GearRunning
2021 Winter Buyer’s Guide

The Best Running Shoes of 2021

Faster splits and higher summits are just around the corner

(Photo: Inga Hendrickson)
winter buyer’s guide

Brooks Catamount ($160)

footwear
(Photo: Courtesy Brooks)

The most important part of a running shoe is arguably the midsole. This layer of foam sitting between your foot and the rubber tread defines how a shoe will run—whether it’s cushioned and comfortable or firm and responsive. Rarely does one perfectly check both boxes. The Catamount, which blurs the line between speedy roadster and plush trail runner, is an exception. Designers took a traditional EVA and infused it with liquid nitrogen. Heat and pressure transform the liquid into a gas that fills the foam with tiny bubbles. The result is naturally fast, yet at a fraction of the typical weight. Our test team took to the Catamount with universal enthusiasm, citing, as one tester put it, “incredible responsiveness with an almost slingshot-like return after the foot strike.” But though it handily facilitates fast road efforts, the Catamount retains plenty of the beef you want on trail. The midsole is soft enough for ultralong days, ­three-millimeter lugs provide grip on moderately rocky terrain without feeling unstable on pavement, and a hardened-EVA forefoot rock plate offers protection. Burly mountain runs are not this shoe’s jam, but for semitechnical, fast, flowy singletrack and fire roads, it’s among the best we’ve found. 9.3 oz (men’s) / 8.8 oz (women’s); 6 mm drop

Men’s Women’s


Road

running shoes
(Photo: Courtesy Hoka)

Hoka One One Bondi 7 ($150)

Best for Long Runs

With a massive single layer of soft EVA foam running the full length of the midsole, the Bondi 7 seems like a lot of shoe, even for a Hoka. But all that girth—a 33-millimeter heel stack for men and 31-millimeter heel stack for women—is worth it when you’re pushing the distance (or managing an injury). This shoe provides unobtrusive stability by situating the foot deep within the cushion, like a cradle. A memory-foam collar and smooth interior add to the plush feel. Remarkably, the Bondi ­preserves a relatively smooth and natural stride thanks to the beveled heel, which minimizes clunk. This is a great pick for long outings, large runners, or those who commonly experience knee and hip pain. 10.7 oz (men’s) / 8.9 oz (women’s); 4 mm drop

Men’s Women’s


running shoes
(Photo: Courtesy ASICS)

ASICS MetaRacer ($200)

Best for Speed Missions

The MetaRacer isn’t the first shoe with a carbon plate to turbo-boost everyday runners to new speeds, but it delivers a unique ride and costs a good $50 less than others. What we love about this shoe is its racing-flat-like silhouette: ­it’s sleek and lightweight with a ­24-millimeter heel stack, and allows good ground feel through a springy midsole compound. The proprietary rubber outsole feels secure even on wet surfaces at Mach speeds. All that combined with a moderate rocker had testers exclaiming, “Snappy!” “Punchy!” and “Straight-up fast!” This shoe is ideal for cranking out speed work or racing up to 10K. Light, efficient runners might be able to pull off marathon distance. 6.7 oz (men’s) / 5.5 oz (women’s); 9 mm drop

Men’s Women’s


running shoes
(Photo: Courtesy New Balance)

New Balance Fresh Foam 880v10 ($130)

Best for Daily Training

Updated with a softer, cushier midsole and a new, stretchy knit upper that incorporates hot-melt yarns instead of heavy overlays to create targeted midfoot support, the tenth iteration of this tried-and-true neutral trainer won us over. “It has the right amount of everything,” gushed one tester. An external TPU heel reinforcement joins an internal heel counter to center the foot over the cushion, and a highly padded tongue and stretchy laces keep everything secure without causing too much pressure. All in all, this is a ­remarkably accommodating shoe (one tester called it “the most comfortable shoe I’ve run in,”), yet it still flexes enough to pick up the pace. 10.6 oz (men’s) / 9 oz (women’s); 10 mm drop

Men’s Women’s


Trail

running shoes
(Photo: Courtesy Salomon)

Salomon Wildcross ($130)

Best for Mud

Salomon’s newest wet-weather warrior provides the surefootedness most trail runners want in challenging conditions. It takes inspiration from the bestselling Speedcross 5 but offers a wider toe box and a more relaxed fit. As one tester noted, the Wildcross “absolutely slays loose, off-trail terrain,” firmly grabbing sandy trails, rocks, and mud. However, its chops on messy surfaces come at the expense of its ability to handle hardpack well. The six-millimeter multidirectional lugs can be “too sharp a scalpel for most trail operations,” said another tester. Still, mud enthusiasts, technical-terrain junkies, and adventure racers will not regret having these on their feet. 10.2 oz (men’s) / 8.8 oz (women’s); 8 mm drop

Men’s Women’s


running shoes
(Photo: Courtesy Under Armour)

Under Armour Hovr Machina Off-Road ($180)

Best for All-Mountain Running

From gravel paths to singletrack and the rocky alpine, this shoe performs brilliantly. The midsole—lightweight foam encapsulated in a polyester web—yields outstanding energy return and cushion without clunk. (It measures 26 millimeters under the heel.) Vibram’s ­ultrathin Litebase outsole offers all-surface grip for minimal weight, and light but effective welded overlays make the stretchy, knit upper comfortable for hours. Major tech bonus: an embedded sensor tracks cadence, distance, and more on the MapMyRun app. Pair the shoes with Bluetooth headphones and your phone to get mid-run coaching, or check data when you’re back home. 10.5 oz (men’s) / 9.2 oz (women’s); 8 mm drop

Men’s Women’s


running shoes
(Photo: Courtesy Merrell)

Merrell Rubato ($140)

Best for Big Days on Dirt

Natural-movement purists will find the ­Merrell Rubato a welcome addition to the max-cushion, zero-drop segment of the ­trail-shoe market. The 31.5-millimeter stack height provides a soft wedge of underfoot comfort against hours of hard, pounding abuse. Modest ­four-millimeter lugs shine on packed-out singletrack and the transitional paved terrain between your doorstep and the trailhead. (Some testers felt the Rubato didn’t fare as well on technical terrain due to its thick sole.) The vegan upper features a wide toe box for natural splay and an internal bootie for a secure midfoot wrap. The result capitalizes on “comfortable miles, not tricky miles,” as one tester said. 10.5 oz (men’s) / 8 oz (women’s); 0 mm drop

Men’s Women’s

Support Outside Online

Our mission to inspire readers to get outside has never been more critical. In recent years, Outside Online has reported on groundbreaking research linking time in nature to improved mental and physical health, and we’ve kept you informed about the unprecedented threats to America’s public lands. Our rigorous coverage helps spark important debates about wellness and travel and adventure, and it provides readers an accessible gateway to new outdoor passions. Time outside is essential—and we can help you make the most of it. Making a financial contribution to Outside Online only takes a few minutes and will ensure we can continue supplying the trailblazing, informative journalism that readers like you depend on. We hope you’ll support us. Thank you.

Contribute to Outside
Filed To: RunningRunning ShoesRoad-Running ShoesTrail-Running ShoesGear of the Year
Lead Photo: Inga Hendrickson

When you buy something using the retail links in our stories, we may earn a small commission. Outside does not accept money for editorial gear reviews. Read more about our policy.

More Gear