It’s no secret there’s a seemingly endless array of running shoes out there. Whether it’s minimalist shoes, racing options with carbon plates, or maximalist shoes with high stack heights, the sheer variety can make it hard to decide which shoe is best for you.
While there are plenty of opinions about whether runners should opt for more minimalist shoes that allow for a more natural barefoot stride or maximal cushioned shoes that protect the joints, few disagree the choice is highly individual, and no one shoe is right for everyone.
To help sort through the madness of running shoe technology, we recently got together with Douglas Smiley, senior product line manager of running footwear at Under Armour, and asked for his advice on choosing the perfect amount of cushion in your running shoes.
THE MINIMAL VERSUS MAXIMAL DEBATE
For whatever reason, there’s been a line drawn in the sand when it comes to minimal versus maximalist running shoes. If you are on the side of the minimalists, you probably believe less shoe means shorter strides, a lighter forefoot foot strike and a more natural stride. If, on the other hand, you are a lover of those big, highly cushioned shoes, you might see the value in pampering your ankles and knees just a bit more over long weekly miles. But the truth is, like anything else there are advantages and disadvantages to each.
“Minimalist shoes are lightweight and can offer a more proprioceptive sensation that can strengthen your foot muscles,” Smiley says. “But, if you’re going too fast, too soon, injuries can happen. The body reacts very differently with 25mm of cushion underfoot versus 10 miles of running barefoot. This requires a very slow adaptation period if you want to start running in minimalist footwear.”
As for maximalist shoes, detractors have pointed to new studies showing there are higher impact forces when running in more cushioned shoes with higher stack heights. While this research isn’t conclusive, the advantages that can be had with this type of footwear are worthy of individual experimentation to see where your preferences lie.
“Maximalist shoes provide a very soft, plush ride underfoot, and for some, this can help absorb impact forces,” Smiley says. “On the downside, some runners might like a more responsive feel where they’re in closer contact to the ground for a faster turnover in the gait cycle. More foam also typically means more weight, but innovation advancements are yielding cushioned foams that are very lightweight.”
WHY YOU NEED MORE THAN ONE PAIR
When it comes to which running shoe or how much cushion is right for you, the most likely answer is no one shoe will be able to do it all. That’s why having a variety of shoes with varying amounts of cushion and weights is usually the way to go. This allows you to mix and match your shoe choice to fit your workout while also keeping your body from adapting any bad habits that can lead to injury.
While Smiley recommends having a quiver of running shoes in your closet for this very reason, he also believes basing your preferred amount of cushion on your running style can be helpful.
“The type of shoe you choose should depend on the type of run experience you’re after and how efficiently your body can handle the loading and impact forces present throughout the gait cycle.”
This typically means more experienced runners who have a more efficient stride and run at faster speeds might be able to get away with less cushion and lighter shoes, while beginner runners might be better suited to a more cushioned trainer when running at slower speeds. However, the option you choose should be based on your health and enjoyment.
“In terms of the runner, we all have unique attributes,” Smiley says. “Every runner needs footwear solutions that keep them healthy, create an enjoyable running experience and gives them a means to reach their goals.”
HOW TO CHOOSE THE BEST OPTION
To find a shoe you’re happy with, fits well, and is comfortable to run in, Smiley offers two recommendations when deciding on the level of cushion that might work for you.
“Start with a self-assessment. This includes your running history, what’s worked for you in the past, injuries you’ve had, and any of your future goals. Once you’ve answered these questions, I’d recommend connecting with an expert. Run specialty stores can provide a wealth of expertise, knowledge and advice that can help you narrow your options at no additional cost.”
Keep in mind, though, just because you find a shoe that seems good enough, purchasing multiple running shoes that you rotate during training can help prevent injuries, and over time, this experimentation might help you find other suitable options to slide into your weekly rotation.
“Don’t be afraid to assess new options,” Smiley says. “All of the recent innovation and advancements have resulted in more options than ever before for runners. “You might be content with your current running shoe, but there might be an even better solution that you haven’t discovered yet.”
Whether you want to run your first mile or set a PR, having a plan gets you there faster. Go to the MapMyRun app, tap “Training Plans” — you’ll get a schedule and coaching tips to help you crush it.