How to Choose the Best Running Shoes

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Finding the right shoe can be overwhelming even for the most experienced runners. The number of brands, styles and models can stir up an instant case of decision fatigue. While conducting research for a new shoe, there have been numerous occasions where I will literally just stop, huff in frustration, and walk away from the computer. Talking to knowledgeable reps about a good shoe might work for beginners, but unless you’re talking to someone who’s highly specialized, you’re not going to get very far. For me, that means lots of research and trialing runners on my own accord. Buying, trying and returning has become habitual at this point. I can usually tell within 5-miles if a runner is right for me.

To save a bit of time and avoid ordering and testing out every shoe under the sun, it’s a good idea to reflect on the type of runner you are. Start with the basics – what’s your foot type and gait? From there, you can then determine the kind of terrain you’ll be running on and the type of racing you’ll be doing. Lastly, you have to take those new babies for a spin; is the fit right? Are they functional? There are a lot of badass-looking shoes out there, but my rule of thumb is that functionality always comes first. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve purchased shoes that are…um, let’s just say “off-brand” for me (I’ve rocked blue cheetah print before…yikes). However, if they perform well and give me the support I need, then I don’t really care about aesthetics.

To provide the most value I can to you all, I sought out advice from the owner of my favorite independent running store in Toronto, BlackToe Running. Mike Anderson and his wife Maya are the co-founders of BlackToe; one of the most recognizable running stores in Canada that offers the latest running gear and a wonderful meeting place for runners of all experience levels.

Before we dive into the specifics of how to find the right shoe, it’s important to address a bit of jargon you’ll hear a lot when describing the anatomy of a running shoe. 

Running Shoe Jargon

When runners discuss the nitty-gritty details about shoes, it can be somewhat esoteric to an outsider. I’m going to be using a lot of this terminology throughout the post, so I figured it might be helpful to do a Cole’s Notes summary of each of these terms. 

Stack Height 

This is the amount of material from the ground to your foot. From extreme (barefoot), to little cushioning to pretty much wearing high heels (my opinion of the Zoom Vaporfly 4% lol), stack height is definitely a personal preference. Do you like to feel closer to the ground or do you like the feeling cushioned while you run? The lower the stack height, the closer your foot feels to the ground.

Heel-Toe Drop

The heel-toe drop or what’s typically called the “offset” is the difference between your heel and the ground and your forefoot and the ground (measured in millimeters).

If you pull out the ruler, here’s the formula: heel stack – forefoot stack = offset 

You can measure like so:

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photo courtesy of Marathon Sports

A little history lesson regarding offset: there’s been a longstanding debate on the drop range. Before the “minimalist” movement, shoes used to be in the 12mm drop range. It’s very common now to find shoes within the 4-8mm range and even 0mm – 4mm.  In the article The Offset Debate, Metzler outlines, “essentially, a lower heel-toe offset (and thus, a considerably less chunky heel component) will help reduce the need to overstride and run with a heavy heel-striking gait.”

Lower heel-toe drops mimic a more natural movement of your body and although it hasn’t necessarily been proven to prevent injury, it does help your foot strike closer to the ground.

However, it’s important to note that a lower offset doesn’t necessarily mean less cushioning. You can get a 0mm (zero drops) with a lot of cushioning. One thing to keep in mind here is that if you’re used to wearing a shoe with a 10-12mm drop, don’t just immediately switch to 0-4mm or it could cause strain and injury. Transition to something closer to the ~6-8mm range and work your way down. 

Upper

The “upper” is the fabric component above the sole, usually made of soft material and mesh. When trying on a shoe, you want the upper to feel breathable, comfortable, and have a snug fit. You essentially want to find an upper that’s shaped like your foot; not too wide, fits snug, but also allows room for your feet to swell comfortably. 

Pronation 

Pronation is the natural motion/movement of how you walk. You can be a normal pronator where your foot slightly rolls inward on each step (most common). An overpronator is where your “ankle rolls too far downward and inward with each step”. Lastly, an underpronator (aka supination) is where your foot naturally supinates during the toe-off stage of your stride as the heel first lifts off the ground, providing leverage to help roll off the toes. It’s important to understand your gait as this will determine the type of shoe you need – but we’ll get into this shortly. 

Energy Return

I see this term a lot when reading running shoe descriptions. The energy return is the amount of bounce/spring a shoe offers when you strike the ground. As Outside Online puts it, “[energy return is] the ideal cushioning system, so the thinking goes, [it] will provide a sweet spot between stiffness and compliance, creating a springboard effect to help drive forward momentum.”

A high % energy return gives a bouncier, cloud-like feeling – kind of like the moon shoes all of us 90’s kids grew up with.

bo5mzthio7231If you want to bounce right past your competitors, these are the way to go. In fact, you can stop reading this post right now and just pick up a pair of these. Kidding…don’t run in these or you will 100% break your ankle. The energy return is not just provided by the shoe, it’s also dependent on an individual’s weight, stride, and gait. 

There’s a lot more terminology to sift through (ie. overlay, etc.), but for the sake of all our attention spans, we’ll save these for another day. However, if you’re interested in brushing up your running verbiage, then the article The 5-Minute Guide to Becoming a Running Shoe Expert can give you the full shoe anatomy. Here’s another one.

Determining Your Foot Type

There are three types of feet: flat foot/low-arch, neutral arch, and a high arch. I fit under the low to neutral arch, but my feet do appear quite flat. When we run, our feet roll inward, which is called pronation. Pronation is a totally natural human movement and it helps absorb impact from running. There are, however, varying degrees based on our foot type. If you have a neutral arch, your foot typically rolls inwards in a “healthy spot”. Low arches cause feet to roll excessively inward (overpronate), and high arches cause the foot to only roll slightly inward (under pronation or “supination”).

If you don’t know your foot type, here’s a quick way to reveal if you’re a normal pronator, overpronator, or under pronator. Take a look at the bottom of your running shoes. See where the rubber tread has been worn. Depending on the wear and tear on the bottom of your shoe you can identify the type of pronator you are.

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Photo from: UCONN Health

Another quick way to tell, although not the most accurate, is the wet test. Wet the sole of your foot and step on a piece of paper. Take a look at the shape your foot marks on the paper and voila! You’re now certified in sports medicine. Joking.

The best and most accurate method by far is to go to a professional who will assess you using the latest tools. At BlackToe, Mike’s staff uses a biomechanical assessment tool called motionQuest which determines your arch profile, degree of pronation and foot strike. This advanced technology is used for all customers that walk in the store and can help identify the correct shoe for them, rather than simply basing their recommendation on “eyeballing” someone as they walk.

Going into a specialized store like BlackToe, you get the reassurance that all staff members are very experienced runners. They also partner with local running physio and chiropractors to ensure they’re fully up to speed on best practices. In Mike’s words,

People come in and we ask them to do a series of movements which we assess and then enter into motionQuest. After that, they walk across a pressure plate which maps movements and body weight. 

However, motionQuest on its own is not enough – you need a human component. In addition to the technology, Mike’s team also ask a ton of questions about a customer’s running history, goals, injury history etc. With all this information in mind, the shoe selection stage is next on the agenda.

Types of Shoes

Basically, there are two types of shoes: neutral and stability/motion control. A majority of runners fit within the neutral category, which are usually designated for normal pronators. Stability/motion control helps overpronator runners or supinator runners by providing more support. 

If you’re an overpronator, you should look for stability shoes that provide support and can help stabilize your stride. Without the proper shoes, it can lead to some overuse injuries and knee issues.

For supination runners (underpronator), you are also easily susceptible to overuse injuries – but more so in the foot region (ie. heel pain, plantar fasciitis, etc.). High arches can put pressure on other parts of the feet while you run. Most experts recommend finding a flexible shoe with lots of cushion arch support, and a midsole that feels soft. This will help take some pressure off the feet.

Orthotics might be needed if there’s any severe overpronation or underpronation. This is the time to see a specialist and potentially look into custom orthotic insoles. 

How to Choose the Right Shoe

On account of me loving to sound like a broken record, I will reiterate the caveat that I always include in every article: there isn’t a one-size-fits-all method. To get a bit more specific, there is no universal shoe that magically fits everyone. Have you seen Cinderella? Anything you see in a Disney movie is obviously fact.

When people ask me to recommend a shoe, I don’t want to lead them astray since my preference is based specifically on MY foot type. The truth is, you need to choose a shoe based on a myriad of factors. Let’s break this down a bit.

Type of Running

The first question is whether you will be running on a road or trail. Road runners provide more cushioning and trail runners provide more traction control to help from slippage and to tackle technical trails. I wore my Nike road runners for my first 100-miler on a technical trail. I fell a grand total of 100 times due to slippage. Don’t make the mistake I did and ruin your brand-new tights and ego.

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For road runners, you also need to decide on what type of running you’ll be doing. Are you a casual, everyday runner? Will it be for long distance (ie. marathon racing), or are you looking for a racing shoe that’s optimized towards speed? Different shoes provide different functions, however there is some crossover. For me, I own a few different types of shoes depending on the type of running I’ll be tackling that day. 

Choosing the right shoe, by the way, is not just a task for beginner runners. Runners of all levels need some guidance. Mike explains, 

At [BlackToe], we help runners from absolute beginners to Olympians. You might find it strange that an Olympic or elite level runner would want help selecting shoes, but they are busy training and focused on their sport and therefore, don’t have time to research all the latest shoe tech. Our job is to match the features of the shoe to the runner and the issues specific to them.

Once you decide on the terrain you’ll be running on most frequently and the type of running you’ll be doing, it’s time to try some on!

Trying on and Proper Fit

Mike explains that after the shoe selection is made, the right fit is all about comfort (which is the easy part). As long as there’s enough room in the toe box and no slippage then you’re gold. Fitting the shoe is just about the right size and feel. 

He stresses the importance of getting the right characteristics and technical features figured out first and foremost. Otherwise, it will become a problem for any runner.

Other Tips & Tricks

From my own experience, if your feet start to hurt, try loosening your laces. I tie my runners SO tight that they cut off my circulation at times and I experience underfoot pain. If you can, do some wear-trialing in-store, on a treadmill at home or at the gym (pro tip: don’t run outside or you won’t be able to return them).

Wrapping it all up…

Lastly, replace your shoes often. Each shoe has built-in mileage with an average lifespan of ~300-500 miles. Make sure you find out what that mileage is on your new shoes and add your “gear” in your fitness tracking app, such as NRC or MapMyRun. If you don’t see that information, do the research; ask a sales associate or reach out to customer service. For example, my LunaRacer +3 has much lower mileage than the typical shoe. When I was doing the #RUN70 half marathon challenge, I burned through the shoes like a madwoman – replacing them every month (every ~400 miles/ 633 kilometers). 

Conclusion

Choosing a shoe can be overwhelming, but if you follow the tips above, understand some of the lingo, and are able to determine the right fit, you’re well on your way to finding your running shoe soulmate.

Hands down the best way to get the right shoe is to go to an expert like BlackToe Running that is highly specialized in the sport and uses the most advanced technology for all their customers. BlackToe also offers virtual shoe consultations for those who aren’t located in Toronto and can’t physically pop into the store. 

I’ve mentioned this before, but if you do find a brand/model of shoe you really like, BULK BUY (as brands retire models often). You don’t want to be spending your Sunday scouring Amazon for your favorite discontinued shoe that is now 4x the price. Been there, done that, hated my life. 

Lastly, try out the shoes indoors (as I do) and return if you need to. As much as you think the technical features are spot on and the fit is perfect, sometimes it just doesn’t work out. 

 

 

 

 

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