How to Buy the Right Running Shoes: What to Look for

Running shoes

Verywell / Amelia Manley

Deciding you want to take up running can feel electrifying and overwhelming at the same time. But, before you head out for your first run, it is important to know what type of running shoe to wear. Without the right shoe fit, you could face injury, black toenails, blisters, and in the worst-case scenario, give up on the sport entirely because of intense foot pain.

Here is what you need to know about shopping for running shoes including how they should fit and how to choose the best shoe for the type of running you plan to do.

How Should Running Shoes Fit? 

Finding the proper pair of running shoes requires a bit of effort on your part, from checking a shoe's width to testing comfortability. To help you with this necessary process, here are a few recommendations from running experts.

Space

Because feet can swell as you run, you need shoes that run big. You should go up half a size to a full size from your regular shoes. This also can reduce blistering and the likelihood of injury.

"You want to have about a thumbnail of space between your toes and the end of the shoe
because your feet expand throughout the day and throughout a run," says Hannah Holmes, a running expert who specializes in gait analysis and injury prevention in Denver, Colorado.

You can test this by trying on a shoe and using your thumb, pressing against the top of where your toes lie to the top of the shoe. Your entire thumb should fit into this space.

Comfortability

Comfortability is of utmost importance for shoe fit. Holmes suggests trying on your shoes and walking. Or, even better, lightly running around the store to make sure they feel good. Certain running stores even offer generous return policies, allowing you to try out shoes for up to a month and still return or exchange them if they do not work.

"If the shoes are not comfortable, you obviously are not going to be motivated to put them on and get out the door," says Holmes.

Movement

When you try on your shoes, Holmes recommends paying attention to the arch and upper materials of the shoe to make sure you do not notice any major pain spots. Although most shoes break in as you wear them, your feet should not turn red before you purchase them. So, if the shoe is constricting in any way, it may be time to try on a different shoe.

What Surface Will You Be Running On? 

The surface you run on makes a difference in what type of shoes you should choose. Different terrains require differing amounts of cushioning. Here are suggestions based on whether you choose road or trail running.

Road Running

For standard road running—such as asphalt, sidewalks, and treadmills—you can find various levels of cushioning and stability in shoes. Holmes recommends any injury-prone runner look at road running shoe models that offer more cushion and stability.

In fact, according to the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, softer midsoles can reduce impact force when you hit the ground. Meanwhile, thicker midsoles allow for a greater amount of cushioning and absorb shock when your feet hit the ground.

They can even decrease plantar sensations. This can potentially stave off plantar fasciitis.

Trail Running

Trail shoes, according to Holmes, are designed with "larger lugs to grip better on loose or rocky terrain and may have a rock plate to protect your foot when you step on sharp rocks." If you run trails and roads, you will want to purchase separate pairs of shoes that match the needs of each terrain.

How Long Will Your Runs Be? 

The average mileage you put on your pair of shoes also makes a difference on which shoes you should get. Runners should look for certain characteristics in shoes, depending on whether you prefer to run short 5K distances or full marathons. Here is what you need to know.

Shoes for Non-Competitive Runners

For everyday athletes, Peloton instructor Beks Gentry indicates that having one shoe that you love is fine. But she adds that you need to be prepared to replace it more often if you don't have others to wear. Gentry also says that, personally, she changes types of shoes based on the type of terrain she is on such as road running or trail running. 

Shoes for a 5K

When choosing a 5K race shoe, Peter Lovato, DPM, FACFAS, a Northern Illinois foot and ankle specialist, says that speed is more important to him than cushion. He recommends looking for a shoe that is faster, springier, and not so heavily cushioned.

"I look for a lighter weight and a more restate type of shoe with a snugger fit," he says.

Shoes for a Marathon

For a marathon, Lee Sackett, an associate footwear product line manager of Brooks Running, says that the more cushion a shoe has while supporting your body’s natural motion path is helpful for running long distances, whether training or racing.

"The important thing is to pick a shoe that will help you accomplish [your] goals while making sure you are staying healthy to run another day," he says.

Factors to Consider

When choosing a pair of running shoes, think about size, movement, and how comfortable the shoes are.

  • Make sure you have a thumb's width in the space between the top of your toes and the top of the shoe.
  • Try running around the store to test how the shoe feels and to determine if they are comfortable.
  • Pay attention to how the material moves with your stride and look for significant hot spots. You want your shoe to promote mobility.
  • Pick a shoe with your running goals in mind. You will need shoes for training and shoes for racing, so think about how the shoe will be used.

A Word from Verywell

When choosing your first pair of running shoes, look for shoes that are comfortable, sized correctly, and provide the cushioning you want. If you prefer road running, a standard athletic shoe store will probably have what you need. For trail runners, look for good grips on the soles to help you avoid slipping on loose rocks and mud.

If you are injury prone or recovering from an injury, it may be beneficial to talk with a healthcare provider about the type of shoe that is best for your situation. You also want to be sure you are cleared to run given your medical history and fitness level.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Should you go one size up in running shoes?

    You should go up a half size to a full size in running shoes. You need room in the toe for swelling as you run. The toes and foot should also not rub along the sides of the shoe. If you do not choose a big enough size shoe, this can result in blistering, black toenails, and plantar fasciitis.

  • What are the three types of running shoes?

    There are three types of running shoes including stability shoes, motion control shoes and neutral shoes. Stability shoes, which are best for runners with normal arches. They provide extra stability with higher arch-side supports and high-density foam. 

    Motion control shoes, which work best for flat-footed runners and those who overpronate. They have high-density foam, plastic, or fiberglass support, along with arch areas that are filled in for extra support.

    Neutral, cushioned shoes, which support runners with high arches and rigid feet who under pronate. The shoes are significantly flexible, have lightweight material, and loads of cushioning.

  • What features are important in a running shoe?

    When it comes to selecting a running shoe, you want it to be cushioned , comfortable, and sized appropriately. If you are injury prone you may need a particular type of shoe to ensure you do not have repeat injuries. Talk to a healthcare provider to determine what is best for you.

2 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Sun X, Lam WK, Zhang X,Wang J, Fu W. Systematic review of the role of footwear constructions in running biomechanics: implications for running-related injury and performanceJ Sports Sci Med. 2020;19(1):20-37.

  2. University of Connecticut Orthopedics & Sports Medicine. Finding the right running shoe.

By Jennifer Purdie, M.Ed
Jennifer Purdie, M.Ed, is a certified personal trainer, freelance writer, and author of "Growth Mindset for Athletes, Coaches and Trainers."