How to pick the right running shoe for you

Here's everything you need to know before shopping for a new pair this spring.

Photo of a woman's running shoes

Photo, iStockphoto.

Most people tend to think about arch support when shopping for running shoes, but that’s not what running shoe manufacturers have in mind. Bryan Smith, a Toronto-based manager with the Running Room, says shoemakers are thinking about stability and how much foam is needed to let your arches move. “It’s not so much that the arch is high or low, it’s whether it’s flexible or not,” says Smith. “You can have low arches that still have flexibility in the feet, or you could have high arches that are mobile.”

Flexible arches tend to have a lot of pronation — an inward rotation of the foot or ankle, while rigid arches are much more strong. The amount of movement in your arch is what determines what type of shoe you should be wearing. But how do you know which shoe is right for you?

Everyone could use some help. Go to a store dedicated to running where knowledgeable staff are able to do a gait assessment (also called foot-strike analysis). Smith recommends bringing in your old shoes so the staff can see where patterns have developed on the sole.

When trying on a shoe you should have room to shift your foot side to side and you should be able to fit between a thumbs width of space between end of toe and end of shoe. And take some time to figure out what you like. “Do you prefer something with more of a plushy, squishy-cushioned feel or something where you can feel the ground beneath your feet?” says Smith. “Some people like to have more connection to the ground, some like to feel like they’re floating — it’s all personal preference.”

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Here are the different types of running shoes you’ll have to choose from:

Neutral: Made for runners with arches that aren’t very flexible. If your ankle doesn’t tip or roll in when you’re walking and you don’t have a lot of flexion (bending movement) or pronation, go for neutral footwear. The vast majority of footwear is made for a neutral foot.

Lightweight: These shoes have the same construction as neutral shoes in terms of quality, but with half the cushioning or less mesh and weave in the upper part of the shoe, opening it up for more breathability. Lightweight shoes tend to be more flexible because there’s less foam and cushioning under the foot, allowing more dynamic motion and for your feet to move more naturally. But that means there may be less protection from impact since they won’t provide as much shock absorption or stability.

Cushioned: Typically a neutral shoe made with more cushioning for a plush feel. Responsive cushioning allows runners to still feel the ground beneath their feet. Smith compares squishy cushioning versus responsive cushioning to driving an SUV versus a sports car over train tracks. “In an SUV you don’t notice because you’re kind of floating — that’s squishy cushioning, but if you’re driving in a Porsche then you can feel all those bumps and you’re much more aware of what’s under your feet — this is responsive cushioning.”

Stability: The foam used on the inside edges and under the arch is stiffer and denser. The shoe does not flex well, allowing people who have flexible arches stiff support so their feet can move like a neutral feet.

Motion control: These are the strongest in the stability type of shoes as it provides maximum support to prevent runners’ feet from pronation. There are fewer models available because there are fewer shoppers for these. They also tend to be more expensive than neutral shoes because they contain more material.