Best Running Shoes
These reviews cover what I consider to be the best running shoes as well as some strong contenders and a few promising shoes that missed the mark. I believe that a running shoe should not interfere with the way you run, and therefore I favor shoes that have less of a raised heel and don't resist the way your foot moves as it lands. I categorize shoes as thick soled 'minimal drop, maximum cushioning' (Minimax), well cushioned a lightweight (Optimal) and the thin soled minimalist style of shoe.
1 Where to Buy
I generally recommend buying shoes from RoadRunnerSports.com as they allow you to run in the shoes and still return them for an exchange. It's hard to know how a shoe works for you until you've run in it for some distance. Another good option is Zappos.com which provides free shipping both ways, which allows you to spend time wearing the shoes around the house to see how they fit, though you can't run in them and return them.
2 Shoe Categories
I've classified my shoe recommendations into several categories, each with their own pros and cons.
- Minimax (Minimum Drop, Maximum Cushioning). The minimal drop has been the hallmark of minimalist shoes, but these shoes also include lots of cushioning. At their best, these shoes can be like running barefoot on a cushioned track. Minimax shoes offer lots of protection and comfort. They are great for longer ultramarathons where sore feet become a problem and for trail running where the cushioning makes it easier to ignore smaller rocks and stones. However, the extra cushioning may increase the risk of injury compared with minimalist shoes and the extra sole thickness increases the stress on your ankle.
- Optimal. These shoes ideally have just enough cushioning to improve Running Economy without the weight penalty of the Minimax shoes.
- Minimalist. These shoes vary between the almost barefoot and those with a little more protection.
- Traditional. The classic running shoe has a high heel, normally about 10mm higher than the forefoot. . The biggest advantage of traditional shoes is the wide variety to choose from, making it far easier to find the right fit.
3 Unfamiliar Brands
You're probably familiar with brands like Nike, Adidas, New Balance, etc., but you may be less familiar with Hoka and Altra.
- Hoka One One. The Hoka shoes started the 'Minimum Drop, Maximum Cushioning' style of shoe. The Hokas generally use extremely soft foam, with a wide base to improve stability. Their soles are thicker than most shoes so they are quite heavy, though not as heavy as they look. Most of the Hokas do well on both asphalt and rocky trails. The Hokas provide remarkable protection from rough trail surfaces, and the thick, soft soles mold themselves around stones to provide more grip on rocky trails than you'd expect. Other than the sole, the Hoka is a poor design, with a remarkably tight toe box and they are typically rather inflexible.
- Altra. The two distinctive features of the Altra shoes are their zero drop and their shape which mirrors the shape of the human foot. Originally their shoes were quite minimalist with a thinner sole that was typically made of quite firm foam. More recently they have moved towards softer cushioning and the Minimax style.
4 Comparison Table
|Hoka Clifton Review||5||8.5||9.9||6.2||4||28||32||8||4||Top pick. A lighter weight version of the Hoka Bondi.|
|Altra Olympus Review||4||11.8||15.1||9.4||0||36||36||8||4.5||An evolution of the Hoka design: Thick & softly cushioned, but better shape.|
|Altra Paradigm Review||3||10.2||12.6||7.8||0||25||25||6||4||Similar to the olympus but not quite as good|
|Hoka Bondi Review||3||13||16.9||10.5||5||30||35||8||4||A great Hoka, but the Clifton is better.|
|Hoka Mafate Review||3||13.6||17.9||11.1||6||35||41||9||1||The heaviest, thickest and most cushioned of the Hokas.|
|Hoka Stinson Review||3||13.2||17.3||10.7||6||32||38||9||2||A little heavier and thicker than the Bondi/Clifton.|
|Altra One2||5||7.3||8.1||5.0||0||19||19||5||8.5||Soft cushioning and lightweight.|
|Mizuno Cursoris Review||5||6.8||7.3||4.5||0||18||18||5||8||Soft, light & comfortable. Still available, but discontinued|
|Saucony Virrata 2 Review||4||7.3||8.1||5.0||0||17||17||2||8||A light weight, zero drop shoe.|
|Skechers GO Bionic Review||4||6.2||6.4||3.9||0||10||10||2||8||Highly flexible, zero drop, but firm. Great value.|
|Adidas Takumi Sen 2 Review||3||6.9||7.4||4.6||5||17||22||1||6||An unusual Japanese racing shoe|
|Nike Free Review||3||7.1||7.8||4.8||4||17||21||2||8|
|Modified Nike Free||3||5||4.5||2.8||0||17||17||1||8|
|Saucony Kinvara 5 Review||2||7.9||9.0||5.6||6||18||24||5||7||An evolution towards a minimalist design. (More drop than advertised.)|
|Altra Torin Review||3||9||10.7||6.7||0||20||20||2||7|
|Brooks PureCadence 3 Review||3||9.4||11.3||7.0||5||18||23||4||7||A good level of cushioning, but firm & needs to be lighter.|
|Saucony Hattori||3||4.4||11.8||7.3||0||15||15||0.5||9||Very light, with minimal cushioning. No laces unless you get the LC version.|
|Adidas Energy Boost 2 Review||3||10||12.3||7.6||7||14||21||6||6||A new type of foam produces a better shoe than you'd expect. Figures are without insole.|
|Mizuno Wave Universe 5 Review||3||3.2||18.2||11.3||2||11||13||0||9||A radically light weight racing shoe.|
|Merrell Trail Glove||3||7||24.1||15.0||0||10||10||0||7||I prefer the trail glove, even on asphalt|
|Hoka Rapa Nui 2 Tarmac||0||10.7||13.4||8.3||4||26||30||2||4||Uses Hoka's RMAT foam which is overly firm.|
|Hoka Conquest Review||0||11.9||15.2||9.5||6||28||34||2||3||Uses Hoka's RMAT foam which is overly firm.|
|Hoka Huaka Review||0||9.9||12.1||7.5||5||21||26||4||6||Uses Hoka's RMAT foam which is overly firm.|
|New Balance Fresh Foam 980||0||9.1||10.9||6.8||4||21||25||2||6||Less of a drop than a traditional running shoe, but too firm.|
|Brooks Transcend||0||11.8||15.1||9.4||8||22||30||3||6||Brooks claim it is "the Ultimate Plush Ride", but it's not much thicker and it's overly firm.|
|Skechers GOrun Ultra Review||1||9.8||12.0||7.4||14||26||40||8||7||Tries to be a $80 Hoka, but fails. (Without insole the midsole is 24/34mm|
|Patagonia EVERlong Review||0||9.2||11.0||6.8||11||16||27||4||6||More drop than the claimed 4mm, but no other flaws. However, other shoes do it better.|
|Asics GT 2000||0||10.9||13.7||8.5||9||20||29||4||6||A shoe that almost defines 'traditional', included for comparison|
- Weight. The weight of a shoe makes a big difference in the energy cost of running. Even small changes in weight can make a big difference in how fast we run. The weight in parenthesis is my measurement, which is size 9.5-11.0 depending on the shoe. This helps compensate for shoes that claim to be lighter by making their shoes small for any given size.
- Performance Penalty. Most studies show that for each 3.5oz/100g of shoe weight performance drops by 1%. However, there is also good evidence that cushioning can improve performance, so some allowance is made for the padding. The figures here are based on 4 hour marathon pace, which is 9:09 min/mile or 5:41 min/Km pace.
- 'Drop & Sole thickness'. The drop is difference in sole thickness between the forefoot and heel. Larger drops can interfere with natural running form, and may increase the probability of heel strike.
5 Shoe Gallery
Images of the shoes reviewed on this site can be found in the Shoe Gallery.
6 Shoe Modifications
Main article: Shoe Modifications
With the exception of the FiveFingers, and the Mizuno Curoris, I find that all shoes benefit from cutting open the toe box. This allows the toes to spread out as you toe off, creating more natural biomechanics and preventing toe blisters.
7 Shoe Dissection
Main article: Shoe Dissection
Ever wonder what the inside of your shoe looks like? Take a look inside; I've cut many of my shoes in half to reveal their construction, as you can see above. You can see a gallery at Shoe Dissection, as well as in the detailed shoe reviews.
8 Foot Shape
Very few shoes have a shape that mirrors the human foot. It often seems like shoe companies have never seen a human foot before given the strange shape they make their shoes. This is especially true of Hoka, which have a particularly small toe box. The main company with shoes for the human foot is Altra, and once you've tried their shoes the traditional shoe shape seems even more bizarre. (The Mizuno Cursoris is a notable exception that also has a nice toe box shape.)
9 The Outsole
To achieve a light weight with maximum cushioning, many shoes don't use a hard rubber outsole over the softer midsole. This can result in uneven wear patterns when the midsole erode away from around the patches of outsole. In the image below, the red arrows mark the soft midsole and the blue arrows mark the hard outsole, with the green arrow indicating an intermediate toughness material.