Running 101: How To Choose The Right Running Shoe

It’s all about fit, feel, and ride.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

There are dozens of different running shoes on the market, and the number of models available to choose from just keeps expanding. This wouldn’t be a problem if every foot was the same, or if any old shoe fit any old foot. But the reality is that some shoes are much better matches for the individual runner’s foot than others, and the consequences of a bad match can be severe. You might be able to gut your way through a night on the town in a pair of heels whose straps pinch, but the intensity and repetitiveness of running greatly reduces the margin for error in the foot-shoe relationship. Choose the wrong shoe and you’ll be uncomfortable on every stride and you’ll likely wind up injured.

So, if only a handful of the dozens of running shoes out there are ideal matches for you, how do you find them? Traditionally, runners have been taught to choose a certain type of shoe based on their foot arch type and/or their degree of foot pronation when running. Runners with flat feet, who are generally assumed to pronate excessively (meaning their foot rolls medially when in contact with the ground), are encouraged to wear “motion control” shoes, which are structured to prevent pronation. Runners with normal arches, who are assumed to pronate moderately, are encouraged to wear “stability” shoes, which have less extreme anti-pronation features. And runners with high arches, who are assumed to not pronate or to even supinate (the opposite of pronate), are encouraged to wear neutral shoes that allow free lateral motion.

The rationale for this system is the notion that it reduces the risk of injuries caused by abnormal lateral motion of the foot during running. The problem is that it doesn’t work. Studies have shown that there is no difference in injury risk in groups of runners given the “right” type of shoe for their arch compared to runners given the same type of shoe regardless of their arch.

Fortunately, there’s a better way to find a shoe that really will minimize your injury risk. Research by Benno Nigg, a biomechanics expert at the University of Calgary, has shown that injury risk is significantly reduced when runners are simply allowed to choose the running shoes that are most comfortable for them. This makes sense, doesn’t it? The body is very good at telling the mind what is good for it and what is not. When a shoe fits well and provides the right amount of cushioning and support to allow the runner’s body to move naturally and efficiency, it feels good. When it does not, it feels uncomfortable. If you were to spend a full day at a running store and try on and run briefly in every shoe and rate your comfort level in each, you would end up with a very broad spectrum of comfort levels. And if you took home the single most comfortable shoe you tried on, you would be much less likely to get injured in it than you would if you bought a less comfortable shoe that happened to be the “right” type for your arch.

Of course, most of us don’t have all day to try on every shoe. So how do you narrow your options down ahead of time? I suggest you use the Fit, Feel, Ride (FFR) system that I developed for Competitor. The overall sense of comfort you feel in a given running shoe is influenced by a variety of characteristics in three dimensions: fit—or how the shoe feels when you first put it on; feel—or how the shoe feels when you walk in it; and ride—or how the shoe feels when you run in it. By identifying the specific characteristics that you find comfortable within each dimension, you can develop a shoe preference profile and use it to target your shoe search. Just take your FFR preference profile to your local running specialty store and a salesperson there will be able to select a handful of shoes that match this profile and are worth trying on.

So what are the specific characteristics? The fit characteristics are heel fit, midfoot fit, and forefoot fit. These three characteristics of fit are determined in part by how narrow or wide your foot is. If you have a very narrow foot, as I do, you will need to choose a shoe with a narrow fit; otherwise you’ll be swimming in it. But there’s also a preference factor. For example, two runners with exactly the same foot shape may have different preferences for the amount of room in the forefoot. One might like a nice snug fit there, while the other might like a little “breathing” space.

The feel characteristics are flexibility, perceived weight, and upper feel. Some runners like their shoes to feel structured and supportive. Others prefer the free feeling of a shoe that is flexible. While nobody likes a super heavy shoe, some runners are very sensitive to weight and need a shoe that really feels light. And the way the shoe’s upper fits and feels against the top of the foot has a big influence on the shoe’s overall comfort. Some runners like a nice, soft, plush-feeling upper. Others like a thin upper they barely notice.

The ride characteristics are cushioning, stability, responsiveness, and transition. Some runners like to feel they’re running on pillows, while others prefer to feel the ground underneath their feet. Stability refers to the degree to which the shoe resists lateral motion. Some runners like a shoe that really seems to keep the foot in line, while others like a shoe that lets the foot choose its own path. Some runners like a highly responsive shoe that has a bouncy-feeling impact, sort of like a pogo stick, while others are annoyed by that unnatural rebound sensation and prefer an unassisted-feeling push-off. Transition refers to how the shoe seems to cooperate with the foot as it rolls forward from impact to push-off. Some runners like to feel the shoe sort of rolling smoothly forward with the foot from heel to toe. Others like a sharper, more abrupt transition of forces toward the forefoot.

What do you prefer?

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Check out Matt’s latest book, RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel.

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