If you’ve ever walked into a sporting goods store and been overwhelmed by the sheer selection of shoes and sneakers displayed on the walls — not to mention terms like “pronation” and supination” being thrown around so casually — know that you’re not alone. But a new study finds that, ultimately, the shoe that is most comfortable for you will lead to less injuries.
“Running shoes can be one of the most confusing products out there,” says Claire Wood, senior product manager of Performance Running at New Balance. “There are so many options and styles — even within the same brand,” she adds. So don’t discount one pair because you hated a previous one, or alternatively, don’t expect to fall in love with sneakers because you’ve worn and adored a brand’s pair in the past.
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Why the Sneaker Struggle Is Real
Before you even think about purchasing a pair of kicks, head over to your local running specialty store. You’ll get better-quality shoes for your money, since many brands send cheaper, lower-quality versions of their shoes to the big-box retailers. Bonus: Most running stores will also analyze your gait in order to recommend an appropriate fit — on the house, too.
Don’t have a running store nearby? Try doing your own gait analysis at home: Film yourself running (ideally on a treadmill), take notes on your stride and form (using our below list as your guidelines), then order a few pairs of shoes online designed for your own foot strike. You’ll be out the door and running in no time.
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1. Assess Your Skills
How much you run and where you’re running are both key factors in finding the right shoe. Do you total five miles a week or are you pushing 50? The higher the mileage, the more cushioning your shoe should have to protect against the repeated impact. And if you’re a road warrior who loves to pound the pavement, you’ll need a completely different shoe than someone who’s regularly exploring the trails instead. Be honest about where you’re at — your body will thank you for wearing a shoe that meets your mileage needs.
2. When in Doubt, Size Up
If you’ve ever had a bruised toenail, you were probably running or wearing a shoe that’s too small for you, Woods says. Since your feet will move around in your sneakers (as they should!), Wood recommends trying on kicks that are at least half a size larger than what you buy for your street shoes. And when you’re trying them on, “take a look at which toe is the closest to the tip of the shoe,” she says, “then make sure that you have at least a fingernail’s length distance from that toe to the end of the shoe.” Otherwise, you know what to do — go up another half size.
3. Figure Out Where Your Foot Stands
Or, more specifically, how it rolls during your foot strike. This plays into those dictionary terms we threw at you at the beginning — pronation, supination and ultimately, the amount of support your feet need from a running shoe (which will then, in turn, help improve your overall running form).
A simple test you can do to figure out exactly how much support you need is to stand on both feet and bend your knees. If your arches and the insides of your legs tilt inward, Wood says, you may need some extra support in your shoes, because it suggests your feet and ankles have problems stabilizing the body. Try an aptly named stability shoe to address your overpronation, as shock will be absorbed more efficiently.
On the other hand, if all of the weight appears to be the outside of your foot, then you supinate, also referred to as underpronation. Avoid a stability shoe, which will irritate your arches. These clunky sneaks, while great for some, will improperly concentrate the force of impact, causing uneven weight distribution. Instead, look for shoes with flexible soles to help your foot roll outwards less.
Everything look in line? Then you’re neutral, which means you can wear just about any shoe — ones with cushioning are great for newer runners, while seasoned pros can give lightweight, minimal sneakers a try.
4. You Shouldn’t Hear a Sound
The sneaker you can run the most quietly in is the right one for you, says Spencer White, head of Saucony’s Human Performance and Innovation Lab. “The quieter the sneaker,” he explains, “the less impact and stress it will have on your body.” Hearing your foot slapping as your heel hits the ground means that a particular model is too stiff in your heel and isn’t moving with your foot, causing greater impact on your joints — far from ideal!
5. Take It Outside
If you’re at a specialty store, see if the employees will let you take a pair for quick jog around the block. While the treadmill can be a great training tool, it’s built with extra cushioning, so it’s already a much softer surface than the road. Going outdoors will give you a better feel for how the shoe will perform. But keep in mind that cushioning is a personal preference. “Some runners might prefer a lot; others might want to feel like they’re closer to the pavement,” says Wood. However, if you’re lacking cartilage in any of your joints or have had surgery, you might want to opt for more rather than less, she says (always check with your doctor first).
6. Buck the Trends
No matter how on point your street style is, trying to make super-chic sneaks work for your workouts could get you in trouble if you don’t do your research first. “Fads often lead to injury,” says Wendy Winn, PT, OCS at New York Custom Physical Therapy. For example, if you’re looking to run a marathon, you might want to forget about trendy, lightweight minimalist sneaks. The body requires more support over a long distance than those can provide. Winn recommends assessing what your body and foot really need before blindly going with the prettiest kicks on Pinterest.
7. Comfort Is King
Most important, though, is your own comfort, says White. The shoe shouldn’t pinch, crease on your foot in an uncomfortable way, or cause aches and pains to your leg. It should move with you, not push you around, White adds. “Our brains are way more sophisticated in how they sense their movement than someone watching us is. You need to trust yourself and how you move,” he says.
So remember: Rely on what your body is telling you, and don’t be afraid to take advantage of the liberal return policies many running stores now have. After all, you’re going to be racking up some serious mileage in these babies. They may as well feel amazing, right?
Originally posted August 2015. Updated February 2016.