Looking for the best running shoes you can find? First, of all, we’ve got some bad news: There’s no such thing as the “best” running shoes for every type of runner. That’s partly because there are so many runners. In the United States alone, about 64 million people went for a jog or run in 2016. It’s also because every runner has different habits. If you run 200 miles on trails every month, you’ll need very different shoes from those of your friend who runs 50 miles per month on roads. In general, if you’re ready to buy a new pair of running shoes, you’ve resigned yourself to making a major purchase: The best running shoes can cost upwards of $150. But if you get hundreds of miles of injury-free exercise, it’s money well spent. We spoke with physicians and running shoe designers to determine what makes a great running shoe—and what “features” are essentially marketing mumbo-jumbo. Here’s what you need to know.
What Science Says About Choosing the Best Running Shoes
This might sound somewhat counterintuitive, but before you choose running shoes, you need to go running. “Probably one of the most important things for beginners is to go to a good shoe store and have them take a look at you,” says Clifford L. Jeng, MD, medical director of the Institute for Foot and Ankle Reconstruction at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “Running stores have people who are professional, high-level runners. They’ll have a treadmill equipped with a video camera, and they’ll be able to watch to see whether you’re a pronator or a supinator or whether you have a high or low arch. They’ll look at your body habits, see if you’re heavy or light… Not only will they match you with the right shoe, they’ll probably also give you some tips on how to start your training.” We realize that some of this language won’t be familiar to everyone—and while we’re really trying to avoid turning this into a vocabulary lesson, these are crucial terms to understand when you’re shopping. Pronation refers to the foot’s tendency to roll inward during natural movement. As your foot contacts the ground, that inward roll helps to distribute the impact from the strike across your foot. If you pronate too much—if you’re landing on the outside of your foot and rolling excessively—your form might eventually lead to an injury. On the other hand, if you underpronate (or supinate), you might need additional cushioning. If you’re just getting into running, just be aware that pronation is fairly important, and it’s best to have a professional evaluate your form before plunking down $150 for a random pair of running shoes. Jeng tells HealthyWay that athletic injuries can occur fairly frequently when runners don’t get enough support, and he recommends taking pronation into consideration when shopping. For heavier runners, he also warns against “bare” or “minimalist” shoes: “A lot of people now like the neutral shoes, or the minimalist shoes, and those have very little cushioning in them, but they look nice and sleek and slim,” Jeng says. “If you’re a heavier person or an overpronator and you continue to plow through those shoes even though they’re hurting [you], you’ll probably injure yourself. So the other key about shopping is not to pick shoes because they’re pretty—pick the shoes that feel the best.” The science, by the way, tends to back that up; there’s not currently enough evidence to show that minimalist running shoes offer any substantial benefits over traditional running shoes. Before you start shopping, you’ll also need to consider where you run. Trail shoes typically have mesh uppers and extra treads to give you a better experience on rough terrain. Road shoes, on the other hand, are better for addressing the challenges of asphalt and pavement. Track shoes and “performance” shoes are fairly light, so they’re great for races, but they’re not built for heavy distance.
Understanding the Anatomy of Women’s Running Shoes
Before we look at some of the best running shoes for 2018, it’s important to understand how the different parts of a shoe affect how you run.
This is (shockingly) the upper part of the shoe, which covers the top and sides of your foot. For high-quality athletic shoes, the upper’s job is to stay out of the way and let your foot breathe. Look for mesh materials that don’t squeeze too hard when you’re all laced up. By the way, make sure you’re lacing correctly; there are a number of different ways to lace your shoe, and if you’re having trouble getting the right fit, it might be as simple as switching up your lacing style.
The outsole is the bottom of the shoe. Runners often decide to buy new shoes when their outsoles start to show their age, as the rubber “nubs” on the bottom can break off or wear down over time.
For a runner, this is arguably the most important part of the shoe. The midsole is the cushioning between the upper and the outsole. The midsole protects your foot from shocks and can influence your stability, so it’s where running shoe companies spend most of their research dollars.
This is the removable cushion on the inside of the shoe. You can buy third-party insole replacements and if you want a really comfortable shoe, you probably should. “Most major shoe companies spend millions of dollars on research on their midsole and their outer sole,” says Jeng. “But you look at most people’s insoles—the little liner that you can pull up out of the shoe—they’re worthless. They’re horrible.” “Often, it’s a good idea to get higher quality insoles. An example of that is Superfeet, which I think are very good. They conform to the foot better [than manufacturer insoles] and have a little bit of an arch support in there.”
Recommended Women’s Running Shoes for 2018
To reiterate, the best way to choose a running shoe is to go to a store and speak with someone who knows their stuff. Try to find someone who runs frequently, and be wary if they only recommend shoes from a single brand. Try on a variety of shoes to find a comfortable fit. Visit the store later in the day, when your foot is at its widest (yes, your foot expands slightly throughout the day). Don’t assume that you know your shoe size; get measured. “When you get the shoe on, you should have about a thumbs breadth between the tip of the shoe and your big toe,” Jeng says. “That will allow you to kind of move around a little bit when you’re running, so you’re not stubbing your toe into the front of the shoe.” As we mentioned earlier, there’s not one best running shoe out there, but we do have a few recommendations to help you get started.
Best Women’s Trail Running Shoe: Brooks Caldera 2
The Caldera 2 features a synthetic Ariaprene mesh upper, a midsole with stacked layers made from a proprietary EVA material, and colorful styling. If you’re looking for a protective trail-running shoe that isn’t excessively heavy, the Caldera 2 is a great place to start. “One thing we recommend with all trail shoes is that they provide protection no matter what terrain you’re running on—including rocks, roots, and water,” a representative of Brooks tells HealthyWay. “Our Caldera 2 trail shoe uses moisture-wicking meshes to dry more quickly and allow the runner to get back on the trails. Runners should also look for a rubber outsole with high-surface-area lugs to optimize uphill and downhill traction on wet surfaces and tricky terrain.”
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Best Women’s Running Shoe for Average Runners: Mizuno Wave Sky ($150)
The Mizuno Wave Sky provides plenty of cushioning and firm arch support, which makes it an ideal shoe for mild overpronators (if you land toward the outside of your sole, but not all the way, this is where you’d want to start). While it’s relatively heavy at 9 ounces, it’s comfortable where it counts. A segmented bottom allows the shoe to conform to your running style, since each “pod” of the padding can react to shocks independently. The major downside is the narrow toe, which might constrict some runners. It’s also an expensive shoe, but if you’re looking for decent stability shoes to help you avoid arch and knee injuries, the Mizuno Wave Sky offers a good starting point.
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Best Women’s Stability Running Shoe: New Balance 860 v8 ($125)
New Balance shoes tend to have great cushioning, and the 860 series includes some great road shoes for severe overpronators—if you land on the outside of your foot and roll in, the shoe provides stability that fights back against that effect. The New Balance 860 v8 is designed as a stability shoe, and it’s fairly bulky at 9.8 ounces. Added cushioning in the heel complements a sturdy midsole to keep your foot firmly locked in during longer runs. Be prepared to break this shoe in; you’ll need to take it for a few runs or short walks before tackling serious distance.
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Best Women’s Light Running Shoe: ASICS Gel Quantum 360
The ASICS Gel series is remarkably popular, and the Quantum 360 is one of the line’s better shoes for neutral or underpronators (in other words, if your foot doesn’t roll too much when you run and if you tend to land on the inside of your sole, this is the place to start). A midsole platform works to correct against supination, while extensive padding throughout the midsole makes it a comfortable shoe for daily runs. The big disadvantage is the weight. The Gel Quantum 360 comes in at a hefty 9.9 ounces. Still, it’s a well-designed shoe that offers plenty of stability for road runners.
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When should you replace your running shoes?
Hopefully, you’re now ready to hit your local running store and evaluate a few pairs of shoes. With some luck, you’ll walk out with a great pair. Depending on your exercise habits, you’ll get months of service from your purchase. But nothing lasts forever. “Most running shoes last about 400–500 miles before the foam [in the] midsole starts to collapse and doesn’t give you as much protection,” Jeng says. “You should track how many miles you’re doing in order to decide when you should replace your shoes.” We reached out to several running shoe manufacturers who provided similar suggestions. “We recommend runners replace their running shoes every 300–400 miles,” a Brooks Running representative tells HealthyWay. Jim Monahan, president of running shoe company 361˚ USA, says that there’s no perfect mileage. “This topic is very subjective because the answer lies with the runner themselves,” Monahan says. “If a shoe feels ‘dead’ or no longer comfortable, then it is time for a new pair of shoes. Some like to assign a length of time or a certain number of miles, but so much depends on each runner’s program: number of miles per week, body mass, surfaces run on, etc.” If you’re not great about tracking your mileage, you can always examine your shoes. “A good rule of thumb: If you look at the side of your running shoe and you see wrinkles in the midsole foam, you’re probably getting close to a change,” Jeng says. Likewise, you should consider switching shoes if you feel like they’re pinching your feet or if you’re experiencing any recurring pain. “Unusual aches and pains which can’t be attributed to a change in your training are a sign you may need to look for a new shoe,” a Brooks Running rep explains. “The key aches and pains to look out for are knee pain as well as shin splints. However, the goal is always to replace your shoes before you start feeling aches and pains.” A final word of advice: Never assume that you know your running shoe size; it changes regularly. “Our feet sag a little bit as we get older,” Jeng says. “I was about a 9½ all of my life, but when I turned about 40, I became a size 10. You should always have your foot sized on that little machine to decide what size you’re going to wear.”