Running shoes are a vital piece of running equipment, yet finding the perfect pair for you can be surprisingly… complicated.
If you’ve ever searched for the best running shoes, you know exactly what we mean.
A simple Google search yields endless results — dozens of brands, various types of shoes, countless modifications. On one hand, it’s great to have so many options to suit your specific needs; but on the other, it feels almost impossible to know which options will actually benefit you the most.
So let’s make it feel a little more approachable, shall we?
That’s the trick to parsing down such a broad topic; when you’re looking for answers to your unique needs, start with the basics! Once you’ve got that base knowledge, you can work your way down to the nitty gritty details and find what truly works for your running.
Read on to build up that foundational knowledge!
What Are the Different Parts of a Running Shoe?
Before we dive into questions, let’s review the structure of a basic running shoe and which elements matter most. There’s plenty of shoe jargon that gets tossed around, but there are a handful of elements that are the most common (and relevant) for your search:
The Upper: otherwise known as the top, fabric portion of the shoe (anything above the sole). This is the part that fits around your foot to protect it against external debris that gets kicked up as you run. Ideally, you want to find a shoe whose upper fits well with the size and shape of your own foot.
The Heel Counter: this is the back part of the shoe that wraps around and under your heel. It’s generally made of a relatively inflexible material to provide some extra stability and cushioning against impact forces. Aim to find one that allows for comfortable ankle movement!
The Toebox: as you can probably guess, this part refers to the front of your shoe where your toes live (from the tip of the shoe to that first set of lace eyelets). The toebox is one of the most telling aspects of a good shoe fit — if your toes hit the front of the shoe or feel at all crammed into the shoe, it’s too small. Make sure you can move your toes around comfortably, both width and length-wise, without any tightness or rubbing.
The Midsole: the squishiest part of the shoe! The midsole is the thick layer of cushioning that your foot rests on, often made of rubber or technical foam. This is the piece that absorbs the most shock and can also provide some cushioning for certain movements like pronation or supination.
The Outsole: just below the midsole is the outsole, the bottom of the shoe that makes contact with the ground. Most running outsoles are designed with treads (or grooves) to protect your foot against rocks or debris, typically built out of rubber or foam materials for optimal traction and durability.
Depending on how deeply you’ve researched your shoes, you may have also heard of some other common elements (e.g., saddles, heel-toe drop, sockliners, and other stabilizing or cushioning features). While they can certainly be beneficial features to consider, they’re much more variable in shoe design. The first 5 parts we defined above are typically the most common structural elements to a running shoe, so they’re a solid place to start.
(But fear not — we’ll cover a few of those other details later in this post!)
#1. Should I Have More than One Pair of Shoes?
Short answer: yes.
Long answer: still yes (but with the reasons why)!
Rotating your shoes comes with the underrated benefit of subtle impact on your biomechanics. With every pair of shoes comes a slight adaptation in your running form — and while it may sound odd to deliberately include inconsistencies in your gait, it can actually be super helpful in the long term. (In moderation, of course.)
These minor adaptations can ultimately prevent overuse injuries, since your body isn’t placed under the same exact impact forces every time. Or, if you’re only running one shoe and it’s an imperfect fit (which is much more common than we realize), you run the risk of solidifying improper biomechanics in the same pair of shoes.
Plus, certain shoes are just better for certain kinds of runs. Minimalist shoes (ones without as much cushioning) aren’t necessarily suited for longer runs, but they may be the right fit for shorter workouts. And vice versa; your cushioned shoes work well for duration, but less so for speed.
While the jury’s still out on how many pairs of shoes one runner should have, at the bare minimum, alternating between 2 pairs is a solid start.
#2. How Often Should I Replace My Shoes?
There isn’t a universal answer to this question since every runner goes through shoes at a different rate, but the general rule of thumb lands somewhere between 300 to 500 miles.
Learning to read the wear-and-tear of your shoes is often dependent on your form. Runners who have a forefoot strike will see different wear patterns than those who heel strike, and it can also vary depending on how hard you land each step. (And that’s only one example of how it may vary; let’s not forget that potential biomechanical errors like overstride or overpronation can affect where your shoes are impacted and by how much.)
Ultimately though, knowing when to replace your shoes is in the hands of your own bodily awareness. If you run a regular workout and feel like something’s off — in your shoes or in your legs — pay close attention to that sensation. If the feeling persists, you’ll likely recognize that the shoes are at the end of their lifespan.
The key is to make sure you don’t wait until it’s too late! If your shoes are visibly worn down (i.e., the outsole is completely worn down, or the heel looks crushed), they’re probably overdue for retirement.
#3. What’s the Difference Between Trail and Road Running Shoes?
The obvious answer is that trail shoes are meant for trail running, and road shoes are for road running… But you already knew that, right?
Here are the actual differences:
First up are the outsoles. Trail running shoes come with thicker, bumpier outsoles to account for loose debris and variable terrain (and the design of each outsole can actually change depending on what kind of trail you run, too). Conversely, road running shoes have much flatter outsoles to establish a more consistent surface against smoother pavement.
Secondly, the midsoles are also structured differently. Trail shoes are typically much stiffer to ensure enough support for your foot as you run over uneven surfaces, whereas road shoes implement a little more cushion to help absorb shock from pounding against the pavement.
And then we have the uppers. In trail shoes, uppers are built to be much more durable and rugged; the material is reinforced to protect your feet from trail rubble like rocks or tree roots. They also often come with additional benefits like waterproof lining, designated pockets to tuck in your laces, or gaiter attachments to prevent debris from getting in your shoes. You typically won’t find similar features for road running shoes, as they’re designed to be more breathable and lightweight.
#4. What Is Shoe Drop, and Why Does It Matter?
Shoe drop measures the height difference from your heel to your forefoot, and that tells you how steep of an angle your foot is at. For simplicity’s sake, you can infer that shoes with a more apparent heel have a greater measure of shoe drop.
Because every runner’s needs are different, there’s no ideal shoe drop that will suit everyone’s running form… But there are some loose guidelines that may help you decide whether or not it works for you.
Many mid- and forefoot striking runners tend to use shoes with little to no drop, possibly because the extra cushion at the heel is more hindrance than help. Some runners are also inclined to stick to zero drop shoes to emulate the biomechanics of running barefoot. Low and zero drop shoes are theorized to help with upper leg pains, like ITB pain, knee pain, or overuse of the gluteal muscles.
On the flip side, shoes with drop are often helpful for runners who heel strike, as that extra cushion allows for better cushioning in the heel (though there’s no substitute for biomechanics when it comes to shock absorption!). Drop shoes are thought to increase flexion at the knee and help common running issues like plantar fasciitis, achilles tendonitis, or calf injuries.
However, in the grand scheme of things, shoe drop (or a lack thereof) should ultimately be chosen based on how it feels while you run. You may be a forefoot striker who prefers having heel drop — there’s no true “right” answer, so who’s to stop you?? Experiment with different drop levels (gradually, and in moderation) to see which feels the most helpful for you.
#5. Should I Use Carbon Plated Running Shoes?
Lots of runners are curious about carbon fiber/carbon-plated shoes, and understandably so. Much of the running community debates whether or not carbon technology is truly beneficial for running performance.
Carbon plates were created to provide runners with an extra boost of energy. Whenever you take a step, the plate is meant to compress the foam lining in your shoe, causing it to expand more quickly and release energy into your push-off. As an additional bonus, they can also provide extra stability for your ankles and help straighten your toes out.
Many resources suggest that carbon plating can be helpful for those with low arches or heel strike, as it can be beneficial to have that extra support and shock absorption, respectively.
But of course, it depends.
If you’re debating whether or not to buy (or stick with) carbon plated shoes, it’s ultimately up to your discretion; new shoe technology can be quite interesting to experiment with, as long as you’re attentive to any potential compensations or form errors that result from the change in equipment.
(And remember: realistically, if you’re looking for a performance boost, it’s more important to hone in on your training parameters as opposed to a different shoe.)
Common Mistakes with Buying Shoes
Here’s another tricky part to shoe-buying: even if you know all the in’s and out’s of running shoe materials and features, picking the right shoes can still be incredibly complex.
When you’re in-store, trying on all the different shoes introduces a laundry list of common mistakes people make. You may think you found the perfect pair in the moment, but wearing them on a run can be an entirely different story.
So before you spend all that time shopping and buy what might be the wrong shoe for you, here’s a handful of the most common mistakes people make when buying running shoes.
Choosing Shoes Based on Looks
While it might sound obvious not to choose a shoe by its looks, it’s an issue that often subconsciously affects people’s decisions. After all, shoe companies have really branched out in the colors, shapes, and styles of their shoes, making them visually more appealing and seemingly more “sleek” or “aerodynamic.”
But of course, the characteristics that make a shoe seem more effective pale in comparison to the actual fit and feel of the shoe relative to your foot.
Which brings us to the next point…
Not Focusing Enough on the Fit
And we don’t just mean whether or not your foot fits inside the shoe. Shoe fit goes deeper than that — it refers to how the different parts of the shoe fit the different parts of your feet.
For example, you want your shoe to be just snug enough at the heel, but relatively roomy in the toe box. If you can describe your shoes as feeling pretty snug all around, there’s a good chance they’re actually too small for your feet. (And the same vice versa; if both your toe box and your heel counter feel roomy, the shoes are probably noticeably too big.)
There’s also the matter of the shoe upper. Many runners don’t realize the importance of finding a shoe that complements their foot shape, otherwise you may end up with discomfort on the top of the foot or blisters on your arch.
This calls attention to another important factor: don’t assume your shoe size. (And that goes for any kind of shoe, really.) Shoe sizing, while assumed to be universal, often varies between shoe brands and can even change depending on the type of shoe within the same brands . This makes it extra imperative that you remain attentive to the fit and feel of every pair of shoes you try on, otherwise your assumptions may cost you long-term comfort and running efficiency.
Plus, there are even runners who wear a different size shoe on each foot!
Trying on Shoes at the Wrong Time
Okay, there’s not exactly a “wrong” time for you to try on shoes, but there’s definitely a time of day that can yield misleading results.
If you’ve ever bought shoes in the morning, you probably know what we mean. In store, the shoes fit perfectly, but when you wore them on one of your runs, they likely felt more snug than before.
This is because our feet actually swell throughout the day. While it may not be immediately noticeable, it’s gradual enough to impact accurate shoe sizing between 9:00am and 4:00pm. Foot swelling typically stops around 4:00pm, so it’s best to try on and buy shoes in the afternoon or evening so you ensure you aren’t buying a pair that’s ultimately too small for your feet.
(And in a similar vein of thought, make sure you try on shoes with the same socks you would typically wear during a workout! Depending on the material or thickness, your socks can have an unexpected impact on proper shoe fit.)
Lace Up Those Shoes!
And there you have it: (some) of the most common questions about running shoes!
We know you still probably have quite a few questions about the specific benefits of certain modifications, or whether or not a certain shoe is the best fit for you. (Trust us, we know how frustrating it can be.)
But the bottom line is that choosing the right pair of shoes for you starts with your understanding of proper shoe fit and how it feels in the context of your running. Once you establish that baseline understanding, that’s when you can dive into the details behind how your shoes play a role in your unique running gait.
If it still feels like too much information to filter through, there are plenty of professionals available to guide you into the best decisions! (For those of you local to San Jose, check out one of our favorite stores: Running Revolution! We’ve known and worked with their store for years, and it’s a fantastic resource for runners to learn about and purchase the proper running shoes.)
In the meantime, though, take a deep breath and start with the basics. Your search for the perfect pair of shoes will come with time!
Megumi Kamikawa, Marketing Assistant
Megumi is a graduate from San Jose State University with a degree in English, Creative Writing. Previously, she has worked as a Writing Specialist, where she served hundreds of peers in the SJSU community with her knowledge of English pedagogy. In addition to her experience with academic, creative, and professional writing, she has experience with creating visual and informational resources for various audiences. She has enjoyed taking courses on anatomy and basic physiology, and continues to educate herself in the world of health and wellness through her work with Competitive EDGE.