If you’re a runner, you know that one of the perks of this ultimate low-maintenance sport is that it requires (almost) no equipment. All you need is the open road, working legs, and a pair of shoes on your feet.
But if you’ve encountered injuries, slowed race times, or achy joints post-run, you may have wondered: Maybe I need new shoes?
With a quick internet search, you’ll find that hundreds of dollars can go into fancy footwear for running. Sneakers have become a fashion statement, with celebrity athletes (and even non-athletic celebs) touting their favorite “high-performance” brands.
A stunning Nike ad featuring a toned Olympic distance runner may convince you that, to protect your precious ligaments and achieve your best times, you’ll need to drop serious cash on the right pair. But research and consumer experience tell a different story.
We dug into the science and spoke to an athletics expert to find out what you really need to look for in a legit running shoe — and what you can leave behind at the boutique shoe store.
If you’ve ever walked into a high-end athletic shoe store, you may have been approached about having your gait analyzed to determine your pronation. You may have been filmed while running on a treadmill to see whether your ankles splay out or bow inward.
What they’re looking at is pronation. Both overpronators (who usually have flat feet that roll inward) and underpronators (who often have high-arched feet that roll outward) may be more likely to end up with running-related injuries like plantar fasciitis and shin splints.
A shoe with pronation control is intended to correct these tendencies by pulling your foot into a more neutral position. This way (at least in theory), you’re less likely to injure yourself by repeatedly striking your foot on the ground at the “wrong” angle.
Another factor in the pronation equation is your plantar shape. This impression of your foot is typically taken via a 3-D scanner and can define the dimensions of your foot, determining whether your arches are low, normal, or high. This can theoretically recommend your perfect (*ahem* expensive) shoe.
Many pricier shoes offer custom-molding to fit your foot shape, such as On Cloudflyer’s waterproof running shoes ($179.95), which feature a “V-molded adaptive heel cap.” The claim? It’ll mold around your heel to provide stability to keep you from over- or underpronating, as well as comfort.
Ah, yep, comfort. The persuasive — but sometimes near-indecipherable — word that has a different meaning for everyone.
Adidas’ AlphaEdge women’s running shoes, which retail for $299.95, promise a “primeknit sockliner with zoned forge fiber” for breathability. The men’s Mizuno Wave Prophecy 8 shoes, at $239.95, boast “anatomically placed overlays for an enhanced fit” and “Infinity Wave™ for dynamic cushioning that never wears out.” (Really, though? Like, never ever?)
Finally, many running shoes justify their prices with a simple assurance of lightness. Fair enough. On race day, no one wants heavy clodhoppers weighing them down.
The fancy features that cost top dollar may sound highly technical, but there’s surprisingly little substantiation behind the theories of the perfect injury-preventing, speed-increasing, comfort-maximizing running shoe.
“Cost does not always equate to comfort, performance, or perceived quality,” confirms corrective exercise specialist Erika Sperl, CSCS, CES, PES. She notes that many consumers choose expensive shoes more for brand recognition than for any specific functions.
A number of scientific studies have looked at how expensive embellishments affect injury and performance — with less-than-impressive results.
A 2009 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that elevated cushioned heels and foot-steadying pronation control systems in running shoes were not evidence-based. Two years later, the same journal published further research that concluded that using pronation control systems was “overly simplistic and potentially injurious.”
As for an undersole that molds to your one-of-a-kind tootsies? A 2009 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that matching your shoes to the imprint of the bottom of your feet has “little influence” on injury risk.
Science aside, it turns out the average runner doesn’t report much improvement from pricey footwear, either. A market research study from October 2019 analyzed more than 320,000 consumers of 336 workout shoes and discovered, bizarrely, that the cheaper the shoe, the higher its ratings and user satisfaction.
The 10 most expensive running shoes surveyed, which ranged in price from $150 to $300, averaged a star rating of 82.7. By contrast, the 10 cheapest shoes, priced from $30 to $55, scored 2.3 percentage points higher, at an average of 84.6. Clearly, we’re not seeing a major return on investment from spendy footwear.
According to Sperl, that all-important lightness may be the one thing worth spending extra dollars for.
“While research is somewhat undecided on the performance effects of a stability vs. neutral shoe, it is clear that lighter shoes equal less energy expenditure, which equals increased running economy,” she says. “If you are racing seriously, the weight of your shoe should be an important consideration.”
To prevent injury, though, your running form is a far better predictor of whether you’ll hurt yourself than any ooh-la-la features of your shoes.
“Learning the basics of form, as well as incorporating a body maintenance program, is critically important to staying healthy and injury-free!” says Sperl.
To maintain the best running form, she recommends cross training with strength-building exercises and properly warming up before each run.
Just 5 to 10 minutes of stretching out your quads, hamstrings, glutes, hips, and feet can go a long way toward prepping your body for the demands of a run. For best results, focus on dynamic stretches that mimic the movements you’ll be making while running.
A 2015 study that tracked changes in running injuries over the last 40 years came to some no-nonsense conclusions.
To pick the right footwear, said the study’s authors, runners should “intuitively select a comfortable product” that allows them to “remain in the preferred movement path.” As we mentioned, this comfort barometer will look different for every runner, which is a good thing!
It means you can trust your body to help you choose a shoe that feels good to you — regardless of bells and whistles. All it needs to do is help you move, and all you should need to do is lace up and hit the road!