Your Guide to Finding the Right Running Shoes

how to find the right running shoes"
how to find the right running shoes
Graphics by: Aryana Johnson
Graphics by: Aryana Johnson

I’ve loved many kinds of workouts throughout my 27 years. Barre classes, hot yoga, and HIIT classes have all found themselves on my calendar at some point or another. But throughout every phase and fad—remember Chloe Ting?—running has remained my one constant workout.

I’ve been a runner since middle school when I joined the cross country team and ran miles around my school in my gym uniform. It’s one of those love-to-hate-it things for me (and I think everyone who runs), but it’s truly the exercise that makes me feel my best. I’ve learned a thing or two about being consistent and what makes getting miles in more enjoyable, and as someone who isn’t totally a natural runner (but rather has just worked hard at learning to love it), at the top of that list are good running shoes.

I know many people who maintain that good running shoes aren’t necessary, but as the unfortunate owner of the Flattest Feet in the World, I strongly disagree. For me, the wrong shoes have led to shin splints, arch pain, hip pain—insert “pain” in front of any body part, and I’ve had it. Getting the right running shoes for my foot type, stride, and the type of ground I run on (a road versus a trail) has become a necessity for me. If you’re looking to get into running, these are the tips I swear by for finding the perfect running shoes.

Dr. Gregory Alvarez, DPM, FACFAS, Podiatrist

Dr. Alvarez is a podiatry specialist with Ankle & Foot Centers of America, providing comprehensive and personalized solutions for foot and ankle issues.

Why Do Shoes Matter?

Your feet are the foundation of your body. Their function is to efficiently support the body weight and provide for locomotion, so having the proper reinforcement for your feet with the right shoes means enabling them to do what they’re meant to do and you to move optimally. “Your shoes are foundational to maintaining not just foot health but overall posture and well-being,” explained Dr. Gregory Alvarez, DPM, FACFAS, a podiatrist at the Ankle & Foot Centers of America. “The right shoes can prevent a range of foot-related issues such as blisters, bunions, calluses, plantar fasciitis, and Achilles tendonitis. They provide the necessary support to your feet, help in distributing your body weight evenly, and protect against the stress of walking or standing on hard surfaces.” On the other hand, wearing ill-fitted or unsupportive shoes can lead to discomfort, pain, and even long-term foot and joint problems.

How Do I Find the Best Running Shoes For Me?

Pick shoes that are specifically designed for running

In my experience, the best running shoes are specifically built for running. Even if you have shoes you love to walk in, they aren’t necessarily the shoes that are right for you to run in. And Dr. Alvarez agreed: “Running imposes unique demands on your feet and body. Compared to walking, running significantly increases the force of impact on your feet and joints. A specific pair of running shoes is engineered to absorb this shock, provide adequate cushioning, and support your foot’s natural movement through the gait [a person’s manner of walking] cycle.” Running shoes are designed for various running styles, surfaces, and individual foot types (more to come on that), which helps reduce the risk of injury and enhance performance. In other words, you shouldn’t go online and order any cute pair of running shoes you see; in fact, you should take the aesthetic out of them completely (unfortunately, some of the cutest sneakers are the worst for running).

Know what to look for in a running shoe

Many factors go into finding the right shoe, and each aspect can affect your experience. Some factors are a matter of personal preference such as cushion (determined by the firmness of the foam and thickness of the sole); some runners prefer extra cushion, while others prefer less cushion to feel more response from each step (cushion ranges from maximum cushion to barefoot shoes). Other elements of a running shoe have to do with your body and understanding your foot type, such as arch support (which depends on the anatomy of your foot) and the heel counter (or the cup layered inside the rearfoot), which vary based on the amount of ankle motion or support you need. “Know whether you have a high arch, flat foot, or neutral arch,” Dr. Alvarez suggested. “This affects your choice since different shoes cater to each foot type.” Also for running shoes (rather than walking shoes or training shoes), opt for a wider toe so that your forefoot can spread out without rubbing against the shoe.

Consider your running surface

Your shoes should not only be personalized for your feet but also for the surface you’re running on. If you’re running on pavement or the treadmill, road-running shoes are designed with flatter, smoother soles meant to stabilize your feet and offer cushion on hard, even surfaces. If you plan to run on a more uneven terrain like a trail or dirt track, trail-running shoes have bigger lugs for better grip on uneven terrain. They’re also generally thicker and stiffer through the soles to help protect your feet from rocks or other sharp objects and help prevent injury when running on uneven surfaces.

Get personalized recommendations from experts

The biggest game changer has been going to a running-specific store and letting experts help me find which shoes are best for me. Dr. Alvarez recommended getting your gait analyzed to observe how you run to understand your pronation type, which is a service many specialized running stores offer. “Pronation affects which part of your foot touches the ground first and can guide you to shoes that offer the right support,” he said. I had a little brick-and-mortar store in my hometown that did this, but as a Chicagoan, I now swear by Fleet Feet (they have dozens of locations across the U.S.). They scan your feet (which is mortifying to look at, but super helpful), analyze your arches, personalize to the type of running you do, and give you options for which shoes would be best. Since my feet are so flat, they’ve also fitted me for custom insoles, which have been a huge help as well. Do a little research, and if there’s a store near you that you can visit in person to help you find running shoes, I couldn’t recommend it enough. 

If this isn’t possible for you, a great alternative is Brooks’s virtual shoe finder. You take an online test that asks you about all aspects of your running, monitors while you do a few drills (which help you figure out if you pronate, etc.), and gives you results for which shoes are best for you. Brooks running shoes are some of the best on the market, and I’ve found some of my favorite running shoes of all time through this test.

how to find the right running shoes
Source: Chris Kim Creatives | Pexels

How Do I Know My Running Shoe Size?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned the hard way about running shoes, they shouldn’t be your usual size. “Your feet can expand both from the impact while running and naturally over time, so account for expansion when determining your running shoe size,” Dr. Alvarez advised. For that reason, you should ideally get both of your feet measured at the store and size up at least a half size (I personally always size up a full size), so your foot has room to move without your toes getting cramped or hitting the front of the shoe on each step. When measuring your feet and trying on shoes, Dr. Alvarez emphasized always doing it later in the day or after a run when your feet are at their largest. “There should be about a thumb’s width between your longest toe and the end of the shoe,” he said. “Walk or run a few steps to ensure there’s no slipping or pinching.” I know it’s hard to pull the trigger on shoes that aren’t your usual size, but when you’re running, it makes all the difference in the world.

In my high school track days, I learned about the magic of a runner’s knot. In a nutshell, it’s a specific way to lace your running shoes so that they fit snuggly around the ankle and don’t rub or slip on your heel as you’re running. Every time I get a new pair of running shoes, this is the first thing I do. It’ll help the way your running shoes fit, and as a bonus, it has helped me avoid any breaking-in discomfort on my heels as well.

When Should I Replace My Running Shoes?

The general rule of thumb for when to replace running shoes is between every 300-500 miles you put on them. For me, this ends up being about every eight-ish months, but I can also immediately feel when mine are worn out and I need a new pair (I start to get shin splints). Other signs that it’s time for new shoes? Visible wear on the sole and tread pattern and persistent discomfort or the onset of aches and pains in your feet, legs, knees, or hips after a run, according to Dr. Alvarez. “Regularly inspecting your shoes and being attentive to how your feet and body feel can help in determining the right time for a replacement,” he said.

If you track your runs with an app like Strava (which I highly recommend), make a note for yourself with the date you bought your shoes so you can track how many miles you run in them. Or, if you run around the same amount of miles every month as I do, calculate how many months it’ll take you to hit 300-500 miles and make a reminder in your phone to order a new pair around that time.

Shop Our Favorite Running Shoes

If you’re caught up on the unattractiveness of running shoes (I get it, my favorites are geriatric-looking with soles two inches high), a way I make mine more exciting and spark joy is by always choosing a bright color (running shoes come in a lot of fun colorways). 

Mach X Everyday Running Shoes

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