Take equal parts intended usage, fit, sizing, pronation, run stride type, heel-toe drop and a little black magic, and you’ve got the recipe for choosing the perfect pair of running shoes. Don’t worry if you’re not exactly sure what some of the above even are... I’ll get to that.
The truth is that no one can tell you how to pick the perfect running shoe - not in a blog or in a shop, where you might be confronted with a wall of shoes, and end up making a choice based on looks or impulse. Even with years of running experience and burning through many, many pairs, most shoe purchases for me are still educated guesses.
The only way to really tell if a shoe is right is to go running in it for a few sessions.
But, I can tell you how to make the best-educated guess.
To keep it simple, let's focus on the big three: intended use, fit / size, and pronation.
The first and most obvious factor is your intended use for the shoe. Trail shoes are very different from general running shoes, which in turn are distinct from racing flats, track shoes and spiked shoes. For the purpose of this article I’m going to assume that most people are looking for a general running shoe - although exactly the same concepts and choices apply for most other types as well.
Correct fit and size is the next step, and it’s really important to get right - you can never make up for a bad fit or the wrong size, no matter how perfect the shoe might seem. You just have to remember 4 things:
Toe space - the shoe should have about 1.5cm (a thumb’s width) of space and wiggle room between your toes and the tip of the shoe. Not enough room here will result in blisters at the ends of your toes.
Forefoot width - the shoe should comfortably hold your forefoot. Your foot should not move side to side, but it also shouldn’t feel tight and constricted. Most well-known brands have narrow, wide and extra-wide fittings however, a many of these won't be available at your local store and may need to be purchased online.
Arch height - the shoe should comfortably support your arch in the right place, - not too far forward and not too far back.
Heel hold - the heel should comfortably hold the back of your foot, and the foot should not slide up and down when you are walking or running.
Pronation is essentially how much the ankle rolls inward each time the foot strikes the ground. When the ankle rolls the foot arch will also stretch and flatten.
Some pronation is good - it helps absorb the shock and impact of each step. Too much (overpronation) or too little (underpronation) will often result in injuries such as 'runner’s knee'.
The easiest way to tell what kind of pronator you are is to wet your feet and then walk a few steps on the sidewalk. A normal footprint suggests good pronation. A very wide footprint with no clear midfoot or arch suggests flat feet, a classic sign of an overpronator. A very thin midfoot section shows a high arch, suggesting underpronation.
Shoes are designed with pronation in mind; for example those designed for overpronators usually have a thicker and sturdier foam sole in the midfoot, designed to support the arch and prevent excessive pronation and roll. Shoes for overpronators are usually labelled “stability”, those for normal pronation are called “neutral”. Underpronators should get “cushioning” shoes.
So, if you can get these three right (intended use, size/fit, pronation) you should be able to find general running shoes that will work for you.
If you are an enthusiastic regular runner, I'd recommend you consider a few other factors.
Heel Toe Drop
Heel toe drop is the difference in height between the low point in the shoe (the toe) and the high point (the heel). Heel toe drop is also tied to stride type, and can influence the way your foot strikes and leaves the ground. No feature has gone through more fads and trends than heel-toe drop. There have been whole books written about the subject (I’m looking at you, Born to Run). Back in the seventies most shoes were fairly flat with low drop and low cushioning. The eighties and nineties came along and shoes became really cushioned and overly laden with gizmos - some of which we’re still seeing today. Then there was a trend towards flatter and minimal shoes, and now it seems to have come full circle back to the relatively flat shoes with moderate drop.
In general, most runners find shoes with around 6 to 9 mm drop to be comfortable. Shoes with a lower drop are considered “faster” and promote quicker foot turnover and less heel strike, but care should be taken in quickly changing to a very low drop shoe that can place excessive pressure on the Achilles tendon. For most runners I’d suggest a standard drop of around 8mm, with a slow transition down to 6mm for racing shoes.
Which leaves us with the other consideration: gimmicks and gizmos. Few other industries in the world are so regularly inundated with technological “breakthroughs” and “revolutions”. It seems as if every season there’s a new must-have feature, some of which I think are beneficial, but many I’m skeptical about. I think there is value in some of the energy-return systems, such as Adidas Boost, and for me the fit of the Nike Flyknit is incomparable - it’s the only shoe that really feels as if it molds to your foot over time.
Many of the gimmicks are just that - from X-torsion bridges to heel-bridge support to dynamic foot guidance systems and I’m not convinced it really makes much difference. But if you like it and it it gives you confidence, then why not? As long as they don't add extra weight or baggage, or cause injury.
And that brings me to my last point. Weight. All else equal, if deciding between two pairs of shoes I’d tend to choose the lighter pair. Every time you lift your foot you’re lifting that shoe. Ten grams of difference doesn’t sound like a lot, but lifted 42,000 times over the course of a marathon, that’s a heck of a lot of extra weight. Don’t sacrifice necessary features to save weight, but beware the bulky, heavy, over-engineered shoe.
You'll be lucky if you find the holy grail of a perfect shoe - but I hope these tips get you close.
Over the next few months I’ll be writing some reviews of the shoes I think have really got it right.