How To Buy Traditional Running Shoes

How To Buy Running Shoes – A Helpful Guide

This post covers picking out traditional running shoes as opposed to minimalist/barefoot shoes.  If you understand the difference you can skip the rest of this paragraph, if not, please keep reading.  There are subcategories and different labels for these styles of running shoes, but for the sake of this article I will keep their descriptions brief.

The primary difference between these two styles of shoes is known as heel drop or the difference between the heel and forefoot.  Most common modern running shoes fall into the traditional category and have a 10 or 12 millimeter heal drop. The heal ‘stack’ height could be 32 millimeters and the forefoot 22, meaning your heal sits higher than your forefoot in the shoe. While for minimalist shoes, the heal drop is 4 millimeters and barefoot shoes have a 0m difference between heal and forefoot.

Traditional, well cushioned, standard level running shoe. Model Shown: well worn Brooks Adrenaline

The general idea for those choosing to run in these types of shoes is that the closer your heal is to the ground, the more natural your foot position is, leading to increased posture, stronger feet/legs and better form.  But be advised, jumping right into minimal/barefoot shoes could lead to serious injury for some.  If you want more information on minimal/barefoot shoes I will post new articles in the near future.  If you still run in traditional shoes, then feel free to use this guide to pick out your next pair of running shoes.

P.S- While this is a very detailed guide to help pick out running shoes try not to over think things. Being fitted and classified as an over pronator or supinator is not the end of the world and can over complicate buying new running shoes. If the shoes feel amazing and you love the fit, buy them.

New Balance Minimus
Example of a minimalist shoe, the New Balance MT10 features a very thin sole with a 4mm heel drop

Start With A Few Questions

Asking yourself a few questions can help prepare you for selecting new running shoes yourself or if someone is assisting you in a shoe store.

1st:  “What am I looking for?”

Do I know what I am looking for? Do I want trail or road running shoes? Do I just want a fancy looking shoe that costs a lot of money and looks great? Will I take the first shoe offered to me because the employee said it was the best for my over pronation?

2nd: “What type of running will I be doing?

Will I be training for my 1st marathon where I need a shoe that can handle a lot of long, but slow mileage? Am I dusting off my racing cap and jumping into the next 5k run I find? Or am I just going to the gym to run on the treadmill for 10 minutes then workout, do I need a fancy shoe for that? What would my average weekly mileage be?

3rd: “What type of shoes have I run in previously?

Were they cheap shoes I picked up from the clearance rack that fell apart after a month? Have I run in one brand consistently until they changed the fit? Do I do whatever it takes to find last years model since that’s the only shoe that fits just right? I have not purchased new running shoes in 2 years, they still work fine so do I need a new pair?

To help answer these questions I will not go in order but combine them to help you best.  Although if I were helping you pick out shoes in a retail store this would be the order of my questions once we get past friendly conversation. What is said to each of these questions would help determine which shoe best fits you.

Things To Know Before Purchase

Each brand of running shoe has their own offerings and special features, but in a broad sense they still can be placed into categories. Each company offers many different shoes that fit within three main categories; Premium, Standard & Economical. The categories names are not the most technical terms but they help get the point across. Premium mostly consists of pricey super cushioned shoes with all the bells & whistles a company can throw into their shoe. Standard shoes are great for handling any type of mileage; they have accessible price points as well as great cushioning and features. Economical shoes are focused on being more affordable but still have some features of the higher end shoes and can handle most mileage levels. Premium shoes average $150, standard used to average $100, but over the past couple years have gone up to $120. Economical shoes can range from $50-$80. Each of these three categories can further break down into sub categories of cushion, weight, use & support.

Cushion, Weight & Use Subcategories

Shoes can appear to have thick cushioning yet be cheaper than a shoe that is really thin and has no cushion. This comes down to the amount of technology the company puts into the shoes.  When I say technology, I do not mean computer chips, but the type of tech that companies use in the sole to better absorb the impact. Some companies depend on a form of gel like Asics & Brooks, pockets of air like Nike or even a hard plate like Mizunos to absorb or dissipate the forces generated from running. Companies spend millions of dollars researching & creating “better than last years technology”. I say it with quotes because it may not necessarily be better than last year, but something labeled new and improved typically sells better than old and unchanged.

Asics Gel Cushioning
Asics Gel label displaying these shoes use Asics Gel cushioning technology. This specific models show a hint of the gel that is inside of the heel.

Some shoes fit into the newly created maximalism sub category, by using super thick premium lightweight cushioning to make the runner feel like they’re floating on clouds. Lightweight shoes like the previously mentioned minimalist shoes or even racing shoes use premium-cushioning systems to stay really light but still can take high mileage days. The average weight for daily trainers typically range from 10-12oz, while minimalist shoes & racers should easily be under 10oz.

Hoka One One
The now hugely popular Hoka One One brand. They use premium, high end super thick cushioning to provide protection and make the runner feel as if they are floating on clouds.

The Beloved Support Subcategory

The support subcategory seems to be the biggest determining factor for picking out traditional shoes as it includes words like stability, neutral/cushioning and motion control. These words describe types of shoes that can help guide your footfall through its proper motions and by understanding how your foot falls while running, you can determine which support subcategory you can be placed into. Proper footfall in traditional shoes consists of your heel striking, arch collapsing to absorb the impact, maybe a slight foot roll inwards, but then evenly pushing off with all of your toes to move forward.

The act of your foot going through these motions is also known as pronation. If your foot rolls too far inwards after your arch collapses, depending greatly on your big toe for pushing off, then you can be placed in the over pronation category, since your foot over does the act of pronation.

Stability shoes help the most with this as they typically use a denser piece of material, known as a post. This post is located in the sole near the inner arch/heel to prevent your foot from rolling too far inwards thus stabilizing your footfall allowing you to push off evenly from your toes.

Asics Stability Post
Asics Stability post, notice the grey piece of sole vs the white closer to the heel. Also displayed are the black specks that may show as grey in darker soles. Asics refers to their post technology as Duomax

If your foot rolls though mostly level, your arches collapse and you push off evenly with all of your toes, you can be placed in the Neutral/Cushioning subcategory. Neutral/Cushioning shoes do not try and alter your level of pronation since you already roll off evenly. Neutral/Cushioning shoes also help when a runner supinates, which is the lack of pronation or under pronation. When supinating, the runner depends mostly on the outside of their foot, rolling off of their outer toes, and not using the arch as much as they should.  Without having the arch to absorb the stress and impact from running, Neutral/Cushioning shoes have an extra bit of cushion to counteract the arch not being used.

Then there are motion control shoes, which do as advertised, and control the motion of your foot. Motion Control shoes are typically for people who severely over pronate and whose feet roll excessively inwards.  They are super stability shoes and have large dense posts in the soles to help prevent over pronation. These types of shoes typically look like bricks.

Easy Way to Tell if You Need Stability or Neutral/Cushioning

Being placed into these categories is not the end all determining factor, but can assist with finding the proper shoe. If all of this talk of pronation or over pronation has scared you, one of the best ways to determine which classification you are in is to look at your arch. Following the idea behind stability and neutral/cushioning shoes your arch can determine which classification best suits you.

Low/Flat arches places you into the Stability or Motion Control classification, as low arched feet have an increased chance of rolling too far inwards.  Motion control shoes tend to be for people with flat arches, but it is such a high end over corrective shoe style, stability shoes will likely work just fine.  Those with high arches should aim for Neutral/Cushioning shoes first. Those with mid/average arches should try both stability and neutral/cushioning shoes. A lot of really well known shoes like the Asics 2000 series or Brooks Adrenalines are stability shoes that cover a lot of foot shapes, even offering width options.

Analyzing Your Current Shoes

Take a look at your current running shoes. Are they ratty and beaten up from years of use? Do the shoes look decent but have a hole on the side near your big toe from rubbing? Is the heel really worn down from heavy heel striking? Does the tread on your forefoot look evenly worn or does it wear closer to the big toe? Do your big toes push up through mesh?

A lot of these are common wear patterns to look out for and can help classify which shoes are best for you as well. Heavy heel striking is typical in traditional shoes as they essentially make you strike heel first and then guide you though the footfall. So heel wear is normal, especially on the outside of your heel. Looking at the forefoot wear can be more beneficial. If the forefoot is worn more on the inside and thin underneath the big toe, this is most likely from over pronation, so you may benefit from a stability shoe. If worn on the outside or evenly throughout you would best be suited with a neutral/cushioning shoe.

how to buy running shoes
Displayed are several examples of using an extra piece of rubber/fabric to help prevent the big toe from rubbing a hole in the top mesh panel. Top Left: 2 Asics models showing with vs without. Right: Brook’s Cascadia using extra fabric to help increase strength of mesh, that can also cut down on big toe rubbing the mesh. Bottom Left: Brook’s shoe mesh protector doubling as a reflective piece.

If the mesh is worn or has a hole in it near the bunion part of your foot before your big toe, you may benefit from a wide shoe or maybe just a shoe with a wider toe box. I have found Brook’s Ghost to have a wider forefoot area without actually being a wide, along with a few New Balance styles. If your big toe is constantly trying to escape and makes a hole in the mesh above it, no big deal, its just how your foot falls, but certain shoes throw in an extra piece of rubber/fabric to help prevent that, so look out for those.

Purchase Day

On purchase day, wear your current running shoes and favorite pair of socks to help gauge fit. In case you need assistance, the employee could help you out by looking at your current shoes.

Take a gander at all of the styles; most are organized by their support classification, with price tags placed inside or under the shoes.  Take stock of the options. If the type of support is not obvious and you want to completely tackle things yourself, pick up the shoe. Look at the inner heel/arch of the sole for the post (remember, that dense material in the sole that helps to correct your over pronation). In a lot of stability shoes the post is noticeable. It is most obvious in Asics, Brooks & New Balance shoes, shown as a grey piece in the sole while the rest of the sole is white or off colored.  If the sole is black or another random dark color, the post maybe speckled, slightly resembling dirt. (See above Asics post picture) For Mizuno’s if you hold the shoe up, try to look through their Wave plate technology near the heel; if you can see through to the other side it is neutral, if you cannot it is stability.

Mizuno Wave Plate Technology
Shown are two of Mizuno’s most popular models, Above: Mizuno Wave Inspire showing a filled in Wave Plate, meaning the Inspires are Stability, Below: Mizuno Wave Rider, showing you can see through the Wave Plate meaning the Rider’s are Neutral/Cushioning.

Nike has used a grey post, but recently most of their stability shoes use their Dynamic Support feature. Nike typically displays this feature by using a combination of things such as words like Dynamic Support or just Support and graphics that look like a downhill slope posted near the inner heel.

Motion Control shoes as previously mentioned are very brick like and have a huge gray post that can at times go around the whole heel of the sole. Neutral/cushioning shoes do not use posts and most do not display anything unique to designate them as such.

how to buy running shoes
Shown are Nike Structures in different colors, both displaying the Nike stability feature Dynamic Support along with the slope graphic

Start trying on shoes by your favorite brand or current brand if no favorite, but also try competing models for comparison. When trying on the shoes, feel out for any toe tightness, rubbing, uncomfortable spots in the sole and how fluid the transition is from heel to toe. Consider the weight, directly competing models can vary by a couple ounces, which could make a difference if you were interested in in getting a new PR.

Look at the price, but I would advise having at least $120 ready to spend on the new shoes.  If it is a current year release typically you will not find it cheaper online. But Christmas can be good time to get running shoes cheaper, as most of the brands release their new lineup of core shoes in January, so they clean house beforehand.

If none of the new shoes you try on strike your fancy, search online for your current shoes to buy again. There is nothing wrong with buying new old model shoes. Most brands do not make drastic changes to their core models, and technology has not changed that much to warrant consistently buying the newest model every time they release.  The older model shoe’s cushion is not going to break down and go bad while sitting on a warehouse shelf.

Make sure you run around a bit, test your shoes out on the indoor track or treadmill. Ask an associate about their return policy. I spent many years in retail and know first hand, that not every shoe recommended or sold works out perfectly for the customer. Shoe companies want you to be satisfied, as do the stores selling the shoes. If the shoe store has a trial period program or “if you absolutely hate them, we’ll take them back policy” great, take advantage of it.

Here’s the retail/gear addict in me.  Grab some other new gear before you leave, especially if you spend less on your running shoes than planned. Grab some new fancy wool socks if it is cold out or maybe a beanie/glove combo.  If you are running in old cotton socks, I definitely recommend trying some polyester or polyester/nylon blend socks. They are much better at wicking moisture away from your feet and keeping blisters at bay.

Post Purchase

Remember why you picked your particular shoe and what was lacking in other models you did not like as much. This helps the next time around when shopping for new running shoes. Keep an eye out for the updated model of the shoes you did not pick as the company may tweak the fit and it work better for you the next time around.

For the purpose of this guide, if you run in the shoes consistently week after week they should be replaced every 5 or 6 months. Some runners prefer using mileage to determine shoe replacement time & once your mileage reaches 300-500 you should start searching for a new pair.

After a month or two of running in your shoes and they work really well, you may want to consider buying the exact same model for next time. To take it even further, you can wait and then purchase another pair once the updated models are released. This will typically save you $15-$20.

Next step is to enjoy your new running shoes while you train to crush that personal record or start to finally lose those pesky pounds at the gym.

Thank you for reading my guide on how to buy running shoes. Which traditional running shoes are your favorite and why? Have they changed drastically over the years? Do you prefer one brand to another?

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