How to Buy Running Shoes

It's time to invest in a new pair. Finding the right shoes is worth the trouble.

Apr 15, 2016
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You shouldn't notice anything about a shoe when it's on your foot—even if it technically fits, comfort is key.    Photo: Halfpoint/iStock

When the first running boom hit in the 1970s, there wasn’t much to think about in terms of shoe selection. Pioneer joggers weren’t faced with quandaries like whether to go the maximalist or minimalist route, or if their pronation tendencies favored a neutral trainer over a more supportive model. 

Once upon a time, people just bought “running shoes.”

Things are different in 2016. Customers have never had more choices in footwear, as even a brief perusal of the relevant section of our Buyer’s Guide makes clear. With this abundance, however, comes increased pressure of making the “right” decision. But finding appropriate shoes is worth the trouble. To help you out, here are a few pointers from Mary Arnold, a USATF-certified running coach and marketing manager at JackRabbit Running Specialty Group.

Fit Comes First

“Having a shoe that fits well, provides the level of support you need, and does what you need it to do is really the first thing,” says Arnold. If you’re brand new to running or coming back after a long hiatus, Arnold recommends seeking out a store that does video gait analysis to get some basic feedback on what your feet are doing when you run. Many stores offer gait analysis free of charge. It’s a great place to start when you’re not sure if you need a neutral shoe or a more stability-centric model that corrects overpronation—an excessive inward rolling of your foot as it strikes the ground. Thousands of variations fall under the general “neutral” and “stable” categories, but a gait analysis is a useful first step in figuring out what’s right for you. 

Fit Isn’t the Same as Comfort

“The right fit is the shoe that is the right size and provides the right level of stability for you if you need it, but comfort is paramount,” Arnold says. “I like to tell folks that you shouldn’t notice anything about the shoe. It should just be there on your foot and feel comfortable.” While this might sound obvious for something that immediately seems off about a new shoe—like a narrow toe box that squeezes your forefoot like a vise—Arnold adds that the same principle also applies to more pleasant sensations. An extra-squishy midsole may seem great at first, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you want to feel like you’re running on jelly halfway through your next ten-miler. 

Speaking of Size

“People tend to have a lot of sensitivity about their running shoe size, particularly our female consumers,” Arnold says. “I like to tell them it’s not a bowling shoe. There’s no number on the back. Nobody knows what size you’re wearing—but you will know if the shoe is too small.” The latter is a common problem, especially among beginner runners who purchase running shoes in their dress shoe size. Your running shoes should be a little bigger. It’s typical to move up at least half a size, because you want at least a quarter-inch wiggle room between your longest toe and the front wall of your shoe. And remember: Your sizing may vary depending on the brand and style. 

Just Because It Ain’t Broke

If you’ve been running for a few years, injury-free, in a shoe that basically works for you, it may seem unwise to consider running in something else. Arnold has many customers who feel this way, but she likes to expose them to a few different models nonetheless. In her ten-plus years in the industry, Arnold has seen so many new materials and innovations, from midsole and upper construction to changes in the lasts that shoes are built on, that she would feel remiss not giving customers a fuller picture of what’s out there. As she puts it, “Your body changes, and shoes change. What’s worked for you in the past is a good place to start, but let’s look at that shoe next to something else and see if there’s something you like better.”

Another Reason to Branch Out

“If you’re training for something, or thinking of training for something, think about getting a second pair from a different line,” Arnold says. “Because even if you have a pair that you absolutely love, the muscles in your feet get used to cushioning in certain places, and when you use a different shoe, you help balance out any weaknesses you might have in a certain place.” Over the long haul, training in different shoes may even reduce the risk of injury since you won’t always be placing the same levels of stress on the same parts of your foot. 

Your Shoes Are Not Immortal

“The typical lifespan of a shoe is between 300 and 600 miles,” Arnold says. “Shoes will start to feel a little different after about 200 miles—it’s a depreciation curve. Each company has a different point at which their shoes will feel really flat, but it’s important to know that shoes do have a lifespan.” 

It might not be immediately clear when your shoes have bitten the dust, but there are a few indications that it’s time to invest in a new pair. Three signs of shoe death, according to Arnold:

1. You look at the midsole and see cracks or fissures running perpendicular to the tooling. This means the midsole is compressing to the point where it’s no longer rebounding.

2. The shoe starts to look like your foot when your foot isn’t in the shoe. The fabric on the upper isn’t bouncing back the way it used to, so it’s likely not holding your foot in the same place.

3. Hold a shoe you think is almost dead above a hard surface and drop it. If it rocks back and forth for more than a second before settling down, then the cushioning has compressed in places and hasn’t bounced back, making it less stable than it once was.

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