Running 101: How to Find the Right Running Shoe

Running 101: How to Find the Right Running Shoe

You wouldn’t catch Tim Lincecum on the mound in bulky basketball shoes. Nor would you expect to see Reggie Bush cutting through defenses in golf cleats. Yet every weekend, thousands of runners go out and hit the pavement in shoes that aren’t designed for running.

If you go running in tennis shoes, more than likely, you’ll be fine – at least for a while. But the truth is simple: Equipment matters. And having the proper footwear may be the difference between you finishing strong or being hobbled by aches and pains.

“Years of anecdotal evidence suggest that the right shoe can reduce your risk on injury,” says J.D. Denton, owner of Fleet Feet Sports in Davis, California, and a 30-plus-year shoe-fitting veteran. It can also increase your enjoyment of the sport –and your longevity in it, he says.

To reap those benefits and find your shoe match, your first move is to find a specialty running store. Employees at these stores are typically more focused on running, and understand proper fit better than the staff at most big box sporting goods chains. Any running store worth its weight in energy gels has trained its employees to evaluate your needs from the ground up. Once you’re inside the store, here’s what you should be looking for.

“Years of anecdotal evidence suggest that the right shoe can reduce your risk on injury.”

J.D. Denton, owner of Fleet Feet Sports in Davis, Calif.


If it’s your first time, expect to spend 30 minutes to an hour for your fitting. “Tell the person that greets you that you’re new to running and you want to get a pair of shoes,” says Denton. The staff will take it from there, starting with a visual evaluation.

Some stores will just watch you run. Others may opt to videotape you as you run, and review your form in slow-motion playback. Either way, the staff is looking to gain a sense of how much your foot pronates, or rolls inward, when you land. Don’t read too much into this – everyone pronates. It’s your body’s natural shock-absorption system. But some of the variations in the way your foot moves may help determine what type of shoe is best suited for you.

Throughout the assessment, the staff should be asking you questions: How much do you run? Have you had any injuries? Do you feel any pain when you run? What are your running goals? Be as candid as possible, because the answers help match you to a shoe. And if the staff isn’t asking questions, or conducting this type of assessment, go to a different store, says Denton.


There are four main categories of running shoes: neutral, stability, motion control, and minimal. In general, neutral shoes –which are designed to not influence your gait, but rather just to provide cushioning and shock absorption underfoot –are best for runners with little pronation. Stability shoes are designed for moderate pronators, while motion control shoes are meant for overpronators, or people whose feet roll quite a bit while running.

In recent years a growing number of runners have opted for “minimalist” footwear, shoes that are lighter in weight and have only a small amount of cushioning between the runner’s foot and the ground. More experienced runners tend to do better in minimal shoes than new runners do, though newbies can be successful wearing them. But for most, it’s necessary to transition into minimal footwear over time.

The goal of the sales staff is to get you into a shoe that complements your pronation and your individual biomechanics (how you move). But it’s an imperfect formula. Some “neutral” pronators may fare better in stability shoes and some heavier pronators may find success in neutral shoes, says Denton.

So your best bet: try on multiple pairs. Take them for a test run outside or on a treadmill. “If it feels like something it pressing into your arch, the shoe has too much support,” says Jeff Moreno, a runner and orthopedic physical therapist who treats many runners in Santa Cruz, California. “You want a glove-like feel, but gloves that give your fingers room to move,” he says.


Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, Denton says you should examine four factors to determine your best fit:

  1. Is the heel snug? If you feel like you’re slipping around in the back of the shoe, keep looking.

  2. Can you wiggle your toes? If not, the shoe is too tight.

  3. Is there about a thumb’s-width length between your big toes and the tips of the shoe? You’ll need the extra room to allow for the natural swelling of the feet that occurs when you exercise.

  4. Do they feel good?

When you find a shoe that fits those four criteria, put your credit card down—even if it doesn’t come in your preferred color. Rest assured you’ll be in good company –most runners, at some point, have had to choose fit over style.

Additional reporting by John Gugala


A running shop’s mission is to be a concierge of the sport. Once you’ve got your shoes, gather information on group runs, good routes, and local races. It’s a great way to meet new running partners –and there’s no better way to make the miles go by faster than to take them on with friends.