How to pick running shoes that support your stride
April 16, 2021|By Tim Kelly
There can be plenty of uncomfortable aspects to running — leggings may bunch, masks may slip, snot rockets will fly — but running shoes don't need to make the list.
As a former manager of a running store, I've offered countless pep talks to people just starting their running journey. They typically want to know how to stay motivated, what to wear, and when to give it a rest. But one topic that doesn't need to cause you any headaches (or foot aches) is how to pick running shoes that will support your stride.
Tailoring your running shoes to your foot shape, size, and quirks will get you that much closer to the run-happy vibes we're going for. I'm talking extension-of-your-foot comfort here.
Let's walk through a few types of shoes, consider where you'll be running, and get you virtually fitted.
What's my type of running shoe?
You'll come across some specialty shoe types, but most running shoes can be divided into two categories: neutral shoes and support shoes. To find what works for you, it's all about understanding how your body functions under the load of running. Your ankles, knees, and hips will receive a bulk of the impact forces as your feet hit the ground, so you'll want to find any imbalances or weaknesses in these joints.
One simple test to help you determine your needs involves only a mirror and some honesty:
Stand barefoot in front of a mirror where you can see yourself from the waist down.
If you're physically able, stand on one foot and then bend at the knee to a shallow squat. If you're not able to stand and/or squat on one foot, simply perform the test by standing on both feet.
As you squat, note any movement around your feet, ankles, and knees, as well as your overall balance. Does the arch of your foot collapse or stay the same? Does your ankle roll inward, outward, or remain neutral? What about your knee? Is standing on one foot easy and do you feel balanced?
Jot down any notes and then repeat the process with the other foot.
If your arch doesn't collapse, your ankles maintain a neutral alignment, and you feel stable standing on one foot, you're likely to run best in a neutral shoe. If your arch collapses, your ankles and knees roll inward, and/or you find it hard to balance on one foot, you're likely to run best in support shoes.
Neutral shoes offer cushion, responsiveness, or both. They're often broken out into a few categories and mesh well with certain types of runners, whether you're into a short morning run or getting amped for race day:
Cushion: For the runner looking for a softer and more protective experience, cushioning allows the shoe to absorb your impact.
Minimal: Often referred to as low profile, this type is for the runner looking for a lightweight, flexible shoe and that "close to the ground" experience.
Responsive: This type is for the runner looking for a springy bounce with energy return from their shoe.
Speed: Fast, lightweight, and streamlined, this type is for the runner looking to earn a personal record (PR) at their next race.
Support shoes should allow your joints to move the way you naturally do while preventing dangerous rolling, twisting, or other strain. But how much support do you need? Let's go back to your test results: How difficult was it to stand on one foot? How much did your ankles and knees roll inward or outward? If you have any history of foot, ankle, or hip pain or injury, this will play into your level of support, too. You'll often see support shoes fall into two categories:
Regular support: These shoes usually have a bit of support under the arch and into the heel to offer some guidance when your foot and ankle begin to roll.
Max support: These shoes often have a medial post or wedge (a denser, firmer section in the midsole) and firm heel support to offer sturdy guidance to someone that has considerable arch collapse, ankle or knee misalignment, or a history of pain or injury.
You'll likely come across some of this shoe anatomy lingo during your search, but if it's tripping you up, just back away slowly. When learning how to pick running shoes, you can always lean on your local running store staff or an interactive shoe finder to ease any analysis paralysis.
Do I need trail or running shoes?
Once you've chosen the shoe type that fits your body, consider where you'll be running. Are you running at the gym or around the block while you dodge your neighbors? Or are you heading to the woods to bound over roots, rocks, and muddy terrain?
Whether shopping online or in a store, look at the outsole (bottom) of the shoe you're considering. A flatter and smoother outsole is typically associated with road shoes, which offer more comfort on hard, flat surfaces, such as a paved road or treadmill.
Thicker, roughly indented outsoles, on the other hand, are typically found on trail shoes, which offer more traction for off-road and uneven surfaces. They're designed to be more rigid and have better protection from roots and rocks underfoot
How should my running shoes fit?
If you're able to try on shoes before buying them, walk around for a few minutes. Ideally, a running store will let you take them for a quick jog on a treadmill or even around the block. Note any areas that feel too tight or loose (especially in the heel) or any parts of the shoe that might poke into your feet or ankles as you run. Your shoes should immediately feel comfortable when you slip them on.
Standing in your shoes with your heel against the back of the shoe, you should have about a thumbnail's width between your big toe and the front of the shoe. Toe movement is key, too — you should be able to use your toes for balance and propulsion while running. If you can get a comfortable toe wiggle going, then you're good.
If you're shopping online, track down the sizing chart and get a sense of whether the shoes run true to size. Some brands or stores will let you take your shoes for a trial run upon delivery and return them after a certain number of days, weeks, or even months if they aren't a good match.
It's an art and a science
There's a love-at-first-sight element to picking the right running shoes. Maybe you're drawn to them the second you walk in the store, or you have to stop mid-scroll because they jump out at you online. When you're able to blend your style with the right technology behind the shoe, you can head out the door for a worry-free run.
Our writer's advice is intended for informational or general educational purposes only. We always encourage you to speak with your physician or healthcare provider before making any adjustments to your running, nutrition, or fitness routines.
Marathon Runner & Coach
Ohio native that loves travel, gardening, and helping people do more with their running than they thought possible. 8+ years as a running coach. 12 years as a runner and cyclist.