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Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a single running shoe that worked for every runner? Ask any running expert, though, and they’ll tell you that the best running shoe for you is the one that you feel most comfortable in. And just in case you need science to confirm it, researchers found a statistically significant link between footwear comfort and improved running economy in a 2021 meta-analysis published in the European Journal of Sports Science. That means there’s no easy answer (and it will certainly take some trial and error to figure out)—but how often you run, how fast you run, where you run, and what you’re willing to spend will all inform your shoe choice.
And just like there’s no one pair of shoes that works for every single runner, different types of running calls for different types of sneakers. Varying your workouts is key to progressing as a runner, and switching out your running shoes—if you have the budget for that—can help you get the most out of different runs. Plus, alternating running shoes led to a 39 percent lower risk of running injury than running in the same shoes all the time, a 2013 study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports found.
Not sure where to start when it comes to running shoe shopping? Here’s what to look for depending on the type of runner you are.
I run casually, just a few times a week.
The biggest factor in choosing any running shoe is comfort—especially for beginner runners looking to make running a habit, says Caroline Bell, the content marketing specialist and head of shoe reviews for Fleet Feet. Look for what she calls Goldilocks shoes: “These shoes provide a moderate level of cushion and support without having too much softness or stability, which is why they work for runners with different preferences.” A few examples: the Brooks Ghost, the New Balance 880, and the Karhu Ikoni.
I run a LOT.
If you’re racking up the mileage, you want a shoe that’s going to protect your feet from all that repetitive impact (FYI: a 10-minute mile consists of 1,700 steps). No one shoe can erase the potential for injury, but “studies suggest that shoes with soft cushioning reduce impact loading and thus may provide a protective effect, especially for runners logging moderate to high mileage,” says Laura Norris, a certified running coach based in Colorado, citing a 2021 case report published in Frontiers in Sports and Active Living and 2020 research published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine. Look for maximally cushioned shoes like the Adidas Ultraboost 22, New Balance SuperComp Trainer, or Nike ZoomX Invincible Run Flyknit 2.
I like to run fast.
Carbon-plated shoes are great, but they’re pricey and not as durable as non-racing shoes. When you’re looking to pick up the pace, opt for a lightweight, springy trainer instead. “These don’t pack the same punch as your carbon-plated racing shoes, but they can handle the bulk of your speed workouts, tempo runs, and more,” says Bell. “While these don’t feature a carbon plate, they do have springy, responsive midsole foams and lightweight materials to create an energetic feel.” Try the Saucony Endorphin Speed, the Brooks Hyperion Tempo, or the Adidas adizero Takumi Sen 8.
I switch between workouts and easy runs.
If you want one shoe that can do it all, it needs to meet the demands of both types of workouts. Translation: “You’ll want the shoe to be cushioned but not overly soft, and you’ll want to have some firmness and responsiveness for your speed workouts,” says Bell. “You’ll also probably want a shoe that’s on the lighter side, because even a few ounces can make a big difference when you’re picking up the pace.” She recommends the Hoka Mach 5 and the On Cloudmonster; “both provide a soft bed of cushioning that feels great when your legs need a little TLC, but they also have that springiness and responsiveness needed to run fast.”
I run exclusively on the road.
Road running inflicts a ton of impact on your joints and muscles, because every step produces ground reaction forces about two and a half times your body weight. Plus, “concrete and asphalt are the least forgiving surfaces, so you’ll want a shoe with enough cushion to absorb that impact,” says Bell. “How much cushion and what type of cushion—soft, responsive, firm—depends on your preferences.” Best-selling maximally cushioned road running shoes include the Hoka Bondi, the Brooks Glycerin, and the Saucony Triumph for neutral runners or the New Balance Vongo, Mizuno Horizon, and ASICS Gel-Kayano for stability runners, says Bell.
I run exclusively on trails.
Yes, trails (made of dirt or gravel) are softer and more forgiving on your joints and muscles, but you also have to contend with variable terrain and navigating roots, rocks, and other debris. “Because of this, you’ll want a shoe with reliable grip and traction and a sturdy, supportive upper,” says Bell. “Most trail running shoes have aggressive lugging on the outsole and a protective toe cap.” Before buying a trail shoe, consider the conditions you’ll be running in most often: wet, muddy trails might require drain ports or gaiter attachments, while you might want a rock plate for extra underfoot protection on super rocky paths, she adds. For a do-everything trail shoe look to the Saucony Peregrine 12, Hoka Tecton X, and AllBirds Trail Runner SWT.
I run on different surfaces.
“Generally, if you’re running on gravel or dirt roads, you can wear the same shoes as you do running on roads,” says Norris. A cushioned shoe may help if you don’t like the uneven feel of the gravel. Fortunately, more brands are designing shoes for mixed terrain. “The On Cloudvista and Altra Outroad are two examples of road-to-trail shoes,” says Bell. “These shoes have enough lugging and protection to run safely on mild trail terrain, but the protective features won’t weigh you down when running on the road. And the uppers are slightly lighter and more flexible than your typical trail shoe, making them more comfortable for road running.”
I’m on a budget.
Even as running sneakers get more advanced, brands are still making dependable shoes for $100 or less—like the Adidas Supernova 2, Brooks Revel 5, or Asics GT-1000. “Budget shoes may not offer as much cushioning and support as some other bestselling models, but they’re easier on your wallet and great for runners who appreciate a lightweight, minimalist feel,” says Bell. “If you don’t want to sacrifice any cushion, check out last year’s model of your favorite shoe. Almost every running shoe brand will put last year’s model on sale when the new model comes out.”
I’m ready to splurge.
There’s no need to shell out serious money for daily trainers, but if you’re looking for a little edge in your next race, there’s never been a more exciting time to invest in carbon-plated race shoes including the Nike Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT% 2, Asics Metaspeed Sky+, Adidas Adios Pro 3, and Saucony’s Endorphin Pro 3. They have high amounts of cushion courtesy of new, lightweight foams, and they were proven to improve running performance in a 2022 study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. Once you’ve raced in them, use them for longer workouts or recovery runs to get your money’s worth: “These highly cushioned shoes reduce the oxygen cost of running,” says Norris—meaning you’ll likely feel less tired and banged up during and post-run.