The Runner's Guide to Picking the Perfect Running Shoe

For runners, shoes are our best friend. Unfortunately, many of us are running in the wrong kind of shoes without even realizing it. We’ve just accepted that we’re running, so naturally, our feet will hurt and we’ll have shin splints.

Not so! 

How can you narrow down which shoe is right for you? As a runner, you’ve been bombarded with hundreds, even thousands, of different shoe looks, styles, and brands. It seems impossible to pick. We also don’t want to go back-and-forth testing out shoes that just aren’t right for our feet.

There are a few things to keep in mind that will dramatically expedite your search for the perfect running shoe.


4 Factors That Determine Your Perfect Running Shoe

1) The Cushion

I think our immediate impulse when we hear “cushion” is yes, give me as much cushion as possible! More has to be better, right? Well, like buying a super-soft mattress, that isn’t always true. We all need different levels of cushion based on physiology, type of exercise, and desired running style.

There are five levels of cushion to consider:

  • Level One: Minimal cushion, giving a “barefoot running” feel. These styles are lightweight and flexible but offer minimal protection. Good for strength-training, but not long-term running.

  • Level Two: A bit more cushion, but still lightweight and natural-feeling. These are common among competitive runners as they give a feeling of connectedness to the ground. They still feel natural without compromising support.

  • Level Three: The midpoint of lightweight and flexible versus cushioned protection. Fitting as a “tempo shoe,” for runners focused on an energetic feel.

  • Level Four: Lots of cushion here. These are good for high-mileage distance runners on the daily. 

  • Level Five: The most cushion offered. A high cushion is recommended for runners with “high-impact.” Whether you have a larger frame, are new to running, or are running for an exceptional distance, this support is welcome to prevent strain and injury.

2) The Arch

Beyond cushion, every runner needs to mind the arches of the shoes they wear and run in. The human foot is designed with architectural support in mind. Your feet have to bear the whole of your body weight. This is why the foot is arched. In fact, when you put your feet together, it creates a dome! The outside of the foot touches the ground while the inner part of the foot vaults upwards. 

In architecture, the dome (or arch) is the strongest weight-bearing structure. Our feet are designed the same way. However, not everyone has the same level of arch to their feet. Improper arch support can lead to pain as you put pressure on the body’s natural arch structure through an activity like endurance running.

There are high, medium, and low arches.

For shoes, those labeled “neutral” are designed for high arches, while “stability” shoes are for medium and low arches. The more “stability” you have, the lower the arch it is designed for. 

3) The Type of Running

Running shoes come in a variety of types and styles depending on the running you’re trying to do. There are shoes for cross-training, road-running, and trail-running.

Cross-training shoes are the happy medium for many athletes because they are designed to handle the gym and Cross-Fit, where you want to maximize your contact with the ground. These tend to be lower-cushion because they value your balance and contact over extra padding.

Trail-running shoes feature more tread and stability features, ideal for navigating rocky, uneven terrain and unpredictable environment.

Lastly, road-running shoes are designed to handle the consistency and hardness of the pavement. These tend to feature more cushion as the high-impact nature of running on pavement demands more support. 

4) Your Own Running Style

Do you notice particular parts of your feet hurting and not the others? This could have to do with your running style and your shoe not matching up.

There are three categories of running gaits: Neutral (pronation), overpronation, and Supination. Pronated runners tend to have lower arches while supinated runners have higher arches. You can determine what sort of gait you carry by looking at the tread wear on the bottom of your shoes.

Overpronation: Wear is centralized towards the inside edge of the foot. Your shoe needs to focus on stability and motion control to prevent knee pain and injury.

Neutral: Wear is even along the ball of the foot and some at the heel. It follows the natural roll of the foot. This gait helps reduce impact and chance of injury. 

Supination: Wear forms along the outside edge of the shoe/foot. This is the rarer running style. It does not absorb impact well at all! These runners need support, cushion, and flexibility in their shoe.

When picking your running shoe, size isn’t the only thing that matters. Take stock of your gait, physiology, and exercise environment in order to select the ideal sneaker for your needs.

What’s your absolute favorite running shoe? What made you pick it? Share in the comments.