What to Look for in Running Shoes
My road running shoe reviews are based around my personal experience and my interpretation of The Science of Running Shoes. I believe that a good running shoe should not interfere with your natural biomechanics, so shoes with raised heels (drop) or anti-pronation features are a bad idea. A running shoe is a trade-off between weight, cushioning, and longevity, and different runners will want to make different trade-offs, so I cover shoes that vary in their characteristics, with the best shoes offering the most cushioning for their weight, from the light & minimalist shoes up to the heavier Maximalist shoes.
- Fit. The fit of a shoe is quite personal, so while I talk about problems with the forefoot not matching the shape of the human foot, I don't go into details on the overall fit. My advice is to buy shoes from somewhere that provides free shipping both ways and to try them on at home. That way you can see how they fit for a longer period of time. I will often order shoes in two different sizes and return the one that does not fit as well.
- Familiarity. There is reasonable evidence that runners will adapt based on their training, something that makes intuitive good sense. Part of that adaptation is to the shoes that are normally worn, so any radical change in shoe design can be disruptive, and possibly lead to injury. This is particularly true when moving to a more minimalist running shoe. Therefore, if you're looking for running shoe that is radically different to what you use too, it would be prudent to migrate through intermediary types of shoe. For instance, if you reduced to running in a traditional running shoe, but want to move to a zero drop shoe, you could use the Saucony Kinvara has a half-way house.
- Weight. Probably the most critical feature of the shoe is its weight, as relatively small increases in the weight of the shoe create a surprisingly large increase in the effort it takes to run. A general estimate is that each 3.5oz/100g increases the effort by 1%.
- Cushioning. While cushioning does not appear to be effective at reducing impact, The Science of Running Economy indicates that cushioning can reduce the effort it takes to run. In addition, I found that the highly cushioned shoes I refer to as Maximalist can reduce how sore my feet become on ultramarathons. However, cushioning and weight, so the right shoe for you will be the right balance of cushioning and weight. The best shoes provide the highest level of cushioning for their weight. Cushioning comes from the combination of the thickness and firmness of the midsole. The shape of the midsole can also make a difference, as a flat bottomed midsoles has less cushioning than an "egg crate" shaped midsole. The insole can also make a difference to the cushioning. Cushioning is quite subjective, and it's the result of both thickness and firmness. There are also factors around how quickly a type of foam deforms, which can also change how a shoe feels. That makes it hard to put a single value on cushioning, but I've combined all these factors into a number for comparison purposes.
- 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. I give figures for the slowdown based on 4 hour marathon pace, which is 9:09 min/mile or 5:41 min/Km pace.
- Longevity. How long a shoe lasts normally depends on the foam midsole. In shoes where the foam midsole is not covered by a hard rubber outsole, the life of the shoe is typically limited by how quickly the midsole wears away due to abrasion from the ground. Different types of foam have at differing levels of abrasion resistance. If the midsole is covered by a hard rubber outsole, and the life of the shoe is typically limited by how quickly the foam breaks down and loses its shape and cushioning. There are some minimalist shoes like the Merrell trail glove that have little or no midsole, in which case the life of the shoe is limited by how long the outsole lasts. These shoes typically lost vastly longer than the cushioned counterparts. I rate shoes on a scale of 1 to 5, with a 3 as the average and 5 as longer longevity.
- Interference. Many shoes are designed to have features that are intended to interfere with the natural running stride. Shoes manufacturers try to use cushioning to reduce impact, medial posts to reduce Pronation, and a raised heel (drop) to reduce Achilles' tendon stress. However, there is evidence from The Science of Running Shoes that this interference is both unwarranted, and ineffectual.
- Drop. Since the 1980s shoes have had a higher heel than the forefoot in an attempt to reduce the strain on the calf and Achilles' tendon, something that has shown to be ineffective. The extra height in the heel can encourage an excessive heel strike, and produces a shoe with relatively little forefoot cushioning. The extra height in the heel is called "drop", and shoes that have the same thickness at the heel and forefoot are referred to as "zero drop". While I believe a zero drop shoe is best, a drop of 4-5 mm is not overly intrusive. The amount of drop depends on how softly and thickly cushioned the shoe is. A thick, soft shoe will compress more and reduce the perceived drop. For example, the Hoka Clifton is softly cushioned and is 32mm/28mm, giving a 4mm drop. If the shoe compresses by 20% on landing, this will give 22.4mm/25.6mm for a ~3mm drop. I've included values for "loaded drop" that reflect the drop when the shoe is worn. Note that I measure drop from under the ball of the foot and under the heel, and different locations in the shoe can produce different values.
- Structure. The issues cushioning comes predominantly from the foam midsole, which can be a single density, or have multiple densities in an attempt to reduce pronation. The denser foam is also heavier, and the more extreme anti-pronation measures found in motion control shoes are correlated with higher levels of pain and injury. Therefore I believe that a shoe should have a single density of foam; simple is better.
- Flexibility. I believe that a shoe should be as flexible as possible, to allow a natural running style. However, high levels of cushioning create some intrinsic inflexibility, so this is another balancing act. Many shoes include grooves cut into the foam midsole in order to improve flexibility.
- Outsole. The foam midsole is not terribly hard wearing, so it is frequently covered by a layer of hard rubber. Unfortunately this hard rubber is also quite heavy, creating another balance between weight and longevity. Recent developments in foam technology of the created midsoles that are hard wearing enough to be exposed, though they are never as hard wearing as a true outsole.
- Shape. It seems bizarre, but the shape of a typical running shoe does not match the shape of the human foot. This creates the most problems in the forefoot area, where the toe box tends to squash the toes, and prevent the natural movement. Thankfully, shoe design is slowly adapting, and there are now a number of manufacturers producing shoe designs that are suitable for use with the human foot.
- Upper. The upper of a running shoe is there to keep the sole attached to your foot. There are several things to look for in the upper:
- Flexibility. They are flexible upper can be more comfortable as it accommodates slightly different shaped foot's. However this flexibility involves elasticity that creates a continual pressure that can cause problems. Most shoes tend to be inflexible.
- Seams. While it is possible to make a seamless, many shoes have uppers made of multiple materials to provide different levels of flexibility and reinforcement. Where these materials join they can be a seam that can rub and cause blisters.
- Breathability. Because your feet have a higher density of sweat glands than anywhere else in your body (except your hands), it's important for a shoe to breathe well.
- Padding. Padding can improve comfort and reduce blisters, especially where the shoe has seams. Padding is especially important around the ankle opening.
- Tongue. The main problem with the tongue of a running shoe is that it can slip to the side. Manufacturers have a various ways for addressing this problem, such as attaching parts of the tongue to the upper on one or both sides. A more extreme approach is to have a tongueless upper, sometimes called a "sock upper." The problem with a sock upper is that it requires a lot of flexibility in the material so you can get the shoe on your foot, and these approaches rarely work as well has a traditional tongue.
- Lacing. Given that shoelaces have been around since 3500 BC, it seems amazing that shoe manufacturers can find ways of screwing up this simple concept. The main thing you want from shoelaces is for them to stay tied while you're running. A shoelace that comes undone during a race can be disastrous. Generally, I find that flat laces work well, and round laces work poorly.
- Heel Counter. To try to bind the rear of the shoe to the heel of the foot, the part of the upper that goes around the back of the shoe is often made of a much stiffer material. As far as I can tell, this is another counterproductive feature that adds no value, but has the potential to cause problems.
1 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.)
2 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.