Whats the Difference Between All These Running Shoes?


shoe display at a store

Photo: Sandratsky Dmitriy (Shutterstock)

When you walk into a shoe store, you’ll see hundreds of pairs to choose from. From barefoot running shoes to a $200 pair of Nike’s. The fact of the matter is, the “perfect” running shoe doesn’t exist. Everyone needs a different type of shoe, and when it boils down to it, getting the right shoe is more about what’s comfortable, not the price.

What makes a running shoe different from any other shoe?

You can go for a run in any footwear you want, but a shoe that is made specifically for running will do the job best. Running shoes typically have a flexible sole and enough structure and cushioning to support your feet as you hit the pavement over and over.

Unlike basketball and tennis shoes, which provide lateral support, running shoes don’t have lateral stability because you don’t move your foot side-to-side when running. The American Podiatric Medical Association recommends that if you participate in a sport on a regular basis you should buy a sport-specific shoe. So if you like to run but you also play basketball, your feet will be happiest if you buy separate shoes for each.

It’s possible to shop for running shoes at a general shoe store or sporting goods store, but your best bet is to visit a store that specializes in running shoes. You won’t get distracted by other options, and they’ll have a much better selection of the different types of running shoes that are out there.

The Main Difference Between Different Types of Running Shoes

So, you’re standing in the store and staring at a thousand different shoes. What’s the difference between all of them? Essentially, running shoes are typically marketed in four different types:

  • Motion control or stability: Stability shoes are recommended for people who overpronate. This means your foot tends to roll inward when you’re running. Motion control shoes are typically the most rigid and heavy shoes available; stability shoes are less so. If you have flat feet, you may be steered toward these.
  • Cushioned: These shoes don’t try to affect the motion of your feet very much, but they tend to have extra cushioning. People who are heavier or who have high arches tend to prefer these.
  • Neutral: As the name suggests, neutral shoes are designed for people with a neutral gait. Typically they have a little bit of cushioning.
  • Minimalist or “barefoot” shoes: These shoes tend to have little to no cushioning or support. They’re meant to mimic barefoot running as closely as possible while still providing the protection many people need.

What does this all mean to you as a shopper? Not that much, actually.

What really matters is how they feel when you run

A lot of footwear companies are shying away from the rigid categories above because a number of studies that have shown previous ideas about foot type and the kind of shoe you need aren’t as accurate as you’d think. A series of studies done by the U.S. Military showed that the type of shoe isn’t as linked to injury as we used to think. Additionally, studies from the University of British Columbia, and the British Journal of Sports Medicine show that how shoes are prescribed and sold is typically over-simplistic and not based on evidence. Basically, the way running shoes are sold doesn’t exactly correlate to injury prevention or comfort.

Scientists, shoe companies, and runners have spent the last decade grappling with this issue. The truth is, there’s no proven method for telling you which shoes you should buy.

If you go to a running store and speak with an employee, they might examine the shape of your footprint to tell whether you have high or low arches, and they might ask you to run on a treadmill while they analyze your gait. But after all that, their recommendation may not be any better than if they had randomly picked a neutral shoe off the wall.

The nice thing about going through that process, even if it’s unscientific, is that it gives you and the running store employee some time to have a conversation about what you’re looking for in shoes. Make sure to tell them what you like and what you dislike about your current shoes, and whether you’ve had a pair you loved in the past. When it comes to shoe types, it’s safest to stick with something neutral unless you’ve tried neutral shoes and know for sure they aren’t for you.

How to Pick the Right Pair

Once you actually figure out the differences between all these different types of shoes, it’s time to pick the pair that’s best suited for you. This is a surprisingly hard task.

If you’re new to running, or if you’re having trouble with the shoes you have, then you might need to reassess what type of shoe you need. To that end, it’s a good idea to head into a specialized running shop and get advice and a fitting from them. When you’re there, they’ll take a look at your posture, age, and physique. Then they’ll pair that up with your goals, training intensity, and where you’re running to get you into the right type of shoe. If it’s your first pair of running shoes, it’s not a bad idea to skip online ordering and pick them up in person so you can actually get the fit right. (That said, there are options for dialing in the fit when you order online.)

Fit is the most important thing, and that means the heel is snug, you have enough space for the ball of the foot to move a little, and enough room to wiggle your toes. For a few more tips for getting the fitting right, head over to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeon’s athletic fitting guide to make sure you’re trying them on right. Don’t be surprised if you have to buy your running shoes a half size larger than your street shoes; most of us do.

As far as price is concerned, it probably doesn’t matter. Certain shoes might be better made than others, but comfort and fit are more important than whatever the price tag says. And, to be clear, “comfort” means how they feel when you run, not just when you’re standing in the store. Ask to jog on the treadmill or run around the block. They’ll usually let you.

From a technology perspective, no two shoes are exactly alike, and a pair of shoes a friend swears by might not work for you. When you’re shopping for shoes remember the main goals: comfort, support, and fit. That’s all that really matters when it boils down to it. As many runners often say: the best running shoe is the one you never notice.

This post was originally published in 2013 and was updated on March 12, 2021 to add information, update links, and align with current Lifehacker style.