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Woe is me! The biggest challenge in my day is deciding what shoes to wear for my morning run. You see, as a shoe reviewer, I have an almost unlimited supply of shoes. Selecting which one I lace up pretty much designates the type of run I will be enjoying.
Conversely, if I knew what kind of run I was facing, it would be quite easy to select the perfect shoe to pair with it. That determination boils down to knowing the distance, pace, surface, amount of elevation gain and loss, weather conditions, and whether I’m training for something in particular or recovering from a recent effort.
However, since you’re likely not a shoe reviewer with unlimited access to running shoes, we’ve compiled a guide to help you look for that perfect shoe for that perfect run. If you struggle with your long runs, maybe the perfect long-run shoe should be your next purchase; if you have a hard time getting out the door for a recovery run after a hard training day, maybe you need a go-to recovery pair.
Better yet, since plenty of triathletes do (or should) rotate two different pairs of shoes, the guide below can help you pin down which two pairs fit your training plan the best. Whether you’re looking for the best running shoe for an Ironman triathlon or the best race flat for a 5K, shoe choice matters. If you’re looking for the best specific make and model of shoe for each type of run, we’ve put together a members-only guide with 21 expert reviews.Section divider
Long, Slow Runs
The best shoe for long runs is the one that gets you excited for your workout, not dreading it. When your training calls for a long run—one lasting more than 75 minutes, but not necessarily emphasizing speed—you’ll be looking for cushioning, support, and underfoot protection.
A shoe that satisfies those needs may also come with some “suggestive guidance” that kicks in during the last several miles when one’s form begins to break down from fatigue. And, unless you have been diagnosed as a severe overpronator or your gait needs other mechanical correction, a neutral shoe or one with mild foot-directing qualities, such as Brooks’ GuideRails, will suffice over more intrusive full medial posting. A little motion control can help curb overuse injuries but studies have found fully altering one’s natural gait cycle, absent extreme variances, is seldom necessary.
Because you’ll be relying on this shoe for many long sessions, durability is a key attribute, so the outsole composition and upper materials need to be built to last. And the upper should be supportive without restricting the foot’s natural motion. It should also allow for toe splay and expansion—especially if your long runs are in heat, humidity, or high-altitude.
The midsole will be the engine of a shoe made for long, slow runs. It should absorb impact well enough that you don’t feel beat up from the distance. EVA is somewhat passé, replaced by mixtures of midsole materials that mute landing shock and convert it into an energizing return. Different brands use foams, gels, gasses, infusions, shapes, mechanical aids, etc., but the goal is to give your foot protection while translating some of the downward thrust into forward spring. Fortunately, the state of biomechanics and chemistry is such that we are at a great advantage over our predecessors who faced miles of trials and trials of miles with nothing more than a thin layer of leather.
The ideal long-run shoe should have some structure to it and will be less flexible than one used for speed drills or racing. This isn’t the time to skimp on support or cushioning. The goal is for your shoe to help you get through these lengthy runs in an uninjured state. Because you’ll likely be tired for the latter part of these runs, it pays to find a shoe with more rearfoot protection, rather than one designed around forefoot landing and propulsion. As such, don’t worry as much about stack heights and, if anything, err on the side of a shoe with greater than a 6mm offset between the heel and toe.Section divider
We put hay in the iron- and half-iron distance barn with longer efforts exceeding 45 minutes but not over 90, hopefully covering a lot of ground quickly. These efforts require determination, focus, and the right shoe—one that performs with you and helps you leave it all out on the road.
When searching for the best shoe for long tempo runs, look for a rare mix of lightness in weight, responsiveness, flexibility, and cushioning that will last for the full distance. While you don’t need a full-on super shoe or propulsive qualities (we’ll get to that below), you want your longer-effort shoes to have some energy return to get you up on your toes and moving. And, with the distance potentially wreaking some havoc on your training, leaving lingering fatigue, the luxury of impact-dampening will help with a quicker recovery.
Look for a shoe that will work with you for an efficient stride, quick turnover, and tight geometry that syncs with your form. Rockered midsoles, rebounding foams, breathable, comfortable, and secure uppers are all important qualities. The stack height shouldn’t be low enough that you to bottom out, nor high enough that you feel disconnected from your run. You want to balance a good ground sense against feeling pounded.
Speedwork, the sharp end of the stick, is when you take the gloves off and suffer hard. You want to do more with less and hammer out your fartleks, track work, intervals, and other efforts in a flexible shoe that really allows you to connect and power through the workout. The challenge in finding the best running shoe for speedwork is to chisel away at conventional footwear, with its creature comforts, to leave just enough to keep you from being damaged by the effort.
Not Race-Day, But Almost
Key ingredients in speedwork shoes are lightweight, responsiveness, flexibility, secure fit, performance, performance, and performance. While speedwork shoes can also do double duty as a race-day pair, expect a bit more protection from these shoes, whereas most race shoes (particularly for sprint and Olympic-distance racing) don’t care if you feel beat up the next day.Section divider
When you’re beat up and feeling beaten down the last thing you want to do is run. Maybe you had a hard bike in the morning, maybe you did your long ride with a brick the day before. Some days it seems counterintuitive to run, even at a slow pace or not far, as a way to make you feel better. So, if you’re just getting off the couch to let the blood flow through your heavy legs, you’ll want shoes that are highly cushioned, comfortable, and encourage a rolling stride. The best running shoe for these recovery runs isn’t necessarily the pair with the most bells and whistles.
For these recovery runs, look for higher stack heights and midsole materials made to absorb ground contact like a sponge. The weight of the shoe is less important and the geometry emphasis should favor rearfoot landing more than forefoot propulsion. Likewise, these luxury rides should be supportive with a dash of guidance. Everything about recovery shoes should be about easy.Section divider
5K, 10K race, Sprint, Olympic-Distance Race Day
Race day, that day when all the training you’ve invested in your performance counts and the goal is to eliminate any excuses so you can have the results that are the fruits of so much labor. You want to wear the best running shoe for racing, don’t you? Were you a track athlete, it would be easy because you’d be lacing up your spikes. For shorter-distance races from 5K to 10K and sprint up to Olympic-distance, the choice is close to a racing flat. However, in the new super-shoe landscape, you’re actually looking for footwear that enhances your performance by giving back energy, propelling you the way a wetsuit aids with swimming buoyancy or a disc wheel cuts your cycling drag.
The New Racing Flat
The sole focus is speed but super shoes graciously provide that with a big dose of cushioning, as the rockered geometry combines maximal foam midsole material and a shaped carbon plate to stabilize up to 40mm of stack height. The result is a springy action that gets you up on your toes and quickly and efficiently off of them, with energized propulsion. These shoes help you run faster without added effort. Think power, snap, and thrust.Section divider
Half Marathon, Marathon, 70.3, 140.6 Race Day
Cushioning and comfort count when you are on your feet, running as hard as you are capable for longer than an hour. As such, you should be looking for a lightweight trainer half and full marathon shoe, especially when you are already knackered from hours on the bike. To get the most out of your tired legs, you’ll want to find the best running shoes for long-distance running.
The ideal long-distance racer should be fluid when it comes to no-nonsense performance while allowing for protection and cush. A long course warrants a gentle approach so your feet don’t take too much of a beating when the legs are exhausted while still offering some propulsion—this is race day after all. For sure a longer tempo pair of running shoes would work in this case, but if you had an unlimited choice of shoes, this would skew slightly faster.Section divider
“Grab Bag Travel Shoe”
Travel, at least travel done right, means running whenever and wherever possible. Running is one of the best ways to really explore a new place. Sometimes it’s first thing in the morning, before meetings or travel companions are awake. Or in the evening, before a late dinner. You have to be flexible about grabbing your runs, and that means the ability to run on any surface or, often, many surfaces, even in the same run.
A good travel run may begin on cobblestones, turn onto dirt road, then singletrack and maybe involve some rock scrambling for an overlook before a crazy descent back to a generous continental breakfast. Sometimes your “away run” calls for speed (think: a quick workout between meetings), and sometimes you’re so tired from travel that a quiet plod is just the ticket.
What shoes can handle such a smorgasbord? They should be as versatile as the runs they’ll face. A hybrid, road/trail, all-surfaces shoe with plenty of underfoot protection, traction, and durability are key attributes. A medium stack height and firm midsole compound fare well and it helps if they dry quickly and don’t clash with travel attire.