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Running Shoe Types and When to Wear Them

We runners love our shoes. And for good reason: like a car, we rely on our running shoes to take us from place to place as efficiently, comfortably, and yes, even stylishly, as possible.

But with so many types of shoes on the market, how do you determine which pair to wear, and when? Or which style and brand of training shoe is the right one for your foot? For context, I know Teri runs in Nike, Brooks, and Adidas, and she races in Nikes. I run in a neutral trainer from On (the Cloud Swift). That isn’t to say that these brands or models are inherently the best, just that they happen to work for us.

And if you have never run before and want to start, I highly recommend going to a running speciality store to have them analyze your gait and try on a variety of shoes. That will be particularly helpful in identifying if you pronate (more on that under Stability Trainers!) since it’s hard to know if you do without knowing what to look for on your shoe wear pattern.

Alright, here’s a brief rundown of the main categories of running shoe to help you pick the perfect type of pair, no matter the terrain.

Running Shoe Types: A Shoe Guide for Every Foot and Type of Run

*Note: the example shoes featured in this post (except the spikes) are On models, because that’s the brand that sponsors my team, and also because they make a lovely shoe. 

Trainers.

First up, trainers! Trainers are your day-to-day go-to shoe for your easy mileage needs. These are the shoes you’ll likely spend the most time running in, so it’s important to make sure that they fit comfortably. When it comes to picking the perfect pair of trainers for your feet, there are several sub-categories to from: stability shoes, neutral shoes and minimalist shoes. Here’s a quick rundown on each.

The stability shoe

 

Running Shoe Types

Stability trainers are often considered the clydesdales of the running shoe world. These shoes usually sport a lot of dense, hard foam around the sole. The purpose of this foam is to provide support for feet whose arches are weaker or prone to collapse. Some stability shoes also emphasize ankle support, locking the joint in place to prevent over-pronation. (Pronation refers to when your feet roll inward as you push off the ground). 

The upshot of wearing stability shoes is that they can help stave off injury in over-pronators, and they generally hold up to a lot of miles. On the downside, they’re pretty heavy, and the extreme support they offer can actually be detrimental to runners with strong arches and ankles.

The shoes pictured above are the On Cloudstratus.

 The neutral shoe

Running Shoe Types

This is hands-down – or feet-down, as the case may be – the most popular style of shoe on the market. As the name suggests, neutral shoes are designed to cater to the widest possible range of feet. They feature an even distribution of light foam around the entire shoe, which provides some basic cushion without too much padding. As a result, they’re a perfect starting point if you’re just getting into running and don’t yet know the particulars of your gait.

As far as lifespan is concerned, neutral shoes are the Goldilocks option: they hold up to a decent block of mileage (around 400-450 miles), without the additional weight that comes from heavy duty structure. 

The shoe pictured above is the On Cloudswift.

The minimalist shoe

Running Shoe Types

Minimalist shoes skyrocketed in popularity after the release of Christopher McDougall’s 2009 bestseller Born to Run. Their star has faded somewhat over the last decade, there is still a lot to love about a good minimalist shoe.

The biggest difference between these streamlined trainers and their counterparts is the amount of cushion: as the name suggests, minimalist shoes offer little supportive foam. This can be great for lower mileage runners, mid-foot strikers, or athletes with very strong feet and ankles. However, these shoes tend to break down quickly, and the lack of support can pose a risk to the injury-prone among us.

*Note: shoe pictured is the On Cloudflow, a minimally cushioned trainer. Whether or not trainers like this qualify as “truly minimalist” shoes is open for debate. More well-known minimalist shoes are Vibram FiveFingers (if you can even call those shoes), Nike Free Run or New Balance Minimus Trail.

Trail shoes.

Running Shoe Types

Trail running shoes have been growing in popularity as events like ultra marathoning and Spartan races gain traction. Given the tougher topography of trails, trail shoes have a couple of key components that make them suited to handle that. First, their outsoles are bigger and squishier than your average running shoe. This extra material prevents them from breaking down quickly, and the soft rubber allows them to bend around stones, sticks, and roots on rugged trails. Trail running shoes also have stiff midsoles for structured support to protect your arches. Finally, they sport reinforced uppers that, while less breathable than typical trainers, offer defense against sharp twigs and brambles.

Obviously, trail shoes are more specialized than regular trainers; they’re fantastic for gnarly surfaces, but a bit unwieldy on the roads. I’d recommend investing in a sturdy pair of trail shoes only if you are training specifically for a trail race or doing the bulk of your running off the beaten path.

The shoes pictured above are the On Cloudventure.

Flats.

Flats.

When elite athletes begin a hard workout or toe the line at a major road race, you can pretty much guarantee they’ll be wearing flats. These shoes are all about speed: think Ferrari as opposed to a mini van. 

Racing flats look a bit like minimalist trainers superficially. They’re lightweight, low cushion, and generally streamlined. However, a quick peak under the hood reveals more advanced technology at work.

Most racing flats come equipped with some combination of high-grip outsoles (for traction on slick roads) and a speed board (to spring your foot forward as you run). Recently, one mega brand in particular, Nike, has been exploring the upper limits of this technology; by layering foam between multiple springy plates, they’ve created a parfait of efficient energy return. The design is currently a hot-button issue in elite distance running, but as its key innovations make their way into other shoe companies’ repertoire, it may well become the new racing flat standard.

The shoes pictured above are the Cloudflash.

Spikes.

spike shoes

Ah, spikes! 

Arguably the speediest shoe on this list, spikes are built for maximum traction over soft surfaces. Their outsoles are cratered with a series of evenly spaced pits, into which a metal “spike” implement can be fastened. Implements may be anywhere from 1/16th of an inch to nearly a full inch long (the latter for muddy cross country courses). 

The shoes themselves have little more cushion than a glorified sock, though some middle distance and sprinting spikes make use of a speed plate. As you might imagine, spikes are all but useless on the roads – they’re incredibly specific to track and cross country running and racing.

There aren’t a lot of downsides to wearing spikes for spike-appropriate races, save that they can be hard on calves or toes. I wouldn’t recommend wearing them for distances much further than 10k, but, given the dearth of track half marathons, that probably won’t be an issue.

The shoes pictured above are the adidas Distancestar.

In Conclusion:

When it comes down to it, the correct type of running shoe depends on the situation – whether that’s flats for a road race, spikes for the track, trail shoes for wilderness, or a comfy trainer for daily use.

And ultimately, the “best” version of each is the one that you don’t notice when you run. Because that’s really what shoes are for: allowing you to reach your running goals without slowing you down.

What do you run in? What do you like about them?

Post Author: Joanna Thompson

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    […] you’ve never used running as a way to stay fit, here’s a great guide on which are the best shoes to wear. There is also a great article on what every runner needs that I suggest you check […]

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