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Running is one of the most popular ways to get exercise, and for good reason—it's an effective way to improve your physical and mental health, you can do it anywhere, and it's completely free. However, those of us who have made the mistake of running in ill-fitting or old shoes know that having the wrong gear can derail your progress before you even have the chance to begin. But with dozens of running shoe manufacturers in the U.S., the options can seem overwhelming.

Active footwear specialist Steve DeMoss of Big Peach Running Co., Ched Garten, M.D., a physician of sports medicine at Paragon Sports Medicine, and Ashish Kapila, D.P.M., a doctor of podiatric medicine at Wellstar Health System, provide insight into what a good running shoe should do, how to know which type of shoe will work best for your feet and how to know when it's time for new shoes.

What to Look for in a Running Shoe

As chief running officer at Big Peach Running Co., Steve DeMoss spends his days evaluating running shoes, choosing quality shoes to showcase in his store and helping customers find the best shoe to support their feet as they work toward their running goals. In his over 25 years of experience working with runners and running shoes, DeMoss has identified three key things that a good running shoe should do:

  1. Accommodate your foot characteristics: "Length, width, shape, girth, instep, arch profile and pronation tendency should all be taken into consideration," says DeMoss.
  2. Provide a stable platform for the foot: Depending on your foot alignment, you'll want to consider whether you need a more neutral shoe or a shoe that provides more structured support.
  3. Protect the foot from the shock incurred at impact and propulsion: The shoe should be protective enough to deal with the terrain that you'll encounter during your runs.

DeMoss says, "A shoe that performs well in these three areas is likely to work well with the foot and body, making the experience more enjoyable and reducing the likelihood of discomfort or even injury."

How to Pick the Best Running Shoe

DeMoss says, "There are lots of good shoes out there, but it's important to determine which good shoe is the right one for you." It's also important to avoid the temptation to shop with your eyes. When buying a shoe for running, function is most definitely more important than fashion—it is best to close your eyes and trust your feet. They will tell you which shoe makes them most happy.

Fit and Feel

DeMoss and Garten agree that making sure the shoe fits and feels comfortable on the foot is of utmost importance. This sounds simple, but sometimes we get so tied to what shoe size we wear that we forget to consider whether the shoe actually fits well and feels good!

There are two key areas when considering fit: the forefoot to toes and the midfoot to heel.

In all shoes, but especially in running shoes, making sure that you have ample space in the forefoot—the area of the foot from the ball of the foot forward—for your toes to be able to spread out and move is extremely important. DeMoss says, "While walking or running, the toes spread out when we are propelling ourselves forward, and we don't want to constrain them as they perform this important task."

It's also important to remember that as you add mileage, your body will get warm and your feet may have a tendency to swell. Many people find that they need to size up in running shoes to accommodate both the toes and the swelling they experience as they get into their runs.

Equally as important to having space in the forefoot is having a secure fit in the midfoot back toward the heel. If the fit is not secure in this area, the shoe can feel sloppy or you may feel like your foot is swimming in the shoe. This can lead to friction, resulting in blisters which are not conducive to running.

Garten also reminds us that the shoes that we've worn in the past may not be the shoes for us today: "An individual's foot can change over time, and many people still buy the same size they wore when they were 18. It is important to make sure the shoe fits." It's also a good idea to remember that there is variation in size between brands. The size you wear in one brand may not work for you in another brand.

In terms of feel, it's more subjective. This is where it is really important to go in and try on shoes. "Go try on shoes!" says Garten. He recommends going to a reputable specialty running store, as their staff will have the expertise needed to guide you to some of the best options for your feet.

DeMoss describes finding the right feel in a shoe as feeling "smooth" while you're running: "The smooth feeling is usually what makes people fall in love with a particular shoe, so it's very important to try them on!"

Know Your Foot Type

There are several factors that impact the fit and feel of a shoe. Garten explains, "Knowing your foot type is important in choosing the correct shoe. The two biggest factors from a foot structure standpoint are arch height (high, medium or low) and alignment (pronated, meaning rolled inward; supinated, meaning rolled outward; or neutral)."

Best Running Shoes for Pronation or Low Arches

Pronation is the way a foot rolls inward to distribute the impact through the foot as you strike the ground when either walking or running. When we talk about pronation in relation to running shoes, we typically are talking about overpronation—when the foot rolls excessively inward toward the outside of the big toe instead of the ball of the foot. Overpronation is often associated with people who have low arches.

Shoes to Consider for Overpronation:

Best Running Shoes for Neutral Feet or Medium Arches

Neutral is used to describe a gait where the foot makes impact toward the outside of the heel and rolls inward toward the ball of the foot, allowing the walker or runner to push off evenly from the ball of the foot and toes. A neutral gait is often associated with people who have medium arches.

Neutral Shoes to Consider:

Best Running Shoes for Supination, Underpronation or High Arches

Supination, or underpronation, occurs when the foot makes impact at the outer edge of the heel and either minimally rolls inward or does not roll inward, often putting pressure on the small toes on the outside of the foot. Supination is often associated with people who have high arches.

Shoes to Consider for Supination:

DeMoss explains that shoes can help with the issues associated with pronation and supination by providing varying degrees of stability. "Runners who tend to overpronate or supinate may benefit from a more stable base underfoot, whereas runners whose feet tend to maintain a more neutral position may prefer a softer, less supportive shoe."

In addition to considering pronation, Garten shares that there are other running mechanics that should also be taken into consideration when purchasing a shoe. "Someone that is a heavy heel striker needs a more cushioned ride; whereas, a runner that has more of a midfoot strike may prefer a more minimal shoe. Someone that has a rigid midfoot and a naturally high arch has less shock-absorbing capacity through the joints in the foot, so they will enjoy a cushioned shoe as well."

Best Shoes for Trail Running

Both Garten and DeMoss suggest that runners consider different shoes for trail running. Garten shares, "The extra traction with trail shoes is important to maintain form and prevent slips on difficult terrain."

In addition to providing extra traction, trail shoes also have a toe guard and rock shield to provide some protection and additional comfort when encountering rocks and roots during your run. DeMoss also recommends considering trail runners as an alternative to hiking boots, adding, "Trail shoes are also a great option for hiking as they are much lighter and more nimble than traditional hiking boots and tend to have a better fit."

Trail Running Shoes to Consider:

How to Know It's Time for New Shoes

Running shoes are built for performance and support. They take the brunt of the impact with each step we take. And typically they wear out faster than we would like for them to. Our experts suggest that you replace your shoes when they've reached somewhere in the 200- to 500-mile range.

Kapila recommends that his patients update their shoes every 200 to 400 miles, and he cautions against going for bargain shoes: "You get what you pay for. I recommend buying a good pair of shoes, even if they are pricy. At the end of the day, we have to support our feet, as our feet support our bodies."

Garten agrees, saying, "Online prices may be tempting, but you don't know how long that shoe has been sitting in a warehouse." And while Garten is more generous in the mileage he believes we can get out of our shoes, at 300 to 500 miles, he reminds us that "the material also starts to lose its capabilities when it has been sitting for six months or more."

DeMoss encourages us to remember that shoes typically last between 300 to 400 miles, but suggests that we also listen to our bodies. "A better rule is: if the knees, shins or ankles start to protest a bit; if your feet start hurting during or after a run, then you've waited too long to replace your shoes." He goes on to say, "Replacing your running shoes is kind of like getting a haircut. By the time you realize you need one, you're overdue!"