If you were to set out on a 500-mile trek tomorrow, how carefully would you consider the pair of shoes you’d wear for that venture? Very carefully, we’d assume, because a shoe that doesn’t feel quite right at mile one is going to leave your feet and lower body in all kinds of trouble by mile 487.
You can expect to get at least 500 miles (800km) of use out of a pair of running shoes, often far more, which means you should put a good deal of thought into which ones you buy. Running is exceptionally good for you but does put the body under stress, and if you don’t have a comfortable pair of shoes that work well with your running style, it can really take the joy out of the sport – not to mention putting you at risk of injury.
If you’re new to running, the differences between shoes are probably far greater than you might imagine – price, cushioning, style of support, weight and much more – and spotting those differences is not easy for the untrained eye. And the fact that pretty much every shoe on the market is released with a great deal of fanfare proclaiming it to be the best ever made doesn’t make it any easier to choose between them.
To help cut through the noise, here are the key questions you should be asking which will help you find the best running shoes for you.
How much do you want to spend?
Sorting out your budget is as good a place to start as any, because running shoes can cost anywhere from £25 to £225 so figuring out your preferred price will narrow down your options quickly. Generally the latest version of flagship shoes will have an RRP of £100 to £150, but there are almost always sales available and if you opt for a previous version of a current shoe you should be able to find a bargain in the region of £50-£80. Many shoes are updated every year without changing all that much aside from the colours available, so shopping for older versions is a savvy move – if you’re well informed.
There are also budget running shoes that cost around £25 to £60. There are some solid options here, but you might find that opting for cheaper shoes proves to be a false economy because they don’t tend to last as long as pricier pairs.
Do you already have a favourite shoe?
The best advice regarding running shoes is to stick with what you like. If a shoe fits well and you haven’t suffered regular injuries while wearing them in the past, then usually the safest bet is just to go with the same one again.
However, if the shoe has been updated to a newer version since you last bought it, it’s important to check out what changes have been made.
“The ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ strategy will often work in your favour, but brands have been known to tweak their models as they launch new versions, and the new version might not fit you as you expect,” says George Anderson, coach and founder of Running By George (opens in new tab). “Check the reviews to see if there have been any major updates since you last bought a pair.”
If there have been major changes that don’t work for you, all is not lost – you might find the older version you prefer online somewhere. Another tactic is to check out reviews of other running shoes and look out for any that are regularly compared to your favourite.
Is it worth visiting a running store?
Experienced runners who know exactly what they like will probably find the best deals on those shoes online, but newer runners will be well served by visiting a specialist running store, where you’ll find a wealth of expert advice to help you pick out your new shoes.
“It really is worth speaking to a knowledgeable salesperson when buying your trainers,” says Anderson. “If you’re just upgrading you can get away with doing the basic checks and trying on the new version, but if you’ve had an injury or a change in running technique then advice is golden. It’s not a perfect system, because nobody is going to know exactly what the best shoe for you is – but an experienced runner working with trainers every day, keeping on top of the latest models and their pros and cons, and with even a modicum of biomechanics and gait analysis training, is going to give you a much more refined starting point. The opportunity to have an experienced set of eyes look at the way you run and cross-reference that with their database of available trainers is priceless.”
The other benefit of visiting a running store is that you get to try a few pairs of shoes on the treadmill. It might only be a quick run, but this can give you a valuable first impression, and going with your gut on what feels best really isn’t a bad way to pick your shoes.
Should you consider gait analysis?
Basic gait analysis is now available for free at most specialist running stores. It’s mainly used to check if you overpronate – excessively roll the foot inward when landing. If you do, a stability running shoe that counters this overpronation will often be recommended to try to minimise your risk of injury.
However, this is only a recommendation. If you hate the feel of any stability shoe you try and prefer a neutral one instead, it’s your decision to make. For more on whether it’s worth doing, check out our guide to gait analysis and our recommendations of the best stability running shoes.
What size shoe should you get?
“A running shoe has to allow for the foot to expand when exercising as the blood flow increases and the foot increases in size,” says Simon Callaway, European technical manager at Saucony.
That means you should expect to wear a size larger than normal in running shoes. And don’t assume all running shoes will fit in the same way. Size and fit can vary between brands and even within brands – racing shoes are often tighter than shoes designed for easy running, for example. Check reviews for info on how a shoe fits, again looking for comparisons to other shoes that you might have tried in the past.
What kind of shoe do you want?
Considering the type of running you will be doing is the best way to narrow down your options. That starts with the surface you’re running on – road or trail. We’re assuming the former for this article, but if it’s the latter our recommendations of the best trail-running shoes will help.
Within the range of road shoes available you’ll find big variations in weight and feel. Some are stacked with cushioning to protect from the impact of the ground and provide a comfortable ride, others are lightweight speedsters designed to help you excel on race day. There are also many all-rounder shoes designed to do everything well.
If you’re training to smash a PB you might want a set of lighter shoes to race and do fast workouts in, alongside a more cushioned trainer for slower, day-to-day running. On the other hand if you’re running up to a few times a week to keep fit, then one cushioned set of shoes will probably be all you need.
Is a newer version of the shoe about to be released?
A quick thing to check – if you’re looking at a shoe that gets updated every year, check when the last one came out. If it’s been 11 months then it’s worth waiting for the new release if you can, because even if you don’t prefer the newer model you’ll probably be able to get the older one for less.
How long will a pair of running shoes last?
“The manufacturers will usually quote from 300-500 miles, but I’ve run up to 1,000 miles [1,600km] in a shoe – it was a great-quality shoe and it served me well,” says ultradistance runner Chris Brisley. “Of course, if you don’t cut your toenails enough, or don’t lace and unlace the shoes correctly, you might see holes in them after a few hundred miles.”
“Brands like us to believe that we should change our trainers every 500 miles or a minimum of once a year,” says Anderson. “In reality, although the materials will degrade with miles and months, they’re still likely to be serviceable long after these milestones have passed.”
There are few ways to tell if your running shoes are past their prime. “Ask yourself: how supportive is the cushioned sole?” says Brisley. “If it no longer feels firm but squishy when you press it, it’s time to say goodbye. Do you still have grip on the shoes? If that’s gone, it’s time to retire them.”
"Check for wear on the soles and uppers regularly, and monitor how you feel,” says Anderson. “The onset of a niggle doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time for a trip to your local running store, but old trainers are definitely on the list of suspects.”
Don’t push it too long with the shoes either, because that can lead to injury.
“One common mistake people make is waiting for their shoes to literally fall off their feet,” says Harrison Foster of online retailer Sports Shoes (opens in new tab). “The first thing that deteriorates in running footwear is the cushioning around the midsole – the outsole and upper may look in fairly decent condition, but it’s in the midsole where the greatest depreciation occurs. The shoes will feel harder underneath your feet as the shock-absorbing properties of the shoe diminish, and this can lead to injuries such as shin splints and knee pain.”
What common mistakes do people make when buying running shoes?
“Among new runners, the most common mistake is not getting past the look of a shoe,” says Foster. “A person may find the perfect shoe that matches their requirements, but if it doesn’t go with their kit they will look for a compromise.”
Anderson says another frequent error is “believing that price is an indication of quality. Instinct tells us to believe this, but a top-of-the-range motion-control shoe could be a fast track to injury if you actually need something more cushioned.”
“Many runners listen to their friends too much,” says Callaway. “Just because a brand or shoe suits their foot, it does not mean that it will suit yours.”
Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.
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