Running shoes are more than glorified sneakers. They're built to guide you through the most efficient stride possible, and strategically placed cushioning helps absorb each footfall's impact. What it takes to actually generate that efficient stride and where you really need the cushioning depends on your foot type and gait.
Although we can make some helpful generalizations about which type of shoe is typically best for which type of feet, experts warn there is usually some trial and error in learning which running-shoe features work best for you.
Running shoes come in three main types: stability, motion control and neutral cushioning shoes. Some pronation -- inward roll of the ankle -- is normal when you run, but if you pronate too much, experts recommend stability shoes to correct stride and prevent potential injuries from overpronation.
Progressively firmer foam or plastic posts along the medial (inside) edge of the shoe, paired with a wider base, are the most common features used to reduce the foot's inward roll. Some models also employ plastic shanks near the arch for extra stability, and the Saucony Mirage 2 (Est. $105) uses cleverly structured welds to provide extra support along the medial part of the upper (top half or cloth-like part of the shoe).
If your feet overpronate severely you may be more comfortable in motion-control shoes, which provide even more stability features to correct stride. Motion-control shoes may be too stiff or restrictive for people who don't need the extra structure, and might even transform slight overpronation into underpronation. However, for those who really do need this much of an adjustment, these supportive, padded shoes are the key to a comfortable, injury-free run.
If you have high arches and tend to run with your weight on the outside edges of your feet, a neutral cushioned shoe can help absorb that impact and redistribute it into a neutral gait. And finally, if you're lucky enough to have normal arches and efficient biomechanics -- your feet don't roll too far in or out as you run -- you will probably be most comfortable in either a stability shoe that provides mild support or a neutral cushioned shoe.
Remember that trial and error we mentioned? It starts with a visit to a specialty running shop that has the equipment and trained staff to identify your foot and gait type. If you prefer to shop online, you can learn your foot type with a simple wet-foot test -- see our buying guide for instructions. Examining the soles of your old running shoes is helpful too. If you overpronate, you'll usually see extra wear on the inside edges of your soles, and underpronators will notice more wear on the outside edges. Once you have identified your foot type and stride, it's time to start trying on shoes and determining which features actually agree with your feet.
We've narrowed down possible choices by evaluating reviews from expert sources like Runner's World magazine, Runner's World U.K. and Canadian Running. We've also taken into account feedback from hundreds of runners posting to retail sites like RoadRunnerSports.com, Amazon.com and manufacturers' websites.
Although user reviews are the best source of mass information about durability and fit, shoes are evaluated relative to each tester's feet -- so choosing a great running shoe for the wrong type of foot can result in a poor review. Sometimes it's obvious when this happens; other times not so much. Input from expert wear-testers at publications like Runner's World and the Running Warehouse blog provide the best of both worlds: multiple opinions from high-mileage runners with various foot types couched in careful terms relative to their own feet and gait, which they know very well.
It should be noted that running-shoe styles are often updated on a regular basis as companies strive to improve fit and comfort. New versions are typically released in two waves -- the first in January, the second in June/July. Previous shoe models are typically pulled from store shelves once the new version debuts, but can be found online at a discount until stock runs out. If you find you prefer an older running shoe to its newest updates, you might be able to stock up on extras before the older version leaves the market completely.