Does the search for new running shoes have you running in circles? The market is saturated with confusing lingo, flashy colors, and misleading descriptions. We're here to help. For this review, our skilled team of running enthusiasts and expert gear testers researched dozens of the most popular women's running shoes on the market today before carefully selecting fourteen for months of hands-on testing. We created a detailed side-by-side comparison of each product and are committed to helping you find the right pair. In our main article, we highlight the main traits of each shoe and which ones excel in each category. Here, we hope to help you find out what it is you want out of your shoes in the first place.
Why Do I Need a Running Shoe?
We aren't doctors or scientists, just running enthusiasts that believe that if your shoe fits well and is comfortable, you'll be more apt to get out there and run. Roads and sidewalks differ from trails and tracks in that they are incredibly unforgiving man-made surfaces that often aren't very comfortable to run on without some form of protection. Whether that protection ends up being a thin rubber sandal or an enormous foam platform will be based on your personal preferences and will most likely fall somewhere between those two extremes. Additionally, it's certainly not unheard of for the most enthusiastic runners among us to have a quiver of models for more specialized purposes. You may end up finding that no single shoe will meet all your needs, but, perhaps, having one lightweight, speed-focused shoe and one designed to protect against high mileage workouts will do the trick.
Running Shoes and Injury Prevention
If you're looking for a cure-all for your running-based injuries, we're sad to say that we don't have the answer. For the majority of athletes, a shoe suited to their needs is, without a doubt, an essential tool in helping to have a healthy, injury-free season. Overly engineered or ill-fitting shoes can have damaging effects on your body and hinder your running goals. The critical factor to understand is that, typically, it's how you use the shoe that has the potential to cause an issue, not often the shoe itself.
Finding the perfect shoe doesn't give you the green light to have poor form; it's still crucial to approach your running career safely. Based on years of running experience working with a variety of coaches and industry professionals, we recommend first building up muscle, bone, and tendon strength and avoiding doing too much, too soon, too fast. Running shoes are often viewed as a magical cure-all that can solve for biomechanical quirks, imbalances, and overuse. No shoe is designed to fix your knee pain and shin splints, but a properly fitted running shoe tailored to your needs will certainly be better than those old sneakers that have been in the back of your closet for years. This is because materials break down over time, wear unevenly, and will cause an imbalance in your foot, strike during every stride you take. Bottom line, your footwear selection plays a vital role in staving off an injury, but the training decisions you make are significantly more crucial to your health.
A Note on Durability
After years of running in a variety of types and brands of running shoes, we've grown fairly bummed out about shoe durability. Though it often feels like it takes around fifty miles (or more, in some cases) to break in a shoe properly, we also find ourselves retiring our shoes after just a few hundred miles. This is more true of our trail running shoes that endure more rough terrain and even loading, but it holds true for road runners as well.
A worn-out pair of running shoes can put a damper on your workout schedule and your bank account, but they can also be a gift. It can be helpful to study the bottoms and sides of our worn-out shoes to see where they faced the most wear and tear. Bringing your old shoes to a running shoe specialist can help them identify the type of shoe best suited to your gait, which will hopefully keep your body healthy longer.
Depending on how long it takes you to clock a few hundred miles, you might be going through your running shoes faster than you'd expect. If you're the type of runner who needs multiple pairs of shoes every year, you might want to pay extra close attention to the "Value" section of this review.
Roads vs. Trails
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, we need to make sure that a road-specific shoe is the best option for you. If you spend most of your time on a sidewalk, road, treadmill, or track, you are in the right place. Paved surfaces require different types of movement than rough, uneven surfaces, resulting in different shoe designs. Typically, trail shoes and road shoes differ in weight, durability, landing platform, and, most importantly, tread. While all the road-specific shoes we tested for this review have decent traction, they do not have the burly lugs found on many of our favorite trail running models.
The most significant difference you will find in a trail shoe is the intense tread designs and materials that increase traction on variable terrain while protecting the foot from wet and muddy weather conditions. These shoes are designed with torsional rigidity (they feel firmer and don't easily twist) to help stabilize the foot and ankle over roots, rocks, and uneven trails. We log a good number of miles on light to moderate trails and solely use road shoes with minimal traction issues. When trails tend to be steeper and littered with loose rocks, it's better to grab the trail shoes with the added features for those missions.
Road shoes are designed to allow for more speed and responsiveness, generally designed with softer cushioning to absorb the shock from man-made surfaces. Trail shoes are designed for rough terrain; with more protection, they tend to weigh more and have less flexibility than road shoes. If you feel like a pair of trail shoes is better for the type of terrain you intend to run on, check out our review of the Best Women's Trail Running Shoes.
Types of Road Running Shoes
Running shoe categories are commonly organized by the degree of foot motion they accommodate. More specifically, we're looking at the amount of pronation that individuals experience during the gait cycle, taking into consideration runners with a neutral gait, runners whose feet over-pronate (inward) and runners who under-pronate, or supinate (outward).
In the last few decades, the running shoe industry has revolutionized itself, continually expanding to absorb new research and their subsequent trends. From support to cushioning to bounce, shoe designers try to play catch up with the many different types of proposed benefits a shoe can bring to your feet. Whether you overpronate, have high arches, or suffer from painful knees, there is a company out there marketing a shoe to you. With all these keywords buzzing around, ebbing and flowing with the tides of popularity, it can be challenging to know which terms are essential to your shopping and which are just catchy.
Here, we dedicate a short section of this review to defining these terms to help you know what to look for based on your body and its unique, individual needs. Below we describe each type of design from neutral to minimalist, to help you better understand what the term refers to, and how one over another might better fit your running needs.
Neutral shoes are best suited for runners with even, or "neutral," gait patterns and moderate to high arches. These models are built with enough stability to keep your foot secure but tend to focus more on cushioning and flexibility. Neutral shoes tend to be a great middle-ground between cushioning and stability, with the right padding for comfort, but not too heavy or unstable. All of the shoes in this review are marketed as neutral runners by the manufacturer except for the Brooks Adrenaline GTS and Nike Air Zoom Pegasus, both of which promote their supportive yet balanced designs. The range in this category can be quite broad, which is nowhere more evident than when comparing the maximally cushioned HOKA Bondi with the moderate Altra Escalante.
Stability shoes are great for mild over-pronators as they offer guidance and medial support to keep the runner's gait in an ideal pattern. Shoes that fall within this category are solid and secure, perfectly bracing the foot and protecting from any unnecessary movements that could cause injury. Generally, these sneakers are more rigid than their neutral counterparts and can be heavier due to the extra postings used in structuring the foundation of the shoe. The best stable running shoes are ones that have a plush underfoot feel with good arch support, such as Adrenaline GTS. The long-term benefits of a good stable shoe are that they can lessen the impact on the joints and help fix imbalances that may happen during the gait cycle. The Adrenaline GTS and Air Zoom Pegasus made their mark in this category.
The minimalist scene has exploded in recent years, and companies like Altra and HOKA ONE ONE are taking advantage. We reviewed the best barefoot shoes on the market in a separate review, but for athletes seeking a light, less-supportive shoe, like the Altra Escalante is a good recommendation. Shoes of this nature are built to do nothing but protect the bottom of the foot on the assumption that our bodies know best and will return to a more natural gait and stride when given a chance to spread out. If you're interested in trying this type of shoe but are accustomed to a traditional shoe, you may want to transition to a lower heel-toe offset first. Most traditional running shoes have a drop of around 10mm which has historically been believed to push you onto the balls of your feet. Some shoes in this review have a more moderate drop, like the 4-5mm drop found in the HOKA models we tested, which could be a good way to experiment with this alternative design without putting too much impact on the knees right away. Once you feel ready for the change, 0mm drop shoes like the Altra Intuition or Escalante are both great options with less foam allowing for natural foot positioning.
At the same time, Altra was introducing their flat, natural shoes, companies like HOKA ONE ONE were introducing eye-catching maximalist shoes. While some of these models have zero heel-toe drops as well, they also included more padding than the running world had ever before seen. Designed for ultra-marathon distances, shoes with maximalist cushioning are clunky and lacking in responsiveness, but oh-so-comfortable. A shoe of this nature could be a great fit for your if ultras or marathons are in your repertoire, or if you suffer from joint pain and instability.
Over the years, we've picked up a few shopping tips that we'd like to share with you. First, and we can't stress this enough: try them on in person, especially if it's your first time picking up shoes for running, or you're looking to change up your normal style. We cannot stress this enough. We know the Internet makes everything so easy, but we can't underestimate the value of a quality running shop with educated experts who can help you identify the needs of your unique feet. It's also a good idea to bring your old running shoes in to be evaluated based on wear pattern. Avoid the salesperson that can't explain why they're recommending one shoe over another. If you're switching to a new category of running, or if you're coming back from an injury, it might be wise to see a specialist.
Second, try on shoes in the evening when your feet are at their largest later in the day. At times, our feet swell, so it can be a good idea to avoid trying on shoes first thing in the morning. Use the measurement of your larger foot to determine shoe size; one shoe being a little loose is preferable to the other being too snug. Wear running socks when you try on new shoes, and be prepared to actually test out the shoes. Good shops will even send you outside to run around the block or on a treadmill to get a good feel of the shoe.
Thirdly, take advantage of the return policies if you land in a shoe that doesn't suit you. Most running retailers, including online shops, will go to great lengths to help you find the best shoe to meet your needs. So while they're confident you won't need to use the policy, the best shops just want to keep you healthy and running.
Yes, this article might help you find the best women's running shoe to meet your specific needs, but we also strongly encourage you to take active control of your running health if you haven't already. Think about it this way: if you sit or stand all day, wear high heels, shuffle around in flip-flops, or run miles in ill-fitting or worn-out shoes (basically, if you're human), then there's an excellent chance that you have accumulated imbalances in your body due to weakness in muscle and tendon strength. No shoe can cure biomechanical flaws and weaknesses. Check out our Best in Class review, pick the best shoe for your current running goals, and put in the work to stay strong and healthy. And, most importantly, don't forget to have fun out there!