Best Running Shoes

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These reviews cover what I consider to be the best running shoes. 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. These shoes are either the thick soled 'minimal drop, maximum cushioning' (Minimax) or the thin soled minimalist style of shoe, with some transitional shoes that are closer to the traditional style. I have included a couple of traditional styled running shoes, mostly for comparison.

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 The best of the best

My favorite shoes right now are the Altra Olympus and the Adidas Energy Boost. I use the Boost for faster paced running, and the Olympus for longer distances, though they are both good at either task. In many ways, the Olympus is a better Hoka, something I've been looking forward to for some time. My preferred minimalist shoes are the Merrell Glove series.

3 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.
  • Minimax Transitional. These are part way between what I consider a true Minimax shoe and a traditional shoe.
  • 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. However, there are concerns that traditional levels of cushioning may increase injury risk.
  • Minimalist Transitional. These shoes are close to a traditional running shoe, but have reduced heel height and a thinner sole.
  • Minimalist. If you want a little more protection and cushioning than the virtually barefoot options, but want to stay as close as you can, this is the next step up. The benefit of these shoes is their light weight and lack of cushioning.
  • Virtually Barefoot. These shoes are close to barefoot, but have some protection. Minimalist shoes are associated with a lower risk of injury than traditional shoes.

4 Overview of Shoe Recommendations

Category Shoe Full Review Weight Penalty

(sec/mile)

Penalty

(sec/km)

Drop Sole thickness Subjective

cushioning

Forefoot


flexibility

Use Notes
Minimax Hoka Mafate Hoka Mafate 15.1oz (13.6oz) 23.5 14.6 6mm 35/41mm 9 1 Muddy Trail
Hoka Stinson Hoka Stinson 11.8oz (13.2oz) 18.4 11.4 6mm 32/38mm 9 2 Road/Rocky Trail
Altra Paradigm Altra Paradigm 10.2oz (10.2oz) 15.9 9.9 Zero 25mm 8 4 Road
Hoka Bondi Hoka Bondi 11.1oz (13.0oz) 17.3 10.7 5mm 30/35mm 8 4 Road/Rocky Trail
Hoka Clifton Hoka Clifton 7.8oz (8.5oz) 12.1 7.5 6mm 23/29mm 8 7
Altra Olympus Altra Olympus 10.0oz (11.8oz) 15.6 9.7 Zero 36mm 6 4.5 Road/Rocky Trail Top pick
Minimax Transitional Skechers GOrun Ultra Skechers GOrun Ultra 9.5oz (9.8oz) 14.8 9.2 14 mm

(10mm no
insole)

26/40mm
(24/34mm no
insole)
8 (heel) 7 Road
Adidas Energy Boost Adidas Energy Boost 9.3oz 14.5 9.0 9mm 17/26mm ~5-7 6 Road A remarkable shoe with new midsole technology
Hoka Huaka Hoka Huaka 9.2oz (9.9oz) 14.3 8.9 5mm 21/26mm 4 6
Altra One2 Altra One2 6.6oz (7.3oz) 10.3 6.4 Zero 19mm 3 8.5 Road A wonderful balance of weight and cushioning
Mizuno Cursoris Mizuno Cursoris 6.8oz 10.6 6.6 Zero 18mm 3 8 Road Soft, light and comfortable
Hoka Conquest Hoka Conquest 11.9oz 18.5 11.5 4mm 28/34mm 2 3 Road/Rocky Trail Thick, but too firm
Hoka Rapa Nui 2 Tarmac 10.7oz 16.7 10.3 4mm 26/30mm 2 Road Lighter for a Hoka but overly firm
Altra Torin Altra Torin 9.0oz 14.0 8.7 Zero 20mm 2 7 Road
Saucony Virrata Saucony Virrata 6.7oz 10.4 6.5 Zero 17mm 2 8 Road
New Balance Fresh Foam 980 9.1oz 14.2 8.8 4mm 21/25mm 2 Road
Traditional Brooks Transcend 11.8oz 18.4 11.4 8mm 22/30mm Road
Asics GT 2000 10.9oz 17.0 10.5 9mm 20/29mm Road A shoe that almost defines 'traditional'
Minimalist Transitional Nike Free 3.0 Flyknit Nike Free 7.1oz 11.1 6.9 4mm 2 8 Road Highly flexible
Mizuno Wave Universe 3.8oz 5.9 3.7 4mm Road Lightweight
Inov-8 F-Lite 6.8oz 10.6 6.6 3mm Road/Trail
Inov-8 X-Talon 6.7oz 10.4 6.5 3mm Muddy Trail Aggressive tread
NB Minimus 6-8oz 9.3 5.8 4mm 0 Road/Trail
Saucony Kinvara 7.7oz 12.0 7.4 4mm Road
Minimalist Modified Nike Free Modified Nike Free Varies – 5 to 6oz 7.8 4.8 Zero 1 Road
Saucony Hattori 4.4oz 6.8 4.3 Zero 15mm 1 Road No laces
NB Road Minimus 6.4oz 10.0 6.2 Zero 0 Road
Merrell Trail Glove 6.2oz 9.6 6.0 Zero 10mm 0 Road/Trail
Merrell Road Glove 6.5oz 10.1 6.3 Zero 11mm 0 Road
Virtually barefoot Vibram FiveFingers 5-10oz 7.8 4.8 Zero 0 Road/Trail
Vivobarefoot One 7oz 10.9 6.8 Zero 0 Road
  • Cushioning. Shoes vary in the mount of cushioning they provide. There is reasonable scientific evidence that higher levels of cushioning increase stresses on joints and have higher rates of injury. However, cushioning is also one way shoes provide protection from stones (the other is inflexibility). Cushioning can also reduce foot soreness on longer ultramarathons.
  • 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%. The figures here are based on running a 4 hour marathon, which is 9:09 min/mile or 5:41 min/Km pace. For example, a 9oz shoe would reduce performance by 2.6%, which is 10.9 seconds/mile or 6.8 seconds/Km., or close to 5 minutes on the overall marathon.
  • Drop. 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.
  • Cushioning. Shoes vary in the mount of cushioning they provide, and this is my subjective rating. Note that generally a shoe becomes softer as it wears out, though this is not always the case. There is reasonable scientific evidence that higher levels of cushioning increase stresses on joints and have higher rates of injury. However, cushioning is also one way shoes provide protection from stones (the other is inflexibility). Cushioning can also reduce foot soreness on longer ultramarathons.
  • Flexibility. This is a subjective measure of how hard it is to bend the forefoot of the shoe. The higher the number the more flexible the shoe is.
  • 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.
  • Drop. 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 Modifications

Main article: Shoe Modifications

Clockwise from the top: Nike Free 3.0 (early version) cut open more than most to form a 'running sandal', Saucony Hattori, NB Trail Minimus, Nike Free 3.0 and the non-minimalist Hoka.

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.

6 Shoe Dissection

A comparison between the Altra Olympus and Hokas.

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.

7 Shoe Reviews

  • Minimax. Minimax shoes have thicker, softer soles, and far less of a high heel (drop) than traditional running shoes.
    • 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.
      • Altra Olympus. The Olympus has become my primary running shoe for longer ultras. I tend to view this issue as an evolution and improvement of the [Hoka One One]]. Like the Hoka it has a thick softly cushioned midsole, but unlike the Hoka it has a much better to books and overall design.
      • Altra Paradigm. The Olympus and Paradigm are similar shoes, and you could think of the Paradigm as the road version of the Olympus. However, the Olympus works fine on the road, and while the Olympus is a little thicker and heavier, I generally prefer it.
    • 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.
      • Hoka Bondi. Until the Clifton came out, the various Bondi shoes (Bondi B, Bondi 2, Bondi 3 and Bondi Speed) were my favorites. Like all Hokas, the Bondi has a horribly small toe box, it's easily modified.
      • Hoka Clifton. This shoe is a lighter weight version of the Bondi. It's a little thinner, but otherwise it feels just the same. (I even ran with one on each foot, and other than the thickness, they feel the same.)
      • Hoka Stinson. The Stinson is a little heavier and thicker than the Bondi variants, and is available in road and trail versions.
      • Hoka Mafate. The Mafate is a huge shoe, and the heaviest and thickest of the Hokas.
  • Minimax Transitional. These shoes are not quite 'minimum drop, maximum cushioning' of the Minimax category, but they're thicker than most shoes and tend to have less drop.
    • Altra One2. This is rapidly becoming one of my favorite running shoes, combining soft cushioning with a lightweight.
    • Skechers GOrun Ultra. A Minimax shoe for $80? Not quite. There's a lot to like about the shoe, but there are some significant issues you should be aware of before trying these out.
    • Adidas Energy Boost. The Boost uses a new type of foam, so while the design is quite traditional, the increased cushioning produces a far better shoe than you'd expect.
    • Mizuno Cursoris. The Cursoris is a lovely light weight shoe that almost feels like it's not there. While it's not expensive to buy, it doesn't last particularly longer, so the cost per mile is quite high.
    • Altra Torin. This is a good example of the firmer shoes that Altra produces. It's a nice balancing act between weight and protection, but the cushioning is not soft.
    • Saucony Virrata. While visually quite different from the Torin, the feel of the shoe is remarkably similar.
    • New Balance Fresh Foam 980. The New Balance Fresh Foam 980 has less of a drop than a traditional running shoe, but it does not have the same soft cushioning of a Minimax shoe. This is not a bad shoe for someone looking for slightly less of a drop than a traditional shoe while avoiding the thin sole of a minimalist shoe.
    • Hoka Conquest. While this is as big and heavy as a Hoka Bondi, the overly firm foam rulings the shoe.
    • Hoka Rapa Nui. The Rapa Nui 2 is lighter, thinner and a little cheaper than the other Hokas, but I found it even firmer than the Conquest. In fact, the Adidas Energy Boost feels far more cushioned to me, though it does not offer the same level of protection from stones or uneven surfaces.
  • Traditional. I've included a couple of traditional running shoes, mostly for comparison.
    • Asics GT 2000. The Asics GT 2000 has been around for many years in one form or another, a reflection of its popularity. The GT 2000 series could be considered one of the best "average" running shoes, and it is often used as the starting point when a new runner is looking for their first shoes. The original GT 2000 was introduced back in 1995 and has been updated many times. (They did add 10 to the number every year until the 2170, then reverted to 2000 and added a version number.) So I've included the GT 2000 here partly as a good starting point for those looking for a traditional running shoe and partly as the shoe that is probably closest to the average running shoe.
    • Brooks Transcend. The Brooks Transcend is included in this section, not because it is one of the best running shoes, but because it is sometimes considered a "maximum cushioning" shoe, and Brooks claim it is "the Ultimate Plush Ride". However, when compared with a traditional running shoes, the transcend is only 1-2 mm thicker, and the foam is too firm to be considered a Minimax shoe.
  • Minimalist Transitional. These are not zero drop, but they have less drop than a traditional shoe, are lightweight and flexible.
    • Nike Free. One of the earliest minimalist shoes, the Nike Free has grown to a wide range of shoes that offer great flexibility and lightweight.
    • Mizuno Wave Universe. The Mizuno Wave Universe is a racing flat that is surprisingly comfortable and remarkably light weight. I ran in these before I discovered the Nike Free and got on well with them.
    • Inov-8 Trail Shoes. Inov-8 produces a wide range of minimalist trail shoes. Of particular note are their X-Talon 190 for muddy conditions and their F-Lite 195 for rocky conditions. I've used a number of Inov-8 shoes and I highly recommend them, especially for the more gnarly and technical trails.
    • Saucony Kinvara. The Saucony Kinvara is an evolution of the traditional running shoe towards a minimalist design. It looks like a traditional running shoe, but lowers the heel and reduces the weight. To me, this shoe is on the boundary between minimalist and traditional, though others might include some of the Brooks Pure range as minimalist.
  • Minimalist Shoes. These are zero drop shoes with minimal cushioning, but they are not virtually barefoot.
    • Modified Nike Free. With modification, the Nike Free 3.0 can provide a minimalist shoe with just enough cushioning to provide good protection. I prefer the Modified Nike Free to Vibram FiveFingers, as the small amount of extra padding protects my feet much better, while the flexibility gives a surprisingly similar experience. The longevity of the Modified Nike Free is good, lasting for 2,000+ miles.
    • Saucony Hattori. The Hattori is a lightweight (4.4oz), zero drop shoe, but the sole is less flexible than the Nike Free and the sock style upper limits the fit. Zappos has the Hattori LC which has laces instead of a sock upper.
    • New Balance Minimus. The Minimus is a range of minimal shoes from New Balance that has created a lot of interest in the minimalist running community as the trail shoe was designed with the help of ultrarunner Anton Krupicka. There is a Trail Minimus and a Road Minimus which share similar names, but are rather different shoes. The Trail Minimus worked well for me on mild trails, but I prefer the Modified Nike Free to the road version.
    • Merrell Gloves. Merrell sells a trail glove and a road glove. The trail glove has a thin forefoot plate and both are zero drop.
  • Virtually Barefoot. If you want to get as close to barefoot as you can, the best option by far is the FiveFingers. However it can be tricky to get them to fit right if you have an unusual shaped foot, in which case consider the Vivo Barefoot.
    • Vibram FiveFingers. Vibram FiveFingers are popular Minimalist Running shoes. They are a thin sole combined with just enough material to hold them to your foot and a separate pocket for each toe, hence the name FiveFingers. They were originally created for boating, not running, but they have become hugely popular. The FiveFinger soles generally last a long time, but the uppers can be prone to tearing. Getting FiveFingers that fit can be tricky depending on the shape of your foot, so they don't work for everyone. The Bilika LS are slightly wider and have laces, which improves the fit for some people.
    • Vivobarefoot. Terra Plana make a range of thin soled shoes under the 'Vivo Barefoot' name, such as their Vivobarefoot One M , with a flexible but tough sole. I'd also strongly recommend the Vivobarefoot Ra, which is close to a dress shoe, but remarkably comfortable. I got mine for a wedding and new wear them regularly.

8 Foot Shape and Altra

Altra shoes all have zero drop (no elevated heel) plus a shape that mirrors the human foot. It often seems like other 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. Once you've tried Altra shoes the traditional shoe shape seems even more bizarre.

A light hearted look at how other shoe makers seem to be designing for a strange shaped foot.

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.

From left to right is the Torin, the Cursoris, the Virrata and the Bondi B.

10 The Newton

Newton shoes focus on forefoot running by adding extra height to the forefoot of the shoe. I purchased a pair thinking they would move me closer to barefoot running. The result of the high forefoot is an unstable shoe. I believe the Newton takes a bad idea (the traditional running shoe) and makes it worse. You can get a better alternative to the Newton just by hacking the sole heel off an old pair of running shoes. (The Newton is mentioned in The 4 Hour Body as a shoe that is correlated with injuries.)