The title of this article is actually a bit of a lie, as there are hundreds of shoes that could be the “best” for you to run in – heck, this kid crushed a half marathon in 1:11 wearing Crocs – yes, those foam shoes your mom wears for gardening or your neighbor's kid wears to the splash pad at your local park. Realistically, any shoe that provides the right comfort, stability cushioning, responsiveness, traction, ride, and fit is the “best” shoe for you at that moment, under those running conditions. Unfortunately, those conditions change constantly, and (gasp!) your shoes should too.
Let that sink in for a moment, even your favorite shoes may not be the right ones for you at certain times (or frankly, ever).
Your ‘Little Piggies' are Worth Billions
Shoes are the only piece of equipment any runner needs to get from start-to-finish, and while there are some guys like trans-con runner Patrick Sweeney who prefer running barefoot or in minimalist Luna sandals, 99% of us lace up a pair of kicks before heading out the door on a walk or a run. All of us (aside from that 1%) contribute to footwear currently being an $85 Billion market worldwide. Yes, that's billions with a B. In 2015, Nike alone spent over $3,200,000,000 (pdf) in marketing-related brand-building, which is greater than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 67 countries around the world. A quick Google search shows Nike's CEO, Mark Parker, brings home nearly $50 million per year. Note: I'm not picking on Nike per se, but they are the biggest name/target.
“Some of the leading players operating in the global footwear market include Nike Inc. (U.S.), Adidas AG (Germany), New Balance Inc. (U.S.), Deichmann SE (Germany), Bata Limited (Canada), Puma SE (Germany), Asics Corp.(Japan), Skechers USA, Inc. (U.S.), and others.” – Transparent Market Research (Note: Nike owns Converse, and Adidas owns Reebok, both brands are in the top 10 of market cap for athletic footwear worldwide)
With gazillions of dollars on the line for these enormous multinational companies, pairing up their sneakers (east coast USA), gym shoes (Midwest USA), or tennis shoes/kicks (west coast USA) with your feet is a constant feat of marketing and design brilliance that leads to absolute madness for consumers – from clever ads, space-age materials, celebrity endorsements, down to each model's planned obsolescence, footwear manufacturers are driven by the bottom line to get new customers and keep the ones they have. The most efficient way to do this is to develop brand loyalty; it is roughly five times cheaper to keep a customer than it is to market for new ones. Sadly, athletes fall into the trap of “_____ makes my favorite shoes” and stick with one particular brand, overlooking the positives of all other shoe manufacturers because they feel some connection with this one particular logo – to their own detriment.
There is No Magic Bullet
With a million different combinations of features from brand-to-brand, finding the right one for you can be a challenge, but with the expansive options that are available to consumers, thanks primarily to online shopping, dialing in the mix of features that you want/need in a shoe is easier than ever before; extensive consumer knowledge and reviews are available on multiple sites, and there's no shortage of feedback available on social media, just remember that 100% of this feedback is what footwear is good for them and not necessarily what's right for you. It's also incredibly difficult to pry some people away from their self-imposed monogamy to a brand that has some hold over them in a purely one-sided relationship – the manufacturer behind that logo is only concerned with your wallet, and you will never, ever receive an award for your stalwart defense of their products.
Just as a Ford representative will never be standing in your driveway with they keys to your brand new F150 for years of saying “Chevy Sucks” or as as a payback for all free marketing you've done over the years by proudly displaying a ‘Calvin pissing on a Dodge logo' on the back of your ride, ASICS will not be shipping you new running shoes for you providing your unsolicited advice to running pals and facebook friends that they are the best running shoes. The logo on your shoe does not matter, the only thing that does is how they perform for you.
I'm positive you've heard variants of the following: “Nikes are too narrow for my feet,” “Brooks has the best cushioning,” “I'd never wear Reebok because they have no support,” “Inov8 shoes always fall apart”, etc. Generalizing about an entire shoe manufacturer based on one particular model is ridiculous; each model is built on its own different last with completely different materials, dimensions, and technology, and a few examples do not justify stereotyping an entire brand. Yes, some Nike shoes may run narrow, and there are dozens of models that do not. Don't limit your available shoe selection based on assumptions that are frankly not true; I spent years poo-pooing Reebok shoes because of my experience with one particular pair that gave me blisters back in college, and it wasn't until over 20 years later that I tried them again and they found their way into my running rotation.
Kill the Messenger*
*Kill may be a pretty strong word here, but I am guilty of any/all the crimes I mentioned above, and I have potentially steered thousands of people to one brand or another over the years as a runner, author, and a marketer. In my defense, recently I have tried very hard to temper my reviews with the pros and cons of any particular shoe brand (and failed miserably at times) as well as attempted to provide well-meaning advice to other runners. To put this into perspective:
- I have a Newton Running tattoo on my ankle. (They paid for me to do Ironman in 2009, I got it the same time as my M-Dot tat)
- I was one of the first people to wear Vibram FiveFinger daily, including showing up to the office in “monkey feet” weeks after they were released to the public.
- I became deeply, personally invested in the ups & downs of Spira Footwear and still consider the Krafsur family good friends. Hell, I even ran a half marathon in their dress shoes.
- I have been an enormous supporter of Icebug Footwear over the past few years; attending multiple trade shows, promoting through OCR Warrior, Mud Run Guide, OCR World Championships, and an unending slew of social posts and photos touting the benefits of their models.
While I have been extremely guilty of flowery rhetoric and superfluous superlatives when it comes to my adoration of the shoe brands rabidly I've supported over the years, I dare say I haven't lied about their effectiveness (well, maybe just a tiny bit of unsubstantiated claims) yet have provided an extremely biased amount of shoe “knowledge” based on a limited set of data – my own two feet.
“What is the best running shoe? There is only the best running shoe for you. Because each runner is unique in how much they train, and what their running style, there is no “perfect” running shoe. The best running shoe for you depends entirely on the shape of your foot, your bio-mechanics and on the amount of running you do. Running shoes are designed to protect your feet from the road, provided traction on different surfaces, cushion the landing shock and support your feet. Not too much to ask, or is it?” –
Note: even at the end of the article above, Active.com showcases Altra shoes – a company they have a marketing agreement with, similar to how I've steered countless Mud Run Guide articles to Icebug, a great group of my personal friends, an advertiser, and supporter of our business. It's extremely difficult to extricate the business relationship from reviews, it all comes down to whether you trust the source or not. Sincerely, I hope you feel you can trust me.
Advice For Your Feet, From My Feet
The only truly honest advice even a professional shoe tester or your running friends can give you is how the shoe worked for them. Not only are you different in every possible way from your friend, but you're also even different from you! Your body mechanics vary slightly from day to day, your gait changes a hundred times mid-run, and the temperature, conditions, injuries, over/under training, and even your mood will greatly affect how well you run, and how well a shoe fits your needs. Even factors that you wouldn't think could have any effect on your shot fit can cause serious issues; if you spent all day walking around, your feet might be a bit swollen before slipping those shoes on. Did you have a high-salt lunch? Your toes may have swelled. Hips tight from playing frisbee with your kid? You'll probably pronate a little less, and that could cause hot spots on your outstep. Guess what? Each of your feet is a different size, shape, and the angulation of how they impact the ground are entirely different. If you don't believe me, grab any pair of well-worn shoes you have and look at soles, they will open your eyes to the real story.
One Size (brand, model, etc.) Does Not Fit All
Some runners find a model that they love and buy multiple pairs of the same shoe to ward off the inevitable switch that will happen next season. In order to keep customers buying shoes, manufacturers utilize some planned obsolescence (of course it's possible to build shoes that last for 1000+ miles or light bulbs that work for 100 years – but there'd be no repeat customers!), new technology, colors, gizmos, and even something as simple as adding a new number to their names. This is one of many mistakes; as there's a solid chance that box #2 of those “identical” shoes won't fit, feel, or wear the same. Trust me, I've been there multiple times, and somehow I'm still surprised each time I run into it. Stitching tolerances, exact positioning of the midsole and sole attachment, etc. can be slightly askew enough for you to notice. Also, running in the same pair over and over is a much bigger mistake; you should always rotate your shoes based on the type of terrain, pace, and also the frequency of your runs. If you're wearing the same shoe over and over in training, you're limiting how you respond based on the dynamics of that particular model and potentially neglecting supporting muscles and tendons than you would if you rotated with shoes of a different cant, drop, cushioning, stability, motion control, etc.
Opening your mind (and bank account) to multiple shoe brands is absolutely a positive, read reviews and test out multiple models for yourself while being cognizant that your needs will change over time. The runner you are today – for better or for worse – is not the same runner you will be in the future. Adapt by being flexible earlier than necessary, and realize that when you don't limit your selection to one style of shoes, you'll find plenty of models that you can use in your ‘runner's toolkit.'
Avoid The Traps
If I made finding the right shoes confusing, well good. There is no perfect brand or model and what works for others may not work for you. To find the best shoe for you, you're going to have to put in a little legwork and test out a bunch of different models. It won't be cheap and easy, but it will be worth it and could even possibly be a “fun” journey.
- Read reviews from multiple sources, remembering that their advice is how that model worked for them and you may have vastly different results.
- Look for commonalities between reviews, if a significant percentage say “X” then there's a good chance they are onto something.
- Look for extreme differences in reviews – what worked for one runner, what didn't for another. Model your expectations off of what you learn from each.
- You are YOU, not a brand. Blind brand loyalty does not pay off, especially with brands constantly switching from year-to-year.
- Go ahead, play the field when it comes to shoes, you may never believe that brand you disliked puts out a model you'll love
- Don't be afraid to go small and try out a brand you've never heard of, as someone who has run in small manufacturers' running shoes for most of the last decade; I can honestly say I have been impressed with the innovations of these small, customer-first brands.
- Cheap shoes are not bad shoes; expensive shoes are not necessarily higher quality.
- Shoes are a consumable semi-luxury product, you are either paying for a brand name/logo or the quality of materials. While some manufacturers put higher quality materials in their models that last longer and wear better, the average markup on a new pair of shoes starts at well over 200% of what they cost to produce.
- Cheap shoes are a part of my daily running shoe rotation, a $30 pair from Payless sit on the same shelf as $175 high-tech racers and they both see equal time on the roads.
- Check the return policy before buying 'em online or a store; you never truly know how a shoe feels until you put in a few miles in real world conditions.
- Some shoes that feel a bit snug out of the box can be the perfect fit once they stretch a bit. I've personally gone up a size based on initial fit only to return the shoes once I got a few miles in and realized they were too big.
- Occasionally, you'll find a shoe that felt great in the store that is miserable on the roads; this only happened to me once and caught me as a huge surprise as I liked an earlier version of that same model. (hence the ‘brand' thing I've hammered home)
- ‘Experts' are not always experts; shoe store employees can help fit a shoe and even analyze your running style – but their three-minute analysis pales greatly to what you know about your running style and what feels “right.”
- I was a shoe store employee. Yup, it's true. I've also been a running coach and fitness author, and I know exactly zilch about how you run after a mile or ten unless I'm right there with you. 1 minute on a treadmill while you're trying your hardest to showcase good form is not going to cut it.
- Your running style will change along with your weight, level of training, etc. Your shoes need to change too. Luckily, the more you run, the more you *should* know what you need. Of course, you may be picking up bad habits along the way that'll cloud your judgment, so never be afraid to try on or test out every shoe you possibly can. Many local running shops have weekend clinics, and even if you've never heard of the brand, I beg you to attend and get yer learn on.
- Stop doing what you were told, start doing what's right for you.
- If you're less than thrilled with your shoes, but:
- A: Paid too much for them to admit you made a mistake and kept wearing them anyway
- B: Were told “these are the best shoes for you” and just figure running sucks and you should be uncomfortable
- C: Like the way they look more than the way they feel
- Then you're not doing yourself or your running any favors at all. There are a zillion different models to choose from if you want to keep punishing yourself, go right ahead – but that's up to you.
- If you're less than thrilled with your shoes, but:
- Break the mold & get away from the “right” shoe every once in awhile
- Pick up a pair of neutral shoes, motion control shoes, zero drops, heavier, lighter, whatever's different than the shoes you commonly use and log some easy, short miles to start. Don't jump into a zero drop or minimalist shoe and run double-digit miles right off the bat, but switch it up here and there to learn more about your running style with different levels of cushioning, stability, and support.
- The bargain bin at sporting goods or running store is a great place to broaden your horizons; especially when you can grab a pair of last year's shoes for cheap and add them to your quiver!
Review: Full Transparency
“Sincerely, I hope you feel you can trust me“
To be fully transparent with my reviews, below are the actual shoes I've been wearing for all 450+ miles of my current #5keveryday running streak, today at day #143:
- 40%: Icebug Oribi (review here) Light, low drop, minimal feel, great traction and rock plate. I can use these on almost any terrain on/off the road.
- 40% Icebug DTS3 (review here) Heavier, super cushioned with lots of foam and good traction. Comfy for longer distances on rough, rocky terrain.
- 10%: Reebok All-Terrain Super 2.0 (review here) Minimalist to the point of feeling like slippers with treads. Extremely light and flexible, for times when I don't need a lot of rock protection, i.e. groomed trails.
- 5%: Merrell All Out Crush (review here) Very basic running shoes with some extra tread, good for all-around use.
- 5% Icebug Zeal (review here) I use the Zeal for mostly OCRs, the Oribi have taken over as a better training shoe for on/off the road.
- 25%: New Balance Zante V2 Light, cushioned shoe that breathes well for daily mileage. I bought these as a marathon shoe; they seem to hold up pretty well.
- 25%: Newton Running Kismet Expensive, forefoot-specific running shoe. Heavier than the Zante, the least responsive Newtons I have ever owned, but they are still good for miles.
- 15%: Champion (I don't even know the model, these are the cheap $39 shoes I mentioned above) Stupid, cheap, foamy shoes with no support and they are super comfortable and light for 3-5 miles as a switch from the other shoes.
- 15% Nike Free Run 3 Flyknit Surprisingly similar fit & feel to the Champion shoes, at well over triple the price. They are nice & tight, light, and feel like racing flats. I use these for speedwork or racing a 5k
- 5% Icebug DTS3 Cushy and heavy, these are also good for putting down some miles on the road.
- 5% Icebug Oribi These shoes are as responsive on the road as the trail; I would wear them more but don't want to cut down the life of the treads while running on the road.
- 4.95% Spira Stinger 3 My favorite shoes for over three years that are no longer operated by the original owner, I save my final pair for races.
- .05% Hoka Stinson 2 I can't seem to get these shoes to stop irritating my big toe anymore; they were great for a few ultras, now I can't wear 'em for more than 5 miles before my doggies are barking (even with Trail Toes!)
- Socks: 99% Mudgear 1/4 crew socks – aside from the 25 or so miles I logged barefoot on a beach in Mexico.
- Anti-chafe: Trail Toes Nothing will ruin a running streak faster than a blister, I've never had one when using Trail Toes!
Here I Go Again
Over the next few weeks, a team of runners and I are going to put together an OCR Shoe Guide based on many of the things we've learned over the past few years. Some are paid sponsored athletes for particular brands, some are fanboys and fangirl of different brands, and a few may even be somewhat brand-agnostic. I highly doubt we will agree on anything, but our goal is to put together the best analytical article we can on what shoe models work for us and try to give you the best advice to guide your choices as possible. It may work, it may not, but hell if we don't try!
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and official policies of Mud Run Guide LLC, or their staff. The comments posted on this Website are solely the opinions of the posters.