Choosing a running shoe: the very basics

How to choose a running shoe

There’s no single 'best shoe' – everyone has different needs. All sorts of things - your biomechanics, your weight, the surfaces you run on, and obviously, the shape of your feet - mean that one person's ideal shoe can be terrible for another person.

As a way of trying to make finding a running shoe that suits you, we've initially divided our shoes into two main categories: structured and neutral. 


Structured

Structured shoes, previously known as stability shoes or even injury prevention shoes (!), are recommended for runners who are mild to moderate overpronators and who generally have low to normal arches. These runners tend to need a shoe with a combination of good support and midsole cushioning and this is usually provided by some structure being built into the medial (instep) of the shoe. 

Neutral

Recommended for most runners, a neutral shoe has little to no built in support and can feature very little cushioning (like in a racing flat) or maximum cushioning like (as seen in long distance trail shoes). These shoes are best for biomechanically efficient runners (with minimum pronation) and midfoot or forefoot strikers with high or normal arches.

Related: The best running shoes of 2018

Other Shoe Types

Within both structured and neutral shoes, there are different sub-categories depending on what you want the shoe to do. However, most running shoes you'll see on the shoe wall of a shop will share some common traits; most will hav a similar profile (more on this below), feature a certain amount of cushioning throughout the sole, a drop in stack height between 4-12mm (again, more on this below), a standard lacing configuration and a most importantly, a 'do-it-all' usage. 

At each end of the running shoe spectrum is where the big differences appear.  At one end there are performance shoes (stack height from 0-4mm) for those who like to race shorter and faster distances including track spikes and cross country spikes, through to very cushioned or 'maximal' shoes with a lot of cushioning designed for bigger runners or those running very long distances. Within performance shoes there are also minimalist shoes, with little to no cushioning that typically suit light and bio-mechanically effecient runners.

Related: The best trail running shoes 2018

Then of course there are trail shoes, which share all of the above traits as road shoes, but differ in the fact that the sole of the shoe will be designed to cope with terrain such as mud and rocks, requiring more aggressive tread patterns rather than the smooth sole you see on road shoes. The easiest comparison is to that of tyres on a car; formula one cars run slick tyres for grip on a race track where as an off road truck has big, knobbly tyres to get grip on loose terrain.  

Shoe Size

Common sense would dictate that if you've been wearing size 9 shoes for most of your adult life, then you'll be a size 9 in running shoes, but this might not be the case. When you run, you increase the amount of force being put through the foot and this in turn causes the foot to spread inside the shoe to a greater degree than when just walking. This means that after a few miles those size 9s might be feeling a bit small as your foot spreads. It's always best to get your feet measured at a reputable running shop before buying your first shoes as well trained staff will be able to advise you what size shoe you will be. 

Related: 10 tips for shopping for running shoes

Rule of thumb

If however you're not in a running shop and you think you find your ideal sneaker, then this rough rule of thumb for judging if a shoe is a good way to judge it (and it does involves using your thumb).

With the shoe fastened as if you were going running, making sure your heel is sitting correctly at the back of the shoe, there should be a thumbs width of space between the top of your big toe and the front of the shoe (see pic below).

using your thumb to measure running shoe size

This is not an accurate way of judging if a shoe is going to feel good on a run, but it will help you determine if a shoe is too small and that's a good place to start when it comes to comfort. 

Comfort

If your new shoes aren't comfortable then you won't enjoy running in them, so being comfortable should be your first concern. Choosing the right trainer for your running needs will be influenced by many of these factors featured in this article so always take your time to try on a few pairs of different brands to help gauge what feels suitable. Use the above thumb rule if needs be, but if you can do a little run up and down the shop/road so you can judge how the shoe feels. 

Foot strike

When runners talk about foot strike, it refers to how your foot makes contact with the floor when running. There are three common foot strike patterns; heel strike, midfoot strike and forefoot strike. 

Heel strike means that your heel is the first part of the shoe to contact the floor when you land.

Midfoot strike means that your midfoot is the first part of the shoe to contact the floor when you land.

Forefoot strike means that your forefoot (ball of the foot) is the first part of the shoe to contact the floor when you land.

Foot strike can help determine shoe choice as those that heavily heel strike often require more cushioning in the rear of a shoe to help absorb the impact of the foot landing. 

Changing shoes

It's advised that you replace your running shoes after 6 months or 300 miles, whatever come first.  The reason for this is because the cushioning in running shoes is provided by foam in the sole and after constant use, the foam looses it's springiness and becomes less responsive.  If you're just starting out running, ticking off 300 miles might sound like a lot but it's worth keeping a running diary to track your miles; it will help you follow your progress as you run more, plus you'll be able to accuratelt judge when your shoes feel like they need replacing. 

Technical terms

Shoe Profile - this is how the shoe appears, much like a profile of someone's face, when you look at it side on and often refers to how the shoe is constructed.

Below are some general examples of a regular shoe profile, a maximal shoe and a performance shoe. 

Stack height - this refers to the forefoot and heel thicknesses of the sole. The 'drop' in relation to stack height is the difference in the stack heights i.e. if the heel is 30mm in height and the forefoot is 22mm in height then the drop is 8mm.