Ask LH: What’s The Difference Between All These Running Shoes?

Dear Lifehacker, I’m in the market for some new running shoes, and it’s incredibly confusing. Will regular cheap tennis shoes be OK? Do I need something better, and if so, what makes all these shoes different? Sincerely, New Kicks Needed

Dear NKN,
You’re right that’s it’s pretty confusing. From barefoot running shoes to a $200 pair of Nikes. The fact of the matter is, the “perfect” running shoe doesn’t exist. Everyone needs a different type of shoe, and getting the right shoe is more about what’s comfortable, not the price.

The Main Difference Between Different Types of Shoes

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

  • Motion Control: These shoes are typically the most rigid and heavy shoes available. They have more support and cushion then other running shoes. They’re typically recommended for heavy runners or people with flat feet.
  • Stability: Stability shoes are recommended for people who overpronate. This means your foot tends to roll inward slightly when you’re running.
  • Cushioned/Neutral: As the name suggests, neutral shoes are designed for people with a neutral gait. Typically they have a little bit of cushioning.
  • Minimalist/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.

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 US 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 oversimplistic and not based on evidence. Basically, the way running shoes are sold doesn’t exactly correlate to injury prevention or comfort.

That said, running shoes are still important. As WebMD points out, running shoes don’t have lateral stability, because you don’t move your foot side-to-side when running. Other shoes, like basketball or tennis shoes, provide lateral support, which you don’t really need when you’re running. The American Podiatric Medical Association recommends that if you participate in one sport on a regular basis you should buy a sport-specific shoe.

So, how the heck are you actually supposed to pick a pair of shoes? Podiatrist Ian Griffiths suggests it’s about comfort (links to referenced studies ours based on footnotes):

All decisions could and should be based on one main factor in my opinion: comfort. Believe it or not comfort has been linked to injury frequency reduction and is thought to be the most important variable for sports shoes and a focal point for any future sports shoe development. We all know that comfort is subjective and subject specific so with that in mind only the wearer can confidently choose the most appropriate shoe for themselves. (Be wary of the shop assistant/Podiatrist who tells you the exact make and model shoe which is best for you.) What one person finds comfortable will differ greatly from another; perhaps this is why some people find that stiff supportive shoes work best for them, and others discovered that barefoot running was the answer to their long history of injury woes.

The unfortunate truth here is that it takes a bit of trial-and-error to get the right pair of shoes. As the New York Times points out in an article, a lot of debate still surrounds the best shoe type and running style. While the shoe types that you find in stores can help narrow down your options, they’re not the end all of finding the right shoe.

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 specialised running shop and get advice and a fitting from them. Most stores dedicated to just running shoes have a staff that’s trained to help with fitting. 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 pick them up in person so you can actually get the fit right.

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.

As far as price is concerned, the New York Times suggests that it doesn’t really matter. Certain shoes might be better made than others, but comfort and fit are more important than whatever the price tag says.

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.


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Pictures: Don Hankins/Flickr, Daniel/Flickr, Tim Patterson/Flickr

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