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How to choose running shoes

There may be no more easily accessible (or better bang-for-your-buck) exercise than running. Whether you cruise along paved run routes or take to the forest on trails, you need to start with a pair of shoes that matches your stride and your needs.

terrain and running surface

Think about the terrain you run on most frequently. If you’re looking to shave minutes from your 10K time, lightweight road shoes may help. If you’re tackling trails, you’ll want a sturdier, more protective shoe. If you run on a mix of surfaces, you’ll have to decide if you want one pair of hybrid shoes to handle both, or dedicated pair to wear for road running and races and another pair for your off-road days.

Road running shoes are designed to cushion and absorb the impact of repetitive strides on paved or hard-packed routes or the firm surface of a treadmill.The uppers are made to be light and breathable rather than abrasion resistant. They are quite flexible to allow your foot to bend at the forefoot and move naturally from the strike through push-off phase of your stride. Their soles are designed to wear well on hard surfaces, and they are smoother, with shallower lugs than trail shoes. The soles balance traction with efficiency, and the lugs are arranged to help propel you forward.

Trail runners have rugged soles and beefier uppers designed to withstand abrasion from rocks, sticks and undergrowth. Some trail runners have a thin, protective rock plate between the midsole and outsole to protect you feet from the sharp stones or roots that can bruise your feet. The soles give you traction on softer, looser surfaces and on stick rocks and often have deep lugs that dig in so you’ll keep your footing on steep hills and sharp corners. The lugs are arranged to give you traction when you run up hills and help you brake when you run back down. Read more about choosing your trail runners

Most brands offer a hybrid versions of popular models so you can cross-over and add some light trails to your regular paved running route. You’ll also find hybrid fitness shoes designed to keep you stable on smooth surfaces and to support the side-to-side moves of strength training workouts, Generally, these are OK to use for road running and treadmill training.

support and stability

Your arch shape and how your feet roll through each step are good indicators of what kind of support you need. The action of rolling inward is called pronation. Most people naturally pronate to a small degree, but if your foot rolls too much (you overpronate), then you might benefit from a stabilizing shoe that helps support your stride. It’s less common, but some runners have a stride that rolls outward. You’ll hear this referred to as underpronating or supinating. A stabilizing shoe that balances your stride and keeps your lower body well aligned will also be beneficial if you underpronate as you run.

You can get an idea of your own biomechanics and gain insight into your running gait by using the Run Lab equipment available at some MEC stores, or by looking at the wear pattern on the soles of your existing running shoes.

neutral gait foot map

Neutral runners typically have normal arches (neither high or flat). If the wear on your shoes is concentrated across the ball of the foot and the outside of the heel, it’s a sign that you have neutral pronation.


High arch foot map

People with high arches may have a tendency to underpronate. If your shoes show heavy wear on the outside edges, it’s possible you underpronate, push off with your outer toes and your ankles may lean outward.


Flat feet foot map

People with flat feet have a tendency to overpronate. Heavy wear on the inside edge at the ball, big toe and inner heel can be a sign you overpronate, and push off from your big and second toe.


Neutral gait and stability

Neutral runners should look for a shoe to absorb impact but without strategic midsole cushioning designed to stabilize your stride. Runners with orthotic inserts should choose neutral shoes. And some mild overpronators may be fine in neutral shoes that offer some cushioning. Minimalist shoes suit those with a neutral gait, as they tend to be lighter overall, with a small amount of cushioning and flex, and little or no support.

Mild to moderate Stability

To stabilize your gait, prevent your ankles from either leaning out or collapsing inward, look for stabilizing shoes. They’re designed to limit the side-to-side movement as your foot moves through the strike and toe-off phase of each stride. They use varied densities of foam or pods of gel within the midsole (you may see this described as medial posting, rolls bars or foot bridges) positioned to distribute the impact of each step and limit the amount your foot rolls as it strikes and then pushes off the ground.

Each runner is different, so there really is no rule for selecting a stabilizing shoe. Mild stability is generally appropriate for runners whose feet roll slightly more than 15 degrees from the midline. Moderate stability might be useful if your feet roll considerably more than 15 degrees. Read more about Gait analysis for runners and using MEC’s in-store Run Lab to help you find the right shoes.

Drop and heel-to-toe cushion

The amount of offset or drop is the difference between the height of the shoe at heel and at the forefoot. Traditional running shoes have a drop that ranges from 5-12mm. Shoes at the lower end of the range (around 5 to 9mm) are designed to encourage forefoot and midfoot striking. A higher drop (about 10 to 12mm) encourages heel striking. Minimalist-style shoes are at the other end of the spectrum with a 0–4mm drop.

The thickness of the cushioning is different than the drop. It’s possible to find a shoe that is very well cushioned, with 26 to 30mm of shock absorbing foam through the midsole, and a slight drop of just 4mm.

Waterproof-breathable fabrics

A shoe that sheds water is ideal for wet, cold settings, for muddy trails and for running through wet grass or brush. They can feel hot and sweaty if wear them in warmer conditions and the membrane adds an extra layer to the upper, making them a little heavier than non-waterproof shoes. To keep them functioning, it’s a good idea to clean your waterproof shoes regularly so the pores don’t get clogged with dust and dirt. You may also need to go up a half size in shoes with waterproof-breathable liners as they tend to have extra padding.

Closures

Although you can find running shoes with hook-and-loop closures, most runners prefer the security and adaptability of laces. With a classic lacing system, you can vary the pressure on the top of your foot by changing the lace pattern or skipping some of the eyelets. If you’re having minor problems with pressure points or blackened toenails, changing your lace patterns might be a simple fix. If you find your laces come untied or loosen too much during long runs, a shoe that features a quick-pull, or speed-lace system might be a good option.

Running shoe fit

When you wake up, your feet can be up to a half size smaller than at the end of the day when they swell in both volume and width. It’s best to try on running shoes toward the afternoon or evening to account for the swelling your feet will experience over a long run or race. Because runners are mostly made of fabric, they don’t break in over time like a leather hiking boot does. They should be 100% comfortable and wearable out of the box.

Signs of a well-fitting running shoe:

  • You have about a finger-width gap between your longest toe and the front of the shoe
  • The heel and midfoot does not lift, slip or rub
  • The shoe is not squeezing your foot or creating hotspots or pressure points
  • You can bend your foot comfortably without feeling the shoe pinching or squeezing

When to replace your running shoes

Running in worn-out shoes can lead to injuries, joint problems and pain. The surface you run on, your weight and running gait will influence how fast your shoes wear out. And even if you’re not running frequently, the EVA padding in the insole and midsole will eventually start to break down and loose its squishiness. Pavement will wear shoes quickly; softer trails are a little more kind. Most manufacturers recommend that you replace your running shoes after about 750 to 900km. So, if you run 20km every week, that’s a new pair at least once a year. If you’re not in the habit of tracking your mileage, you can look for signs of wear that indicate when it might be time to retire your runners.

  • The outer sole is worn through and the midsole is visible
  • They sole is warped or has grooves that run lengthwise
  • You can’t feel the foam compress when you press the midsole with your fingers
  • The lining on the heel counter is worn through or the heel counter has lost firmness
  • The upper is worn through, has holes or is starting to tear
  • You’ve replaced your shoe laces more than twice
  • They smell really bad even after you wash them