing or navigating rocky terrain. If the wearer has an especially narrow foot, they are at risk of going loosy-goosy in the shoe and beating up their toes. For this reason, it is important to ensure your wide toe box shoes are securely tied and tightened.

Fitted

Pros: A more fitted toe box will give the runner an enhanced feeling of control. Fitted shoes provide a more responsive and high performance on varied terrain or while racing. These are more likely to be racing shoes or worn for shorter periods of time.

Cons: A runner who wears fitted shoes all the time is at a higher risk of the above-stated ailments, as well as losing the power of the big toe.

Arch and Instep

Beyond wide and narrow, foot shape will continue to dictate what shoe you should wear. Ask your shoe salesperson if you have a high; stiff arch; low arch; collapsing arch; or a neutral foot. If your arch is high or collapsing, you might benefit from a high-arch shoe, insoles or orthotics. A person with a low arch or flat foot will want something completely flat with some additional cushioning.

A high-volume foot or instep may cause the top of the foot to press into the shoe, which can compromise circulation. Similarly, a low-volume foot might not have the same support in a higher-volume shoe. When trying on shoes, make note of any of these discomforts!

Tips for trying on shoes

  • Do not be afraid to be a Cinderella, take your time and find the perfect fit. You are not wasting time or being annoying by asking for what you need.
  • When trying on shoes, try to stop by the store after a long run or spending a few hours on your feet so you can see how shoes feel when your feet are swollen and fatigued. Any new shoe is going to feel fantastic when feet are fresh (though, please bring clean socks.) 
  • Try on several pairs of shoes and put each pair on both feet. Your feet are not the same, and it is important to make sure both feet feel good. If you want to compare two different shoes at the same time, try them on both the left and the right alternating.
  • Bring multiple socks you might wear varying in thickness and length to mitigate discomfort later on.
  • Run around. If the store has a treadmill that is not being used, hop on there. If it is nice outside and the store is cool with it, jog up and down the block. Sprint, jog slow, walk, jump- really get a feel for the shoe.
  • Ask about the return policy and try them out at home. Spend time in the shoes jogging around the neighborhood or a local path if you are able. If it is reasonable for you, buy two pairs and alternate them before returning (or storing) the pair you cared for less.
  • Go to a running-specific store and ask for assistance. The salesperson works there because they care about running. Even if they are not the most informed on every shoe, they will be able to suggest other options to try.
  • Do not fixate on color and style. They might be the most hideous shoes you have ever seen, but if they feel good they might change your running life. If there is not a color you like in the store, see if you can order a pair in a different style.
Lexi Miller

Lexi Miller is an adult running coach and Community Manager with Lifelong Endurance, as well as a youth coach with Peak Performance Running. Certified through the United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy and a Level 2 Coach with Training Peaks, she works primarily with distance runners (marathon to distance runners) cross-country skiers, and new or returning endurance athletes. Lexi uses her past experience of working in mental health to help athletes develop confidence and strength and confidence through mindfulness and consistency. You can hear her on the podcast, "A Runner's Guide to Mindfulness" or find her on the trails of Colorado.