Walk into any local running store and you’ll face a colorful wall holding dozens of shoes. Needless to say, finding the best-fitting shoe among numerous choices isn’t easy. To make matters more complicated, not every shoe is right for you. Whichever pair you choose must fit properly from heel to toe and feel comfortable with your regular running stride.
Most of us prefer to shop online these days, but there’s a little more risk involved if you don’t get to try on before you buy. Luckily, most retailers will offer a risk-free trial period so you can still lace up your shoes and head out for a test run, like you would at the store. (Just double check the return policy, and always keep the box in case you do need to send them back or swap sizes.)
- Best All-Around: Brooks Ghost 14
- Best Trail Shoe: Saucony Peregrine 12
- Best Women’s Specific Shoe: Lululemon Blissfeel
- Best Lightweight Trainer: Hoka Mach 4
- Best Stability Shoe: Asics Gel-Kayano 28
Whether you shop online or in-store, we’re here to help. Read on for a breakdown of shoe anatomy, common shoe-buying mistakes, and a list of our favorite shoes right now in your favorite category.
How Your Shoes Should Fit
Each part of the running shoe has a specific purpose and is designed to fit the foot a certain way. Even the slightest differentiation may affect your experience. We’ve broken down the running shoe’s main elements so you can easily identify them and make sure each fits your foot properly. (For a deeper dive, you can learn more about the anatomy of a running shoe here.)
Everything above the sole counts as part of your running shoe’s upper. Traditionally, shoe brands crafted their uppers with layers of fabrics and mesh sewn and glued together. Today’s modern versions increasingly use knitting and 3D printing to create seamless one-piece fits that stretch and support in appropriate places. It should lay smooth wherever it touches—not binding, chafing, or bunching anywhere.
The ankle collar is the wrap at the top of the shoe opening that holds the heel down in place. Some shoes use thick padding, while others rely more on the shape to cradle the ankle bone. Pay attention to whether your heel slips, how the padding interacts with the bones on the side of your ankles, and whether the curve on the back irritates your Achilles tendon.
The heel counter is a semi-rigid cup layered inside the rearfoot that cradles and supports your heel. Some shoes have an external heel wrap that serves a similar function while more minimalist shoes have eliminated the heel counter to allow full freedom of movement. Research has shown that heel counters do not provide motion control, but they do center the heel for stable landings and support. (Both neutral shoes and stability shoes alike utilize heel counters.) Look for a heel that allows a comfortable ankle motion.
The saddle of the shoe is the reinforced area around the instep, the arch of your foot between the ball and the ankle. A saddle interacts with the laces to hold the shoe securely on the foot. Designers have developed a variety of overlays, eyelets, and lacing systems to mold them closely to any foot shape. Pay attention to how it fits and holds your foot, providing a secure feeling with no slippage while allowing for the natural doming of the arch during your stride.
The toebox encompasses all of the upper from the front of the eyelets to the end of the shoe. It’s often capped with a reinforced toe bumper that holds the fabric off your toes and protects from stubbing, particularly in trail shoes. Look for a wide toebox that stays out of the way, allowing your forefoot to flex and spread out naturally in both width and length. It shouldn’t cramp or rub your toes, either—not even your pinky toe. Ideally, you should be able to wiggle each digit comfortably inside the shoe.
Consider Your Running Surface
The outsole of your running shoe is where the rubber meets the road. It is often made of a variety of rubber or foam compounds placed in strategic areas to increase wear life or enhance bounce or flexibility. Materials that provide traction and durability without adding excess weight or stiffness, and for a footprint shape that matches yours and gives you the desired level of stability underfoot.
To make the shoe bend like your foot bends, many shoes use flex grooves under the ball of the foot. Turning the toe up, called toe spring, or cutting away the midsole into a rocker pattern also allows the foot to roll through the stride. Small differences in location or angle can alter the mechanics and feel, and what degree of flex works best for your stride as it changes with speed. Rocker-style midsoles tend to have more aggressive toe springs to facilitate a quick forward roll through the gait cycle. Look for a shoe that flexes or rolls the way your foot wants to move—at the pace for which you’ll be using the shoes.
The midsole is foam material between the outsole and the upper, designed to cushion the runner from impact forces and guide the foot through the stride. Every runner will have their own preferences. Choose a midsole thickness and material that feels right at running speeds, meets your desired level of softness or firmness, and doesn’t have excess weight.
Heel and Forefoot Cushioning
Heel cushioning is the midsole material designed to minimize the impact shock of a heel strike. Besides using a variety of cushioning materials, some shoes feature a softer “crash pad” area on the outer edge of the foot or a rounded outer heel to smooth the landing. Research has shown that the body provides the majority of cushioning for your joints and that you land harder in a more cushioned shoe, so heel cushioning is largely a matter of perceived comfort. You’ll likely want a balance between cushioning, stability, and ground feel. During your test runs, note whether the shoe touches down where you expect it to and rolls into the stride smoothly.
Forefoot cushioning is designed to reduce the impact of the largest forces of the stride that occur at the front of the foot during loading and push off. While body mechanics largely provide cushioning to everything above the ankle, forefoot shoe cushioning protects the structures of the foot. The promise of new “energy-return” materials and designs is that they can both protect and propel your foot. Pay attention to the shoe’s responsiveness, looking for a balance between cushioning comfort and a firm push-off platform.
Drop is the difference in height between your heel and the ball of your foot when standing in the shoe. Experts disagree on the importance of drop related to injuries (remember Vibrams?), but agree that changing drop distributes forces differently to the foot and leg, and can alter your stride. Pick a shoe that feels right throughout the stride, from touchdown to toe-off, and reduces stress on any weak parts of your foot. Zero-drop shoes, like those made by Altra, place both the heel and toe equidistant from the ground.
Assess Your Gait and Running Style
Designers use a variety of technologies (such as medial posts, dual-density foams, varus wedges, guide rails, and wider shoe geometries) to try to keep the foot from excessive motion, primarily overpronation or rolling inward. Scientists agree that most people do not need pronation support, but control and stability devices appear to help some runners maintain their preferred movement path. Your shoe should offer stability as support, not over-correction. If you overpronate, you may want a shoe that provides more of these stabilizing features.
Try a New Insole
A sockliner, also called an insole, is the removable pad of foam inside the shoe that cushions the contours of the bottom of your foot. Along with shoe geometry, it provides most of what people think of as “arch support” and gives the shoe its initial step-in comfort. Pay attention to how the shoe feels on the run, where softer is not always better and the foot works dynamically to provide its own support and cushioning. If you wear an orthotic, make sure it also fits inside your shoe comfortably.
Avoid Common Shoe-Buying Mistakes
Specialty running store staffers see runners making the same mistakes again and again when they come in to buy shoes. But not you, not anymore, thanks to this advice from five prominent store owners and managers.
Mistake #1: Buying for looks. “We try to encourage every guest we work with to focus on fit, feel, and function over fashion. Making sure it is the right shoe for your specific needs is paramount. If the shoe doesn't perform for you, then it doesn’t really matter what it looks like.”—Michael Zabrodski, Philadelphia Runner (Philadelphia, PA)
Mistake #2: Not asking for deals. “When you’re ready to pay, ask if there are any discounts available for running club members. Most specialty stores offer discounts from 10 to 20 percent; we offer 10 percent to our local track club. It costs $20 to join it, so if you buy two pairs of shoes, your track membership is paid for.”—Tim Rhodes, Run For Your Life (Charlotte, NC)
Mistake #3: Buying shoes that are too small. “Tight-fitting shoes lead to blisters and black toenails and that kind of thing. Women in particular are used to wearing their shoes close-fitting, as they’re often more self-conscious about the size of their feet. We like to say, ‘Play the piano with your toes,’ meaning the fit should be roomy enough in the forefoot—about half an inch—but not sloppy.”—Mike Johnson, Road Runner Sports (San Diego, CA)
Mistake #4: Shopping at the wrong time of day. “A lot of times people come in the morning and say, ‘This is the shoe I need.’ Then they’ll come back the next day and say, ‘I wore them at 5 p.m. and they were too small.’ Your feet start swelling in the morning and they don’t stop until about 4 p.m. That’s as big as they’re going to get, so always buy your shoes in the evening.”—Tish Borgen, Running Room (Minneapolis, MN)
Mistake #5: Assuming your size. “People assume that a size is a size—that an 8 in a Nike will be the same as an 8 in a New Balance. But sizes differ because of different lasts (foot forms), the different shape of the upper, and the way the shoe is stitched together. Have your feet measured every time you buy, and always try the shoes on for fit.”—Johnny Halberstadt, cofounder of the Boulder Running Company (Boulder, CO)
Some final tips:
- Go to a specialty running shop, not a big-box or department store. A salesperson will observe your gait and bring a selection of shoes that they believe best fit your needs. They’ll let you try each one, and help you narrow it down to the right choice.
- Get your feet measured. You may think you know your size, but your feet change over time, and one model’s fit can be drastically different from another’s.
- When you go shopping, bring along the shoes, socks, and inserts you’ve been using. That way, when you try on a new shoe, you can compare it directly to your current experience.
- Shoes should be replaced every 300 to 500 miles depending on the brand and model. Keep track of the date that you bought them in your training log and make note of when they start to feel worn down.
Now that you know what you’re looking for in a running shoe, it’s time to get out there and buy a pair. We review hundreds of shoes every year here at Runner’s World, so we’ve compiled the best shoes for all types of runners and preferences. Whether you want lots of plush cushioning, maximum ground feel, or something in between, we have the shoe for you below.
Best Running Shoes
The selections below are our Editors’ Choice selections from our most recent shoe guides. We chose the following top models based on extensive feedback from runners as well as test results from the RW Shoe Lab. (Find more of our favorite shoes for any type of run here.)
Best Cushioned Shoes
Best Lightweight Shoes
Our lab data charts reported these road and trail shoes as the lightest in the bunch. Our wear-testers raved about how effortless the miles felt in these picks, and they loved the sensation of not being weighed down. (Find more lightweight running shoes.)
Best Stability Shoes
Stability shoes feel sturdy, like they’re bracing your foot and guarding against extra motion that could cause injury. These choices are rock-solid picks for feeling secure. (Find more stability running shoes.)
Best Trail Shoes
When you’re going off-road, your shoes need extra traction and durability. We tested the following shoes on our own trails and they passed with flying colors. (Check out more of our favorite trail shoes.)
Additional reporting by Amy Gorin and Jennifer Van Allen