Blisters, bunions and bruises — no, thank you. Choosing the rightcan help you avoid all those unfortunate foot problems and more. I know this from experience: After my first half-marathon, my right big toenail bruised from underneath and completely fell off a few weeks later.
It happened because I wore shoes that I knew didn’t fit all that well, but they were cheap, so I bought them anyway. I walked around with a toenail-less toe for months. It wasn’t comfortable, and it definitely wasn’t pretty — even the pedicurist looked stunned when I went in for some help after it started growing back.
I vowed to never buy ill-fitting shoes again for any reason, not even if they were 50% off. After my next half-marathon, all 10 piggies were perfectly intact. So heed this advice and take your time finding the right running shoe.
How to choose a running shoe
Choosing a running shoe is a personal endeavor, according to ultramarathon runner Jamie King.
“I look for a shoe that is lightweight and flexible, but also supportive,” King tells me. “I always tell friends that they should not base their running shoe purchase off what their running buddy wears, but instead to go and try a few pairs on and move in them to make sure they work for your body and your feet.”
For King, that means a shoe that is lightweight and flexible, but also supportive, and allows her to maneuver easily over rocky terrain. For me, that means a shoe with extra arch support and a relatively thick midsole (more on that below) that keeps my knees from aching.
For you, that might mean something else entirely.
Many people make the mistake of purchasing running shoes with fashion as their priority. It seems like running shoes are historically ugly, designed with a handful of mismatched neon colors scribbled all over the shoe in weird designs. In recent years, many brands have pushed more aesthetically pleasing designs, but still — when it comes to running shoes, you should purchase based on fit, not fashion. Save your fashion-forward flair for your running apparel and gear.
Of course, your budget will make a difference in your choice. You don’t need to drop hundreds of dollars on a pair of running shoes, but I promise it’s almost always worth spending an extra $20 for the $100 pair that fits just a little bit better than the $80 pair.
What’s in a shoe?
Surprisingly, quite a lot. Running shoes have their own anatomy of sorts, and if you’re searching for a pair that will support you through many miles (and keep all your toenails where they belong), you’ll need to be familiar with that anatomy. Look out for these 12 factors next time you head out to buy a new pair of running shoes.
What it is: Everything above the insole, including the tongue and laces, usually made with layers of mesh or knitted fabric.
What to look for: A shape that matches the shape of your foot. It shouldn’t be squeezing or pinching the top of your foot and should not chafe.
What it is: The bottom-most layer of your shoe, where it meets the ground.
What to look for: You want a durable outsole made of materials suitable for whatever type of running you’ll be doing in your shoes. For trail running, look for a very grippy outsole. For road or track running, you can get away with a smoother outsole.
What it is: The cushion-y layer inside your shoe that supports your foot, particularly your arch.
What to look for: An insole should match the shape of your arch as closely as possible. If you can’t find a pair that matches, you can always buy removable insoles to add extra support.
What it is: The bulk of the running shoe. The midsole encompasses the layer foam between the outsole and the insole.
What to look for: A midsole that absorbs enough shock to make your run comfortable. Not enough foam, and you might end up with achy ankles and knees. Too much foam, and you might feel like you’re running in moon shoes.
What it is: The cushion-y wrap at the top of the shoe where you insert your foot, intended to hold your heel in place.
What to look for: An ankle wrap that feels snug and comfortable. Your foot shouldn’t slip up out of the ankle wrap, but it shouldn’t be so tight that it squeezes your Achilles tendon — both scenarios can cause serious blisters. Also note how the sides of your ankles feel. The ankle wrap may be too tall if it rubs the bony bulbs at the base of your shin (the end of your fibula).
What it is: A small insert beneath the insole, usually made of plastic, that reinforces the fit of the shoe at the heel. Heel counters intend to reduce the amount your foot rotates within your shoe (i.e., over-pronation or over-supination).
What to look for: If you need a lot of support, choose a shoe with a sturdy heel counter. If you need less support, choose a shoe with an external heel wrap or a minimalist shoe with no heel counter at all.
What it is: A reinforced bit of the upper portion of the shoe that encloses your instep, also called your arch. The saddle works with the laces to keep your foot securely in place.
What to look for: The saddle should be snug, but not too tight. Like the rest of the upper portion, it should mold comfortably to the shape of your foot and not produce any chafing, pinching or rubbing sensations when you run.
What it is: The front portion of the shoe where your toes and the ball of your foot reside. This usually refers to the first set of eyelets all the way to the cap at the very front of the shoe.
What to look for: You need a toebox that comfortably fits all of your toes. Your toes shouldn’t be overlapping, smushed together or otherwise poorly positioned. Also purchase a shoe with a toebox suitable for your activities. If you run trails, you’ll want a toebox reinforced with a rubber bumper for durability.
What it is: Cushioning in the midsole from the front of the shoe to the arch.
What to look for: The forefoot should feel responsive to your natural stride, rolling with the motion of your foot as it strikes and leaves the ground. Too much forefoot cushioning might make your stride feel unnatural and clumsy, while not enough might cause you to strike the ground too hard with the ball of your foot.
What it is: The cushioning in the midsole from the arch to the heel of the shoe.
What to look for: You want to find a balance of support and ground-feel (again, you shouldn’t feel like you’re running in outer space). You also want the heel cushioning to make your stride feel stable — no rolling to one side or the other. If you have sensitive joints, you should look for more padding in the heel.
What it is: On the forefoot portion of the shoe, flex grooves are part of the outsole that help the shoe bend like a foot naturally bends. These little indentations allow you to roll through a stride rather than smack the ground with a flat foot.
What to look for: A shoe that bends the way you want your foot to bend, and ideally matches the pace at which your foot rolls. Don’t be timid — take a few laps around the store.
What it is: This refers to the difference, in millimeters, between the height of the heel cushioning and forefoot cushioning. Most shoes, except very minimalist ones, have at least a small heel-toe drop.
What to look for: A drop that feels natural and comfortable: You shouldn’t feel like you’re wearing high heels.