Running Performance: Choosing the Right Running Shoe

My take on choosing the right running shoe for your feet, body, and running goals has become decidedly less complex. As I’ve evolved over the past 40 years in my learning, observing, and thinking with regard to running shoe selection, I can boil it down to 3 key areas: fit, terrain, and purpose. That’s pretty much it. Each of those topics can be considered with great depth, or just a few general principles that I’ll highlight below.

Fit is king. The fit of your shoe supersedes everything else. Your shoe needs to be comfortable, conforming to your foot, and non-irritating in its presence. That’s job 1. The last (foot shape) that shoe companies use to build their models will vary from brand to brand. Once you find the brand, or several, that fits your foot best, it’s a good idea to stick with it until things change. Some folks are lucky and they find they can get a good fit with many shoe brands. Others become loyal to only one. You don’t know until you try. 

Fit starts with proper sizing. Feet swell slightly into the afternoon, so that’s the best time to try and buy. You want that proverbial thumbnail’s distance ahead of your big toe and a snug but comfortable fit when you’re laced up. The last may be straight, semi-curved, or curved. The heel counter (or lack thereof) and padding should cup your heel. The saddle should follow the natural contour of your instep. The tongue should have enough padding that you don’t feel the laces biting into your feet. The toe box should have a little wiggle room, both horizontally and vertically. All these things present themselves naturally. You’ll immediately notice if something is not right when you put on a shoe. The ideal shoe will feel like a natural extension of your foot.

Terrain is kind of a no-brainer. The main difference here is between shoes designed primarily for road running versus those intended for trails. Road shoes will have less aggressive treads (or very little) and (usually) lighter uppers. Trail shoes will have more traction and protection built into them. Honestly, if you only run occasionally on dirt trails or gravel roads/paths, most road shoes do fine. The trail shoe comes into its own on steep, rocky, or muddy trails that demand all that traction and protection. Some runners like to mix it up, having a shoe for trails and one for the roads to cover most of their training options.

There are also specialty shoes designed for very specific applications, mainly cross-country (grass) and track. Each of these surfaces is unique and runners benefit from the specific characteristics of this footwear. Running on grass (when you are not barefoot) requires very little cushioning or protection, but a bit of traction is helpful. Cross-country shoes are thin and light and allow the runner’s foot to have a “feel” for the terrain as opposed to feeling “overshod.” On the track, sprinting requires max traction in the form of spikes with almost no cushioning while middle and longer distance running benefits from a thin midsole. Most runners will report that wearing a full-on road or trail model for XC or track feels wonky and yields a “clunkchunk” experience.

Purpose comes down to answering the question “What am I going to use this shoe for?” Your answer is totally up to you but it will tend to fall into one of three categories. You may say you want it for daily training and logging considerable mileage. In that case, the more substantial models may appeal to you most. Or you might say you do the occasional moderate run (per your definition) and a shoe that’s a tad lighter feels best. And finally, you could find yourself wanting a shoe dedicated for racing, being generally the lightest, “fastest” available for your application.

Once you’ve addressed the “Big 3” areas above, you can give some consideration to the concept of maximalist versus minimalist shoes. Maximalist shoes are the ones with the thick midsoles and the most cushioning and (sometimes) support. Minimalists are the unpadded, “zero-drop” slippers that are more sock-like and encouraging of barefoot mechanics. Each has a place as does everything in between. Often, your preference for one type of shoe will be dictated by a few simple points. How often do you run? How far do you generally run? How hard is the surface (grass versus roads or rocky trails) upon which you run? How heavy are you or how hard do you “hit” with your footstrike? More on any of those answers usually indicates more shoe might be the way to go.

Personally, I mostly wear minimalist shoes. While I do a little barefoot running and generally like the idea of shoes that encourage natural foot function, my main focus is on protection. First off, I don’t run every day. Most of my workouts are short, fast sessions on soft surfaces (grass and tracks). I’m reasonably light and efficient. I just don’t need a lot of shoe to do that kind of running. However, if I was going to log a double-digit road or trail run, I’d opt for a maximalist shoe in a heartbeat. Every time. 

Neutral (mainly just cushioned) versus stability (more support or “motion control”) shoes is probably one of the most controversial areas in shoe selection. Much of the research is incredibly unequivocal in determining if stability shoes are necessary for most runners. It’s relatively unclear if stability shoes reduce injury risk, or even if they do (control motion) the way the marketers suggest they do. It’s a gray area. I’m much less inclined to recommend stability shoes these days compared to several decades ago. I just haven’t seen the benefits for most runners. That stated, there are always exceptions. If you really like stability shoes, and they help you (or you believe that strongly), go with what feels right for you.

Inserts, or replacement insoles (sockliners) are another area to give some attention. Most shoes have removable insoles and you can swap them out for a higher quality aftermarket product. When these things take on a medical label…they become known as orthotic devices. Again, research is highly inconclusive on the actual long term value of the fancy orthotics. Temporarily, they can have a place for offloading an injury, or even retraining foot mechanics and mobility. But for most people, dedicated foot and lower extremity training can decrease the need for reliance on putting more stuff in your shoe. All that said, there is good research to suggest that some of the simple, cushioned insoles can increase wearer comfort, and enhance the foot-shoe (and ultimately foot-ground) interface by being a total-contact device that fills in all the nooks and crannies and eliminates air space under the foot. Worth considering. 

Some of the minimalist shoes I’ve used in the past don’t even have sockliners or room for them. A lot of these shoes are not even designed to be worn with socks. But in the shoes which are beyond extreme minimalist, I’ve found that I occasionally prefer to use a replacement insole for one very specific reason: slippage. When the shoe has a synthetic cloth insole, and I wear a synthetic sock, my foot slides around like crazy and it drives me crazy. Consequently, I prefer the inexpensive thin foam insoles you can get almost anywhere. My point is that you may want to experiment with inserts if you are looking to fine tune your fit. I’ve seen a number of runners with narrow, “low-volume” feet who did well with using an insert to take up unwanted space within the shoe and thus enhance the fit.

Lastly, we should discuss the recent crop of super-shoes which are taking the competitive running world by storm. Originally, these were the Nike VaporFly and AlphaFly shoes, but now almost every manufacturer is making them. Records have been dropping and the shoes definitely appear to work to some degree, at least in the elite athletes. These race-specific shoes are essentially maximalist models with new, extra-springy midsoles made from elastomeric polymers and proprietary foams, along with carbon fiber (and now also plastic) flex plates designed to assist with energy return in the push-off. It’s an Olympic year, so research, development, and marketing is going full-bore. These shoes are now available to consumers and they may be worth a look, especially if you are really serious about a performance goal. I haven’t tried a pair yet, but I’d speculate that some folks will love them and others will not be as impressed. Only time will tell but it’s cool to have all these options for running shoes.

Well, that was most of what I wanted to say about running shoes this season. As I looked back at what I’ve written for the past several years, I think there is a decent body of reference available. If you like reading about shoes and running, here are a few more options:

The Great Running Shoe Debate (more info on running shoe selection)

Maximalist Running Shoes Revisited (a look at research on maximalist shoes)

Running Shoes…Another Look (insights into shoe styles)

Foot Function and Running Shoe Selection (anatomy, pronation, and shoe interaction)

Running Shoe Selection 2020 (updates and tips on the running shoe scene)

Here are a couple podcasts on the topic:

Foot Function and Running Shoe Selection (a deep dive discussion)

Do Runners Need Orthotics? (the ongoing debate)

And…a few videos:

Selecting the Right Running Shoe (a fireside chat)

Foot Function and Running Shoe Selection (seeing is believing)

  One thought on “Running Performance: Choosing the Right Running Shoe

  1. Tam Walker
    July 15, 2021 at 2:42 pm

    Thanks John, for this excellent article. I found it helpful. I’d also like to mention for any concentric (learned term from women out there, Allyson Felix just launched a shoe, called the Saysh One. The design of the Saysh One was specifically built for the contours of women’s feet. Interesting!

    • John Zombro
      July 15, 2021 at 4:50 pm

      Hey, glad you liked the article. I also just became aware of the Saysh line. Women-specific lasts are very important and I look forward to seeing the company grow.

Share a comment or question!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.