The Ultimate [Pain-Free] Guide  to Choosing The Right Running Shoes  (For Your Unique Foot Shape, Gait Cycle, and Running Goals)

If you’re experiencing pain in your ankles, knees, lower back, if you’ve got shin splints or heel spurs, or if you have ongoing plantar fasciitis...

You’re probably running in the wrong shoes.

In this article, we're going to discuss:

  • The must-haves that you need in a running shoe based on your foot shape and gait cycle, and how to determine yours

  • The different features and technologies runners want in a running shoe, and how to choose the best ones for you

  • Then we’re going to put it all together and match specific shoes to the different combinations of all these factors

The Problem:

Most people choose their running shoes based on looks, what’s popular or, often, the way the shoes feel when trying them on in the store – none of which are a great way to pick your next shoe.

Or a lot of times, some people just pick their shoe based on the price tag. But the most expensive models are not necessarily the right shoes for you.

There are so many different types of running shoes.

  • There are some heavily cushioned models designed for heel strikers
  • There are some light & Speedy race shoes that encourage runners to land on their forefoot
  • There are shoes with stability tech for people with all different types of arches in their feet

And everything in between…

So depending on your body mechanics, foot shape, and running preferences, you’ll want a specific shoe in order to not only perform your best, but also to avoid injuries, aches, and pains.

Let’s get into it, first let’s discuss the must-haves that runners need, or need to avoid, in their running shoes – features like arch support, or motion control, for example.

Must Haves

#1 Learn your Foot Shape

There are 3 different types of arches:


This is probably the most common foot shape, and the vast majority of running shoes accommodate moderate arches.


This is the second most common foot shape. Low arches are often linked to pains or aching, especially when running in shoes that don’t offer arch support.


This foot shape is pretty rare, but can certainly cause issues if left unaddressed.

How do I determine what kind of arches I have?

The most common way to determine your foot shape is to do the “wet test”. For this you’ll need a tray for holding water, or you can use a bathtub. And then you’ll need a piece of paper or cardboard.

All you have to do is:

  1. Set the cardboard on the floor
  2. Dunk your foot in the water, letting it fully submerse
  3. Lift your foot, shake off the excess water
  4. Place your foot on the cardboard and let it sit for a second or three, then remove

You’re going to see one of the following three results:

Low, regular, and high arch chart

What do low arches mean?

If pretty much your entire foot shows up, then you’ve got low arches. This means you’ll probably need a shoe with some sort of stabilizing arch support.

What do regular arches mean?

If there’s a portion of the inner side of your foot that doesn’t show up on the cardboard, then you’ve got medium arches. This means you’ll want a neutral running shoe. In the past, if you’ve accidentally chosen a shoe with arch support when you didn’t need it, this could also cause some discomfort.

What do high arches mean?

If a much larger portion of the inner side of your foot didn’t show up on the cardboard, then you’ve got high arches. For this you’re mostly going to be covered in a neutral running shoe. Though a lot of people with high arches prefer a moderate-to-heavily cushioned model.

#2 Learn your Running Gait

The next thing to consider is your gait cycle, which simply means how your feet land, and then roll into your next step. Your gait cycle can be pretty closely related to your arch type,
though not necessarily.  


If you’ve got a neutral gait cycle, then as your feet land on the heel and motion into the next step, they’ll naturally roll inward slightly, to ease the impact and distribute your weight. Feet with neutral arches tend to translate into a neutral gait cycle.

Most running shoes are designed to accommodate neutral pronation.


If you’re an overpronator, this means when your feet hit the ground they roll extremely inward. Quite often, feet with low arches will tend to overpronate.

If this is you, you may want to invest in a shoe with motion control to help guide your foot.


If you’re a supinator, or under-pronator, your foot strikes the ground on the outer side and does not roll inward. This can have a rough impact on your joints. Supination is often a result of high arches.

If you’re a supinator, the best type of shoe for you is a heavily cushioned, neutral model. The extra cushioning will help absorb the shock.

How do I determine my gait cycle?

The best way to determine your own gait cycle is the “tread test”. Similar to the wet test for checking your arches, to find your gait you can simply look at the tread on your current or previous running shoes, which is a little different than checking your arches.

The difference is, the wet test measures your feet when standing still. The tread test measures how your feet regularly strike the ground when running. Using the two together, you’ll get a better idea of your body mechanics, and the shoe technologies that can help you run.

Grab your old or current running shoes and see which image below most closely mirrors where the tread on your shoes is more worn than other areas.

(FYI: this image is using a right foot shoe)

Chart of tread marks on right foot running shoe


If your shoe looks more like the image on the left, you’re an overpronator and could likely benefit from a stability shoe with some gait support.


This means you have a neutral gait cycle. Congrats, the vast majority of running shoes are designed for you.  

Note: If you unknowingly choose a shoe with stabilizing tech when you don’t need it, this could be an underlying source of joint pain or even injuries.


If the tread on your shoes most closely matches the image on the right, you’re an under-pronator or a supinator. To combat this, you’d likely benefit from a well-cushioned neutral shoe, or a maximally cushioned shoe.

Now that we’ve covered what you need, or need to avoid, in a running show, next up, let’s dive into your preferences.


#1 The Heel-to-Toe Drop

The drop, or the offset, is the difference between the amount of cushioning under your heel versus the amount of cushioning under your toes. What does this matter?

The drop has everything to do with how your foot strikes the ground.

10 MM – 12 MM DROP

This means there is about half an inch more shoe under your heel than there is under your toes, which encourages your heel to hit the ground first. This much drop is typically associated with a more laid-back casual type of running.

So if you’ll be doing more leisurely runs where you’re not necessarily concerned with race times, you might want a shoe with a higher drop.

6 MM – 8 MM DROP

This is a mid-range drop, and it’s not necessarily going to encourage your foot to land one way or another.

If you plan on changing up your runs – sometimes fast, sometimes casual – or if you just don’t prefer a drastic drop in either direction, then a mid-range drop is probably best for you.

0 MM – 4 MM DROP

Shoes with a lower drop, like this, encourage your foot to strike down on the forefoot or midfoot. This sort of drop is considered aggressive, and typically associated with running faster.

If you plan on faster runs, or if you prefer landing on your forefoot or midfoot (a more aggressive style of running), then a lower drop would probably be ideal for you.

Note: A lower drop can take some getting used to, especially if you’re used to running shoes which usually have a higher drop. You’ll notice your calf muscles, and ankle area doing a lot more work in a lower drop shoe. Something to be aware of when choosing the best model for you.

The drop is often confused with the stack height, which only refers to the amount of cushioning under the heel.

For example, Hoka shoes, known for their thick cushioning, may have a 32mm stack height. But most if not all of their models have a 4mm drop, which is pretty low. So, as you can see, a low drop, does not translate to less cushioning. It just influences which part of your foot will strike the ground first – the forefoot, midfoot, or heel.

Altra running shoes are known for having a zero drop. So if you’re looking for a more leisure running experience where you land on your heels, Altra would not be the brand for you, no matter which model you choose.

#2 How much cushioning do you want in a running shoe?


A very popular trend in the run game is the maximalist running shoe (i.e. a heavily cushioned shoe). Just look at any pair of Hoka One One shoes, whose claim to fame is their ridiculous levels of cushioning, and the first thing you’ll notice is the ridiculous stack height.

A lot of runners describe these plush cushioned shoes to “running on marshmallows” or “sinking into pillows”. This isn’t necessarily better for your feet or joints, it’s solely a preference. But if you’re planning on running an ultramarathon, or just prefer a ton of cushion for your daily runs, you may like a shoe with plush cushioning.

One caveat to a heavily cushioned is exactly that...they’re often heavier. Just something to keep in mind.


Some runners feel that ultra plush cushioning can hinder their run performance. They appreciate a soft landing, but don’t necessarily love the feeling of the foot sinking into the shoe like a pillow, or the extra weight that comes with extra cushioning. These runners prefer a medium cushioned run shoe.

Most medium cushioned run shoes still have a surprising amount of cushioning, but without that squishy, sinky feel. So if you’d prefer riding a little higher on top of your cushioning, a medium cushioned model might be best for you. Most moderately cushioned shoes are great for your average runner, not necessarily looking to break any records.


Many runners prefer a firmer midsole which, at first, might not sound like the most appealing feature. But the reason a lot of runners love them is that a firmer cushioning gives you a springboard effect. They’re designed to absorb your impact and return that energy into your next step. You could think of it like a mini trampoline under your foot – though that’s not literally what it feels like.

Responsive running shoes actually give you an energy return, as you don’t have to exert as much effort to push off with each step.

For this reason, shoes with responsive cushioning can be great for really long runs.

#2 What type of surface will you be running on?

For those who may not know, road running shoes and trail running shoes are two completely different animals. There are a few shoes out there that can cross over to both. But for the most part, you’ll need a shoe that’s specifically built for the type of surface you’ll be running on.


If you wear road running shoes off-road, they’re not likely going to have the support and other features needed to protect you from the uneven terrain. For one example, most trail shoes have a sturdier build than most road shoes to help you step over rocks without rolling your ankle.


On the other hand, road running shoes are typically built with more cushioning than trail shoes, as pavement is a harder surface to land on. So running on pavement in a less cushioned shoe, your joints aren’t going to be as protected against the shock of impact.

And especially trail running, there are different types of shoes for different types of terrains.

 Some models have:

  • Deeper lugs to handle mud
  • Rockplates to protect against sharp objects poking through the bottom
  • Firmer feel with a more aggressive drop for speedier runs

So it’s important to do your best to pick the shoe with the features that will best address the types of surface you’ll be running on most.  

Note: We'll have an entire article dedicated to how to pick the best trail running shoes coming soon. For now, here is a guide on how to pick the best road running shoes.

How to Pick the Best Road Running Shoes

  1. First, let’s look at the different types of runs, and pick the best shoe model that’s designed for that type of run – casual runs, 5ks, ultramarathons, etc.

  2. Next, we’ll narrow it down by factoring in your preferences – how much cushioning you want, and the heel-to-toe drop.

  3. And finally, we’ll really zero in on the best shoe match for you by adding in your needs – your arch type and gait cycle.

You can read through each category, or jump to the section that applies to you:

    • Casual runs
    • Tempo training shoes
    • Racing & speed shoes
    • Long distance shoes

Casual Runs

If you plan on doing more casual runs, looking to get some exercise, relieve a little stress, then you’re probably going to want a jack-of-all-trades running shoe.


Brooks Ghost


The Brooks Ghost is always a fan favorite. It’s got great cushioning, great durability, it’s comfortable, and it’s light. The Ghost is the kind of shoe you can wear for a short fast run, a long run, or just for running errands. Everyone seems to love the Brooks Ghost.



Hoka One One Rincon


Or if you’re looking for an even softer ride, you should look into the Hoka One One Rincon, as Hoka shoes are known for their plush cushioning. The Rincon is also lighter than the Ghost, making it great for both faster runs, and longer runs.


Nike Pegasus


The Rincon has a low 5mm drop which is on the aggressive side. If you’d like a higher drop for a more casual running style, check out the Nike Pegasus, or “The Peg”, as fans call it. It has a 10mm offset, plenty of cushioning, and is also lightweight, making it a great every day running shoe


Hoka One One Arahi


If you need arch and/or gait support in a casual, daily running shoe, and especially if you have plantar fasciitis, the Hoka One One Arahi is your shoe. Many runners call the Arahi the best stability shoe on the market, and we can’t disagree. It’s designed to combat severe pronation, has arch support, and it’s very lightweight.

Tempo/Fartlek Training

If you’re going to be working your aerobic and anaerobic systems, doing real intense or interval workouts, you’ll likely be doing Tempo training. This just means that sometimes you may be moving at different paces and movements – sometimes sprinting, sometimes jogging, and at times moving in multi-directions.


On Cloudflow


Our top overall pick for a tempo shoe would have to be the On Cloudflow. It’s lightweight so it won’t weigh you down, and the upper is flexible so it won’t hinder your movements. And it has a speedboard in the midsole that springs you forward into your next step. The Cloudflow is great on the road, in the gym, and it’s great for various speeds. It’s also designed to be breathable so your feet won’t get sweaty.


ASICS Novablast


If you want more cushioning under your feet, in a tempo shoe, the ASICS Novablast might be a better fit for you. They packed a thick 32mm of their famous FLYTEFOAM under the heel, and gave it a 10mm drop, so when you land, you land soft. It’s not the lightest shoe on the market (though it’s not noticeably heavy either), but it’s soft and explosive for powerful workouts.


Brooks Hyperion Tempo


The Cloud X has a lower drop (6mm), and the Novablast has a higher drop (10mm). But if you’re looking for that sweet spot in the middle that doesn’t dictate how your foot lands, the Brooks Hyperion Tempo has an 8mm drop, and a very soft landing to go with it. It’s also the lightest model of the three. The Hyperion is a very popular tempo running shoe.


Mizuno Wave Inspire


If you need a little arch or pronation support in your tempo shoe, you may want to look into the Mizuno Wave Inspire. The Wave Inspire has a wave plate that holds your heel in place, not allowing it to roll inward. It’s also very lightweight, especially for a stability shoe.

If you need a little support for your feet during explosive workouts, without getting weighed down, the Wave Inspire should be your go-to shoe.

Racing/Speed (5K – Marathon)

If you’re looking to do some races – a 5k, half-marathon, or marathon – then you’ll need a light and speedy road running shoe.  


Skechers Razor 3+ Hyper


A very popular speed shoe is the Skechers Razor 3+ Hyper. The Razor 3+ Hyper is extremely light at only 6.5oz, so it’s not going to slow your stride by weighing you down. And it has Hyperburst foam in the midsole, which is very springy and propels you into each step. This shoe is great for speed workouts, and especially running races.


Nike Zoom Tempo Next%


If you’re looking to go fast, but also want a ton of cushioning, then you’ll probably want a specialty speed shoe, built to be ultra plush without weighing you down. The Nike Zoom Tempo Next% is that shoe. When you put this shoe on, you can’t help but notice how super squishy it is to run, or even walk, in. If you like a soft landing, I think you’ll appreciate how Nike engineered the Zoom Tempo Next%.


Saucony Endorphin Pro


Most racing shoes have a decently low drop for landing more towards the front of the foot. But if you’d prefer a medium drop that doesn’t dictate your landing, then you should check out the Saucony Endorphin Pro. In addition to an 8mm drop, it has a SpeedRoll outsole that literally rolls your foot, propelling you forward to build momentum. This is a great shoe for anyone interested in speed.


ASICS GEL-Kayano 27 Lite


If you need a speedy shoe that comes with pronation and arch support, you’d probably love the ASICS GEL-Kayano 27 Lite. It’s built to handle mild-to-severe pronation, and medium-to-low arches. It’s got a high 10mm drop to encourage soft heel landings, and a decent amount of cushioning to back it.

Long-Distance (Ultramarathon)

The last category is long-distance runs – we’re talking ultramarathons – 30, 50, even 100 or more miles. If you’re logging this many miles, you can’t just choose any ol’ running shoe and expect to go pain or injury-free. You need a shoe that’s designed to withstand extreme distance, that isn’t clunky, and won’t weigh you down.


New Balance Fresh Foam More


A popular model for longer runs is the New Balance Fresh Foam More. They gave it this name because this model has more foam than any other New Balance shoe. The first thing you’d notice when you put this shoe on is how your foot sinks down into the, almost, squishy cushioning. The Fresh Foam More also has a rocker outsole design that rolls your foot into the next step, reducing the amount of work your ankle and calf muscles have to do. And the less work your muscles have to do, the longer you can run without getting worn out. It’s a pretty impressive long-distance shoe.


Hoka One One Bondi


Or if you want maximal cushioning in your long-distance shoe, who else would you turn to other than Hoka. The Hoka One One Bondi is their premium cushioned shoe – which is saying a lot. A lot of fans of this shoe compare it to running on pillows, or even marshmallows.

And while some highly cushioned shoes are too sinky – where your feet feel like they’re trapped down in the cushioning – the Bondi is surprisingly responsive, and rebounds your foot into the next step.


Brooks Glycerin


If you still want a ton of cushioning, but you’d like a less aggressive drop than the GlideRide (5mm) or the Bondi (4mm), then you may be interested in the Brooks Glycerin. This is Brooks’ max cushioned shoe, and it sits at a moderate 8mm drop. It’s great for comfortable, slightly more laid-back running.


Saucony Hurricane


And if you need some arch and pronation support in a long-distance shoe, it’s important that you choose one that still has a ton of cushioning to withstand the distance. The Saucony Hurricane is the most heavily cushioned stability shoe on the market. It has an impressive 33mm stack height under the heel – that’s more than the Hoka Arahi. If you’re running super long distances, and you need a support shoe with a massive amount of cushioning, the Hurricane is probably your shoe.

That was a ton to cover, but hopefully it helped you decide which running shoes would be the best match for you.

Of course, this is by no means all there is to know about running & running shoes – we’ll have plenty more tips, tricks, and advice coming your way.

And one last thing...

Interested in running your first off-road 5K or improving your time on the next one? Check out our Ultimate 8-Week Training Program for your First Off-Road 5K!

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