There are over 100 different brands manufacturing running shoes today. Within their product ranges, there are sub-niches. This can make choosing the right running shoe a daunting task!
Choosing the best type of running shoe for you will be determined by a number of factors. These include the type of running you’re going to be doing, your foot’s shape and size, how much cushioning you prefer, as well as whether you overpronate or supinate.
Then there’s the durability of the shoe. Mileage varies greatly from runner to runner, and not all shoes are meant for every day use. There are other features like zero-drop shoes, or race-specific shoes.
One thing we do know for sure is that there’s a running shoe that will tick all the boxes on your checklist.
But before you purchase a new pair of running shoes, let’s take a look at the different options and who will benefit from each.
This is a broad category. Most adult recreational runners fit into the category of “road runner.” From the 3-day-a-week jogger, to the occasional 5k racer, to the pretty serious marathoner, there are many road running profiles. Likewise, there are different types of road running shoes. Most are designed to be highly shock-absorbent to protect your joints on asphalt, sidewalks, concrete, or pavement.
Road running shoes are categorized broadly into different types, which are:
Neutral training shoes are your traditional shoes. They are the most common running shoes that you’ll come across.
These shoes are designed for runners who have neutral pronation—your foot rolls inward naturally no more than 15%, while your ankles and legs are properly aligned.
One of the first things you may notice about the neutral running shoe is that it has a curved or semi-curved last.
This is because the shoes are very cushioned, which helps to reduce the pressure on the joints—feet, ankles, knees, and hips—absorbing and reduce the impact of footstrikes.
There’s no built-in support in neutral shoes, as your body weight is evenly distributed because the whole foot comes into contact with the ground. This also makes the neutral running shoe slightly lighter. They’re a great choice for tempo runs and interval runs.
However, if you are a runner who either overpronates or supinates (underpronates) you may find that neutral running shoes can make your feet or ankles ache. This is due to the neutral running shoe not having adequate support called for by the pronation style.
Some of the most popular neutral running shoes are:
While stability shoes have similarities to neutral running shoes, they do have their differences. These shoes have supportive features like guide rails or a medial post built into their midsole.
Guide rails are newer support technology mostly found in brands like Brooks. Two pieces of either firm foam or plastic are placed on the inside and outside of the heel. Generally, the firm foam or plastic is higher on the outside edge, which reduces how much the heel moves in the outward direction.
The purpose of the guide rails is to keep your knee in a natural motion by reducing the excessive rotation of the shin and heel caused by overpronation.
The medial post is made from a denser EVA foam—a harder foam than what cushions the shoe—which is designed to provide support and slow the rate of overpronation through your gait cycle. It’s been the classic way to add support to shoes for decades.
These supportive features help to keep your foot in a neutral alignment. Stability shoes with this construction are a great choice for runners who have mild to moderate overpronation. That being said, the trade-off with these shoes is that they’re slightly heavier.
Some of the most popular stability shoes are:
Guidance shoes are similar to stability shoes but they’re lighter. While they don’t have as much support as the stability shoe, you’ll still find that some shoes will feature guide rails or a smaller medial post than a stability shoe.
These shoes generally feature lightweight cushioning, which not only absorbs impact but provides a “springier” step. These types of shoes are a great option for runners who have mild to moderate pronation and want a faster, snappier shoe.
Some of the most popular guidance shoes are:
Motion control shoes are designed for runners with excessive overpronation, as the shoes help to reduce foot motion.
These shoes help provide stability to the foot by using posting systems such as guide rails or a roll bar that prevent the foot from rolling outwards or inwards.
If we think of guidance shoes as less supportive than stability shoes, then motion control shoes have even more support than both of those.
Motion control shoes can also feature a structured saddle for adjustable support. While the shoes do have some cushioning, some runners may find the midsoles of the shoes to be a lot firmer than that of stability or neutral running shoes.
Motion control shoes are also very heavy, but they do activate your quads more when running, and this can lead to your feet and legs feeling fatigued.
The most popular motion control shoes are:
The following shoes could fit into one of the above categories, but these shoes also have some unique differences that set them apart.
Some runners prefer to feel like they’re running on clouds. These shoes not only provide soft cushioning, but they’re supportive and lightweight with excellent energy return. While they may not be the fastest shoes, they certainly won’t hold you back when you want to pick up the pace.
Max cushion shoes make a great addition to your running gear, especially if you’re running long distances such as half and full marathons and want maximum protection against impact for your feet and legs.
If you’re a runner who is starting to run after recovering from an injury, or if you’re worried about the wear and tear on the joints, max cushioned could be the shoe you’ve been looking for.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Hoka One One is responsible for the popularity of max cushioned shoes. Two of their most popular models are:
Lightweight shoes are considered any pair that weights 9.5 ounces or less. They help you run faster, shaving a little time off of your PR. They are an excellent addition to your running gear.
While they’re not as cushioned as neutral running shoes, they still provide protective cushioning. They are responsive and you’ll find it easier to pick up the pace, especially if you’re working on your speedwork.
You’ll find these types of shoes won’t disappoint you on race day, and you’ll definitely notice the difference in your performance.
Two of the most popular lightweight shoes are:
There is much debate about whether the design of modern running shoes is actually good for the feet. Typically, running shoes raise your heel about 10mm, plus or minus a bit. Some argue that this tilting of the foot is not natural, and therefore not good. They argue that a zero-drop shoe, in which the heel and forefoot are at the same level, is better for your feet and your stride. Debates aside, runners who are looking for a running shoe that provides this “barefoot” feeling without having to sacrifice cushioning should consider a zero drop shoe.
While the overall design is zero-drop, that does not mean there is no cushioning. In most models, the midsole is cushioned to protect your feet from the impact of foot strikes.
Zero-drop shoes make a great addition for runners who suffer from metatarsalgia or who prefer the cushioning of their shoes to be level.
These shoes usually feature a wide toe box to let your feet splay naturally. Zero drop shoes were made popular by Altra, starting in 2009.
The most popular zero drop shoes are:
Barefoot shoes are minimalist running shoes with virtually no cushioning. What they do provide is some protection to your foot while you run. These shoes should only be worn by runners who have a good forefoot running form, as they mimic running barefoot.
If you want to try running in a “barefoot” shoe, ease into it gradually, as this will reduce your risk of injury.
Take shorter runs in the shoes, giving your feet time to adapt, especially if your foot muscles aren’t very strong. Alternate between your usual running shoes and these.
Popular barefoot running shoes are:
Should you decide to hit the trails, a pair of trail running shoes is a good idea.
These shoes are designed to protect and support the feet as you move over rugged terrain.
They also have thicker, more durable soles with lugs to help you run over dirt, rocks, and mud without having to worry about losing traction.
Standard trail running shoes generally have a sticky rubber outsole with a multi-directional lug pattern. This will ensure traction over gravel, mud, wet rocks, and sand.
Rock plates in the midsole provide additional protection from roots and rocks, while the cushioning helps to absorb the shock of foot strikes. The shoes are responsive and have added stability as most come with a Pivot Post System that keeps your foot balanced over technical or uneven terrain.
These trail shoes are great for people who like to mix their running up by adding the occasional trail to their exercise routine.
Some of the most popular shoes are:
If you’re running trails twice a week, you might want to consider shoes that are water-repellant. This will help keep your feet drier and more comfortable while you make your way through muddy, wet, or snow-covered terrain.
Most waterproof trail shoes use Gore-Tex, as well as adding a special treatment so that the water beads and runs off. This prevents the shoes from absorbing water even if you get caught out in the rain.
The shoes will also feature sticky soles with long lungs to provide stability when running over wet and muddy trails.
Some of the most popular waterproof trail running shoes are:
The plush ride is not limited to the road. In fact, high-stack max-cushion pioneer Hoka One One earned its cred first as a trail shoe brand. If you’re looking for technical trail shoes that not only perform but have extra cushioning to the nth degree, then look no further than the Hoka One One Speedgoat.
Like their road shoes, Hoka trail shoes have thick soles and tons of cushioning.
The Hoka trail running shoes also have deep lugs to provide traction. Plus, they’re waterproof so you can run in snow, across rivers, or in the rain without having to worry about keeping your feet dry.
The most popular trail running shoes with max cushioning are:
If you prefer to feel what’s going on beneath your feet with some midsole cushioning, then you’ll be happy to know that there are zero-drop trail shoes. Like Hoka with cushioning, Altra made its zero-drop name first as a maker of trail shoes.
Any zero-drop trail shoe will let your foot splay naturally while keeping you nimble over rocks and uneven terrain. Generally, the lugs are positioned under the metatarsals, and these will help with traction as they dig into sand, gravel, and mud.
For added protection, most zero drop shoes also feature a rock plate to protect the foot from sharp rocks and roots.
Some of the most popular zero-drop trail running shoes are:
Racing shoes are designed to only be worn when you’re running a race. Going for a new PR? Lace up some racing flats. These shoes are extremely lightweight. The newest versions, and the biggest thing going in running shoes today, have a carbon plate in the midsole for improved energy return.
As technology has advanced, so have racing shoes, with lighter materials and lighter cushioning to protect your joints from impact.
But racing shoes should be saved for race days, as the lighter materials that make up the shoe tend to wear out faster than your usual training shoe. On the day of your race, you’ll find that the shoes can help increase your running efficiency and your speed. Often with racing flats, you’ll have shorter ground contact times.
These shoes aren’t very common, and before you rush off to buy a pair, just know that your recovery period may be longer after running in these shoes.
Some of the most popular racing flat shoes are:
There was a great deal of hype surrounding the Breaking2 project’s attempt to have Eliud Kipchoge run a 1:59:59 marathon. But even before the near-miss at Monza, the world record at Berlin, and the 1:59:40 at Vienna, carbon fiber shoes were making waves in the running world. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, all three runners on the men’s marathon podium ran in prototypes of Nike’s new super-shoe, the Vaporfly 4%. Podiums at World Marathon Majors have been dominated by them since 2017. Other brands are now offering their own versions to keep pace with the change and the…well, the pace itself!
The well-known secret behind the shoes is that they greatly increase running efficiency by boosting energy return. There is some amount of controversy about how much energy return a shoe can give before being seen as a mechanical aid. Regardless, the technology that has gone into carbon plate running shoes now means that you have more spring in your run, and there’s ultra-light responsive foam to cushion your feet while your legs stay fresh over the miles.
These shoes are extremely lightweight, at around 5.3 to 6.6 oz.—150 grams to 187 grams. These shoes have kicked off a wave of new world records at all running distances.
Some of the best carbon plate racing shoes are: