What the best running shoes have

  • A snug, but not restrictive, fit. The shoes should hug -- but not bind -- all parts of your feet like a flexible glove, without any pinch points or hot spots that chafe. Most running shoes come in multiple widths to help you get the best fit, and we've noted which shoes tend to run narrow, small or (very rarely) wide or long.
  • Flexible, responsive soles with adequate cushioning. There's no single recipe for the right amount of flex, stiffness and cushioning. It depends on your weight, running style and personal preference. This is one area where trying on multiple pairs helps you get a feel for which characteristics suit you best.
  • No break-in period. Running shoes should still feel comfortable right out of the box.
  • Stability features and cushioning that match you. See our How to conduct a wet test section for directions on determining your foot type at home, or visit a specialty running store where trained employees can evaluate your feet and gait.
  • Reasonably durable soles. Most good-quality running shoes will last at least 300 to 500 miles before you notice a change in their performance. Heavier runners may notice a change sooner. Lighter shoes are often, but not always, less durable than their heavier counterparts.

Know before you go

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you're getting ready to shop:

  • You'll get the best service at a specialty running store. Try on a wide variety of pairs in all price ranges and gauge which ones fit you best.
  • Bring the same socks and orthotics (if any) you plan to wear during runs. You'll need them to get a true feel for any shoes' fit.
  • Bring your old shoes to the running store. The employees can examine the wear patterns to get an idea of your running style and gait.
  • Avoid shopping for running shoes in the morning. It's a good idea to shop late in the day after your feet have expanded from walking, since you'll want your shoes to fit comfortably even when your feet are swollen.
  • Size up one half-size. Most experts recommend buying running shoes one half-size larger than your street shoes, since your feet will shift around a lot and likely swell as you run.
  • Use your running shoes only for running. Mark your shoes or note the purchase date. Most running shoes lose their cushioning after 300 to 500 miles of use, depending partly on your weight and the shoe type. Even if a shoe does not look worn out, you may notice it feels less cushy or that you start to develop nagging injuries like shin splints. Keep track of your mileage and buy a new pair before problems start.
  • If you run every day, consider buying two pairs of shoes and rotating their use. The theory is that each pair gets enough time between uses for the cushioning to decompress fully, and some users say regular rotation has greatly increased their shoes' mileage.

How to conduct a wet test

Choosing a shoe that fits your gait and foot type can help prevent sports injuries. While a podiatrist or trained running-store employee can determine your gait and foot type, you can also figure it out yourself with a wet test.

A wet test will tell you what type of arch your foot has: normal (neutral), high or flat. All you need to do is wet the bottom of your foot, then step on a piece of paper. Take a look at your footprint. Neutral feet make a classic-looking print, with a gently sloping line along the inside of the foot from behind the ball to the front of the heel. Those with high arches often won't see a continuous footprint, instead getting a print at the ball and another at the heel. Those with flat arches won't see much of a curve at all on the inside of the footprint (Fig. 1).

Normal (neutral) arch

High arch

Flat arch

Figure 1: Wet-test arch types

Your arch type gives you a clue about your pronation tendencies. Pronation is the rolling of the foot from heel to toe through the footstrike.

If you have normal arches:

People with neutral arches tend to be normal or mild overpronators, hitting the outside of the heel and up to the ball of the foot evenly across the front, with a bit of inward roll to absorb the stress of impact. Experts, including editors at Runner's World magazine, say these runners should look for a stability shoe that uses posts or extra foam on the medial (arch) side to prevent the foot from pronating too much.

If you have flat arches:

Runners with flat arches tend to overpronate -- meaning the foot rolls inward too much when it strikes the ground -- which can cause running injuries. A stability shoe with more cushion and support under the arch is a good choice to prevent this. For severe overpronators, or those who are heavier or taller than average, a motion-control shoe is the best place to start.

If you have high arches:

The least common arch type is a high arch. Those with high arches tend to underpronate, meaning the foot doesn't roll inward naturally to act as a shock absorber. Rather, there's too much stress on the outside of the foot, which can travel up the leg and lead to a variety of running injuries. In this case, experts say you want a neutral-cushioning shoe, which has no added stability features that could impede your foot from pronating. A neutral-cushioning shoe will encourage your foot to roll inward naturally and offer plenty of cushion to absorb impact. Efficient runners who don't need pronation control can also wear neutral-cushioning shoes.

Considerations that affect durability

The cushioning in running shoes typically breaks down after about 300 to 500 miles, although exactly how soon a pair of shoes should be retired depends on your weight, footstrike and typical running surface. Lighter runners will take longer to wear down their midsoles. Neutral runners wear down a shoe less quickly than overpronators or underpronators, who generate excessive wear on the medial (inside) or lateral (outside) sole, respectively. Hard surfaces like concrete and asphalt also take a greater toll on shoes than grass and trails.

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