Finding the Most Comfortable Running Shoe for You

Saucony A5It seems that one of the almost universally accepted maxims about finding the best running shoe for you is to choose the one that feels most comfortable on your feet for the type of running you intend to use it for. Another way this is often phrased is to choose the shoe that disappears on you feet when you run. If you don’t notice the shoe, then it’s doing its job.

This philosophy was summed up well by fellow blogger Harold Shaw in a recent post on his site, A Runnah’s Story:

“BE COMFORTABLE – this is the most important thing, find a shoe that you run comfortably in – one that you put on and forget about. Get beyond brand marketing, the salesperson’s prejudices or preconceptions, the running store’s limited selection and find the pair of running shoes that feel comfortable to you when you are running. No, this is not easy, yes you will try many running shoes and spend lots of money, before you find the style of running shoes that allow you to run comfortably. Notice that I say style, not brand.”

Comfort is a term that can easily be misunderstood in reference to a running shoe. By comfort we don’t necessarily mean soft and pillowy, like the step-in comfort people might feel when putting a shoe on in the store (and that the cynic in me feels drives some aspects of shoe design).

Comfort with regard to running shoes has to do with how the shoe feels when you actually run in it. And not just on a short jaunt on a store treadmill. Comfort is how a shoe feels when you are out on the road or trail doing what you usually do in your training. Comfort might be different at mile 18 of a marathon. Comfort may change when you’re running a tempo vs. intervals vs. an easy recovery run. Comfort is why you may need more than one shoe in your quiver to use in different circumstances.

Having run in well over a hundred different shoes in the past few years, my experience syncs very well with what Harold wrote in his post. I’ve found that the shoes that I like best are the those that I notice the least. A shoe that disappears on my foot is a beautiful thing. I recently had an experience with a shoe like this – I planned to go out for an easy five miles with my dog and wound up going longer and much faster than intended (not sure Jack appreciated the impromptu 7-miles at nearly half-marathon pace!). When you are wearing a shoe that is a perfect match for you, it makes you want to keep running. Running becomes effortless.

The challenge for most runners is that finding the most comfortable shoe can be expensive (as Harold rightly points out). You have to try a variety of shoes and get a sense of what works and what does not. I’ve come to the realization that in a training shoe I generally like something sub-10oz with a soft heel and a firm forefoot. Drop is not as important to me if a shoe meets those requirements (though I still prefer a shoe under 10mm, and 4-6mm seems to be my sweet spot). For a speed shoe I like 6mm drop or less, stiff sole, low stack, and firm throughout. I took me a lot of experimentation in a lot of shoes to figure this out, but it makes it easy for me now to peg a shoe that will be a good match. It also makes it easy for me to read reviews written by friends with similar tastes and know that if they like a shoe I probably will too (for example, if John Schrup likes a shoe, I need it on my feet).

What determines shoe comfort? Some people are quick to dismiss the numbers/specs when it comes to running shoes. Others may rely on them so much that they may miss out on a great match. I would say that the specs are what determine comfort for a given runner, but that no single spec in isolation is the sole determinant of shoe comfort.

Stack height, heel-forefoot drop, sole durometer in the heel and forefoot, sole flare, sidewall geometry, forefoot width, heel lockdown, arch height, flexibility – all of these things weave together in complex ways to give a shoe the feel it has when you run. And because of this complexity I’m wary of firm categorizations of footwear by brands and retailers, as well as studies that use a single shoe to represent such categories. Each shoe is unique in its own way. Yes there are some broad similarities within categories, but there is also an awful lot of variation.

To give you an example, a few weeks ago I bought a pair of the Nike Pegasus 29 for a consulting project I’m working on. I’m not normally one to wear a 12-13mm drop shoe, but I put them on at the Nike outlet and immediately noticed how soft the heel was. I know that really soft heels tend to work for me, so I took them out for 5 miles on the road. By and large the shoe felt great, but I got a long hot spot along the ball behind my big toe. After doing some filming it was clear that my foot seemed to be caving the medial forefoot cushion a bit too much as I pronated, and that excessive movement might have created friction in that area and thus the hot spot. So the forefoot was just not quite firm enough for my stride.

In contrast, the slightly lower drop, lighter weight Mizuno Sayonara, which based on specs would seem more in line with my taste, did not work for me because the heel was way too firm and stiff. Put the Pegasus heel on the Sayonara and I’d probably have a workhorse of a shoe that could eat up miles.

I want to end this post with some advice on finding the most comfortable shoe for you.

1. Run in a shoe to determine comfort! Don’t base your feelings on step in comfort walking around the store. Some shoes feel great while standing still or walking but suck on the run, and some feel awful walking (for me, Newtons and the original Skechers GoRun are good examples) but feel great out on the road.

2. Go to a specialty shop staffed by open-minded shoe geeks who will help you try a variety of shoes and will have a conversation with you about your injury history, training habits, experience in previous shoes, etc. A shoe geek is a connoisseur who has run in a ton of shoes and can tell you exactly how shoe A differs from shoe B without spouting marketing BS from the brands. If all the shop does is look at your arch height and pronation to give you a shoe then walk out the door. If they try and sell you on the latest technology being pushed by a brand, be wary. If you’re not familiar with local shops, ask friends for recommendations.

3. If you don’t have a shop nearby, order online from a retailer who accepts returns of shoes that don’t work out.

4. Identify what you like and don’t like about the shoe(s) you currently wear. Chances are if there are things you don’t like there is a shoe that will work out better. Ask other runners for advice.

5. Don’t be afraid to experiment! Trying out different shoes can be incredibly fun (I’ve made a living out of it!), and need not be risky as long as you are careful. Don’t take a new shoe on a 20 mile run. If things feel off, stop. I recently had this experience in the Nike Lunarglide 5 – shooting arch pain halfway into my run in them, but no lasting damage done since it wasn’t a long run. I’m not going to risk running in them again.

6. Shop clearance to experiment. Get a few older model shoes at an outlet, TJ Maxx, Marshall’s (yes, they have name brand stuff super cheap), or in the clearance shop of an online retailer. You local specialty store might also have past-year models on sale for cheap.

7. If a shoe doesn’t work out and money is a concern, sell it on Ebay to minimize the financial loss. I’ve done this several times for shoes that I’ve purchased that have not worked out for me. I won’t sell free media samples (I give those away to other runners or send them to Soles for Souls), but if I bought it myself I‘ve found that I can often get 50-75% of the cost back in an Ebay sale if the shoe has only a few runs on it.

If you have any other tips to add to this list, feel free to leave a comment!

About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.

Comments

  1. David Burns says:

    I always loved my New Balance MR00. Everyone told me you will get hurt running halfs in them. I tried several other shoes, and got hurt. After recovering the other day I put my MR00s back on it was my best run in a long time.

    • I heard the same thing last fall about the MR00s when I was running in them. I did almost half of my training in one pair, and ran two full marathons in the another pair. My only beef with them is that the laces tore through the uppers after about 300 miles. Just gotta run in what works for you.

  2. Iain Denby says:

    …and just when you finally find the right pair of shoes for you, they go and mess with them so you have to start over. You can probably have around 12 months of enjoying the right shoe.

  3. I really loved Harold’s post and told him he should ‘pin’ it for new readers to always have as a reference. Because it is so easy to fall into the ‘I’m sure THIS set of shoes will be THE ONES’ … even after nearly 25 years of running starting as an adult, I still found myself falling into it as I trained for my first marathon in 2012.

  4. Just to complement. I only discover that high drop shoes don’t work for on my third Nike Vomero. Sometimes it takes a long time to find out what works best for us. Now I use Saucony Kinvara and Nike free with no problem.
    rgds
    Sergio

  5. I still find that the shoes I enjoy wearing the most are the least restrictive ones like my Altra Adams and Samsons. I may not be fastest in these types of shoes, but I have a much more fun run usually. I’m going to try a pair of the Sensory Ventures by Xero shoes. I should have gotten those huarache style shoes long ago. There are some people who manage to go fast and race in footwear like this.

    • BTW, there are still many people keeping the minimalist flame burning. I saw several people wearing shoes like Vibrams in the half marathon I did last weekend. I talked to one woman who ran 1:30 something in a pair of five fingers.

  6. Brad Patterson says:

    Fantastic post, Pete. You really nailed it on this one. Some people get very lucky and find that “perfect match” early in their running career (like me with the Brooks Launch), others may unfortunately take years of pain and anguish to get to that shoe.

    And then there are the rest of us shoe-geeks, who even though we already have a shoe that work great, we always wonder if that new model just coming out might be a TINY BIT BETTER!

  7. William Nee says:

    Great post! My current favorite is the Karhu Flow 3. It’s lightweight, fairly minimal (5mm drop), and has a firm ride, although it still has enough cushioning to do long and medium runs (ie. I love the firm and responsive ride of the Mizuno Wave Universe, but can’t do much past 10 miles in them).

    In finding these shoes, I followed steps 3-6 mentioned above. I think the liquidation section of Running Warehouse is a wonderful way to experiment for relatively cheap.

    I think implicit in these principles is the idea that you should trust your own judgement and not be afraid to dislike a shoe you hope you’ll love, or a brand/style that normally you wouldn’t go for.

  8. Articles like this but one reason why Pete is the best. Really well done.

    I don’t know if I’m applying the principle correctly, but Occam’s Razor seems to be a good guide. Or we might say that the least amount of shoe comfortable is the one to go with.

    But with marketing being what it is, we often believe that we need something more, or better, or whatever. And often, I think, with that approach we’re less likely to find a shoe that disappears on the foot.

  9. Yes, if I could only run in one shoe, it would be the Altra Provision 1.5, but in fact I alternate 8 pairs for races, short speed work, cruise intervals and tempo runs, and long and easy recovery runs. Just added the Altra Olympus for long runs to replace my aged brooks launch….I normally feel best in the 6mm to zero drop range, but somehow, those darn launches still run really smooth!

  10. I’d add that you should also expect that your feet to change over time and with that so will the shoes that work for you.

  11. Great post Pete! As you say it is a complex blend of characteristics of shoe and runner that gets one to the shoe that disappears and flies. Your advice to experiment is super valid. Many get stuck on a brand, a model, a “type” of shoe. Sometimes it is that great shoe for them, often it isn’t. One thing is for sure there is a tremendous evolution and effort by shoe companies going on now. Sometimes marketing BS hides not much, sometimes the innovation is real and valuable, sometimes it is lighter in basically the same design (Wave Rider 17 a great example). With all the data, bloggers, sites out there with info and helpful geeks one can start to narrow down on alternatives that fit what you like. I am with you on soft heel and firm forefoot and for me the keys are 17-20mm plus in the forefoot for a trainer and more than 4mm drop . The faster I want to go the firmer and stiffer/snappier I seem to like the forefoot.

  12. Great post. All very true. Ebay is a great place to sell shoes that don’t work; but it is also the place to buy shoes and try them out very inexpensively. I found my favorite shoe (up to half marathon distance)used on ebay – the original Merrell Road Glove for about twenty bucks. Since then I have purchased two more pairs new and plan to purchase a couple more before they completely disappear. I also bought a new pair of Addidas Adios Boost on ebay for $100 to prepare for my next marathon.

  13. Nice post. I think the big thing is that this shoe everyone is looking for is something that is going to change as their running experience changes ie as they get quicker or start running more specific sessions or longer. And where multiple shoes are going to be the most comfortable so that the shoe is specific to the session that is being completed.
    The problem with some of the ‘shoe geeks’ is that they are generally quite experienced runners and their experience can be very different to the novice walking in the door. The very best ones will understand the difference between them and their customers.

  14. Pete thank you for the link and quote, it means a lot!

    You created a post that I thought about in my head, but couldn’t quite get them to come out in a post and you did a much better job of it than I ever would have.

    You are absolutely right about a shoe needs to be comfortable to run, it doesn’t matter what it feels like walking around or in the store, running shoes are meant to be run in.

    I found that out with my present P/I N2′s which I hated them initially – too firm and inflexible, but when I read your review of them again, I decided to give them a little more of a chance and after 30 miles I loved them and now have 2 more pair of P/I’s in my rotation.

    They just feel right when I run in them, but it took more than just trying them on in the store for a couple of minutes, it took actually running in them to learn that I “want” to run in them.

    I wonder if sometimes we give up too soon on a pair running shoes, based on the initial feel or those first few runs.

    I still remember the days when you had to break in a pair of running shoes and then they were fine.

    Now we expect or rather demand that a pair of running shoes right out of the box be able to go double-digit miles and when they don’t/can’t we deem them not worthy and discard them or banish them to the closet.

    Especially when I have far too many running shoes that felt great initially, but after 30-50 miles did not work for me.

    I know I am starting to re-think my expectations and have to figure out how to balance that initial comfort, to actual running performance.

    Great post, thank you for making me think – yet again or is that as usual.

    • No problem Harold, been meaning to write this for awhile and your post spurred me to do it! My own personal reason for trying lots of shoes (aside from it being my job) is fun. I like trying stuff out and I’m fascinated by the interplay of footwear, biomechanics, and injury. In a strange kind of way I like it when a shoe doesn’t work for me as it gives me something to chew on and figure out.

  15. Yep. Good post. Finding ‘the shoe’ has to be evolutionary, especially in the first few years if you are an ‘improving’ runner. I started running 2 years ago with the usual 12mm drop cushioned trainer (in spite of my flat feet I run perfectly neutrally). Which worked well, but as my speed increased I noticed the wear was mainly on my toes/balls of feet, and that the heel tended to get in the way. So my next shoe could be lower in heel – New Balance 890v3. Again speed increased and wear was very pronounced on toes. Next up and newly purchased for me as I wanted something softish for bigger miles but low, light and fastish – Brooks PureFlow2. I’m finding these almost perfect, though my calfs are still adjusting. The thing I notice is that quads, hamstrings etc. need hardly any recovery – legs feel fresher day to day, comfort underfoot is great up to 15 miles and yet I can turn over a sub 6:00m/m if I want to. But even so – time will tell. Still a work in progress.

  16. Great post pete, summarized your ideas about shoes selection from scaterred post into one kust read post for anyone who needs to buy a running shoes..anyway, just out of curiousity, you seems to never get along well with nike’s cushioned traditional shoes…pegasus and lunarglide, both are soft cushioned shoes, with neutral and a touch of stability respectively that majority of runners wear..i have no statistic but i assume most runners have not that much trouble running in this two since they aren’t that radical in design..not like the zero drop firm bionic, or maha firm adios2 whcih if aomeone got injured acutely running in them, that would not be much of a surprise provided they aren’t well prepare for those specific specs..i wear lunar glide4 when i go for a long ride, the cushioned helped me when fatique starts to take over my form especially around the hip..but you seems to have an acute problem right out just with a short period of trying them..why is that?is there anythin in your gait which affected it?

    • The midfoot felt very snug to me, wondering if it constricted my foot in some way. First time I’ve ever had a pain like that, and haven’t had it any other shoe since that run.

  17. Tom Davidson says:

    I would second the comment about using discount retailers for shoe picks. I’ve had terrific luck at Marshalls, getting many good finds at around $40 or less. (inov8 233′s and Brooks Pure Connects to name a couple). It has made trying out different shoes and Runblogger Recommendations really painless on the wallet and the feet!

  18. This is some great stuff. As a Guest Advocate for Big Peach Running Company in Atlanta, I agree with everything Peter has to say – and would like to share some thoughts on some of his points.

    1. When you have found a comfortable shoe in a store, go beyond walking around it and go out on the sidewalk and go for a short run. Running in a shoe is very different from walking in it.

    2. At Big Peach I pull out the most appropriate shoes for a guest based on foot characteristics, biomechanics, injury history, and goals. In other words, I stay very neutral on brand preference. In fact, I don’t have any, but will point out important elements of a shoe if I’m asked.

    3. I recommend having at least two pairs of shoes if for no other reason than having the ability to rotate them so the mileage is staggered. In fact, wearing different shoes will work muscles differently as your pace and cadence may vary. Consider a long run shoe and a lighter shoe for track or tempo runs.

    4. As to older models, this is OK, but be mindful of what your biomechanics are as you could possibly buy a shoe at a place like TJ Maxx or DSW that may provide too much or too little stability for your feet. In other words, get to know the models better.

    Happy Running,

    Austin

  19. I still find that the shoes I enjoy wearing the most are the least restrictive ones like my Altra Adams and Samsons.
    I may not be fastest in these types of shoes, but I have a much more fun run usually. I’m going to try a pair of the
    Sensory Ventures by Xero shoes. I should have gotten those huarache style shoes long ago. There are some people who
    manage to go fast and race in footwear like this.

  20. For myself, it’s always been a real hassle to find shoes wide and flat enough at the back of the midfoot. My arch (or lack of) sort of bulges out there when weight is applied and ends up getting banged up by any sort of arch support, or more often, a raised ridge where the sole meets the upper. I’ve run in and returned, or regretted keeping, many shoes, as I can’t really feel this until I’m 20 minutes in to a jog.

    If anyone else suffers this particular aversion, the Guide 7 has been nearly perfect. My only qualm is that it is a little slappy and loud, but I still plan to stock up when the Guide 8 comes out or I see a sale.

    My best suggestion to anyone trying on shoes is simply to remove the insole before taking them out for a trial run around the block. The insole can easily mask edges around the last that may aggravate your feet.

  21. Great post Pete, hit on a lot of really great points. I think it has become quite tough for a consumer to determine the best shoe for them with the emphasis placed on step in comfort and “cushion”. The general population has been told they need “cushion and support” and this seems to make a lot of sense to most customers. However, that is not necessarily what they need. Most running shoe companies have kind of hi-jacked the fit process by creating shoes that feel like you’re on clouds when you put them on. Customers can sell themselves pretty quickly on just that fact alone. Only the best stores really work a customers through a variety of shoes and feels to make sure they have a better idea of what to look for and what is out there.

  22. My Altra Olympus’s feel weird to stand and walk in, but once I ran in them my feet felt quite happy.

    My 6’2″ 216 lb. frame loves the fact that my feet no longer prevent me from increasing distance.

  23. Love this blog for all my runner patients with foot pain. They all ask me which shoe should I buy and I always have a hard time answering that question. I will refer to your blog when the next patient ask me “What is the best running shoe?”

Trackbacks

  1. […] Advice on finding the most comfortable shoe. […]

  2. […] Finding the Most Comfortable Running Shoe for You […]

  3. […] these guys who know EVERYTHING there is to know about what shoes to buy tell it best here – Runblogger / You Know, Running. They seem (sorta) to share the same sentiment of stick with what works. Be […]

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