Feet are like snowflakes—no two are alike, including the two at the end of your own legs. And buying a running shoe with the proper fit and design for your unique needs—the type of running you do, your gait, your foot shape—will have a positive impact on nearly every joint and muscle in your body. When your shoes are too worn to cushion against shock, or are the wrong size or style and cause cramping your feet, every structure in your body will feel the effects.
Follow these tips to ensure you pick a pair of running sneakers that will go the distance.
Get to Know Your Foot
Your arch shape is a major factor in determining how much support you need in your shoes to stay comfortable and avoid injury:
- Low Arches: Arches collapse inward right after feet strike the ground, causing excessive foot motion and increasing the risk of twists and sprains.
- High Arches: Arches don’t collapse enough to absorb the shock from each foot strike, allowing it to travel up the legs, often causing knee pain.
You can find out what type of arches you have by performing the arch test: Get your feet wet in the shower, step out, then examine your wet footprints on the floor. If you have a very narrow footprint, you have high arches. If the print resembles your entire foot, you have low arches. Somewhere in the middle means you have normal arches.
Other telltale signs? Runners who overpronate, or roll their feet too far inward as they land, typically have flat arches and a more flexible foot. Take a look at the soles of your current running shoes: If this describes you, you’ll notice wear all over, but will see significant wear in the heel and the ball of the foot.
Supinators or underpronaters, on the other hand, don’t roll their ankles inward enough and tend to strike the ground with the outside edges of their feet. This is usually caused by high arches that restrict the foot’s inward roll. Wear and tear will be concentrated at the outside of the shoe. If your running shoes show even wear across the heel and under the ball of the foot, you have a healthy stride with an even strike from push-off to landing.
Bring this knowledge to the shoe store to help you make the best sneaker choice. However, if you have a chronic injury, consider seeing a foot specialist for a more thorough exam to decipher exactly what your body’s unique shoe needs are.
Pick the Right Store
Ideally, you should shop for running shoes at a specialty running store. Not only do these shops have a large selection of high-quality shoes, but they also tend to be staffed with knowledgeable salespeople who are committed to spending the time necessary to help you find your ideal sneaker. Some stores even have treadmills where an experienced worker can watch you run for a minute or two in order to learn more about your gait and foot strike patterns.
Tell your salesperson about the wet footprint test you did at home and consider bringing in a pair of old shoes so he or she can get a sense of how your foot strikes the ground.
Know Your Running Shoe Options
Those with a healthy stride will likely feel comfortable and protected in most running shoe models, while others need to be more selective. Among the hundreds of shoes on the market, there are a few main categories:
- Stability and Motion Control: Runners who need lots of support—those with low arches or who are overweight—will benefit from a firmer dual-density midsole on the inside to minimize the collapse of the arch. You can usually spot these because the dual-density foam is a different color than the rest of the shoe.
- Neutral: Also called “cushioned” shoes, these are recommended for runners who need maximum midsole cushioning and minimum support. These shoes work best for runners who have minimum pronation and those with high or normal arches.
- Trail: Designed for those who frequently run off-road, trail shoes have great traction and water-resistant material that helps keep feet dry. Lightweight hiking/sneaker hybrids tend to have extra support to protect you from twisting an ankle on uneven terrain. (Hold off on trail running when you are recovering from an injury. Rocks, roots and other hazards can be tough to navigate when you’re not 100 percent.)
- Performance: These shoes are designed to be feather-light (about 10 ounces) to give you an advantage in races or speed workouts where runners are trying to shave precious seconds off of their personal best times. Everyday runners and any runner recovering from injury should steer clear of these due to the lack of cushioning, support and impact protection.
- Minimalist: You’ve likely seen people at the gym wearing minimalist sneakers—or even running barefoot. Advocates claim that running in these shoes increases foot, ankle and leg strength, ultimately reducing injury risk and increasing speed. On the other hand, because they do not provide much (or any) support, they can lead to injury if used too often. The jury is still out on these shoes but many studies are looking into the potential benefits.
Buy the Right Size Shoe
Wearing shoes that are too small is a common mistake. This is sometimes due to weight gain or pregnancy, which can cause fluctuations in foot size and width, but it’s often due to simply not buying wisely. Choose the size that fits you best today. A larger size keeps the shoe from crowding your toes and prevents joints from being compressed, which can eventually cause hammertoes and bunions. Too-small shoes can also disrupt your natural gait, leading to joint aches and pains, and cause blisters and black-and-blue toenails.
Don’t be lured by the digits on the shoe box—every manufacturer has a different sizing methodology. Even if you always wear 7, for instance, try on the 6, 6.5, 7.5 and 8. Fit is what matters, and when in doubt, go a half-size up. Your foot will fit better and feel better inside a slightly larger shoe than it will with a shoe that's a little too small.
It’s not uncommon to have different size feet. Always fit to your larger foot, and consider using an insole to make the fit snugger for your smaller one, if necessary. Also, be sure to try your running shoes on with the socks you plan to wear with them; the sneakers may fit differently with thick socks you wear in the winter, for example. (You may want to buy a different pair for each season.)
Make sure your running shoes are wide enough, too, as pinching your foot into a narrow shoe is a surefire way to end up wincing. Not sure what width you are? Ask the salesperson to check your foot, and don’t settle for a shoe that doesn’t come in the width you need.
Consider Some Extras
Not only can insoles help customize the fit of your shoes, but they can lengthen the life of a shoe by adding another layer of sweat absorption. They also add some cushioning that many people find more comfortable.
You will also benefit from a pair of sweat-wicking socks in the proper size. Socks made of a performance material like merino wool or a synthetic material (CoolMax, Lycra) reduce friction and moisture while you run, keeping your feet dry and blister-free.
How Often to Replace Running Shoes
Most experts advise swapping out your running shoes every 300 to 500 miles or every six months, whichever comes first. If you run outside, err on the lower end of 300 miles. Shoes that are exposed to the elements—water, pavement and dirt, for instance—simply wear out faster.
If you aren’t sure how long you’ve been in your current pair, any of these signs is a hint that it’s time to head to the store:
- The outside lateral edge of the shoe is worn down at the heel.
- The insole is thin.
- The shoe feels lacking in spring or cushion.