Let’s begin by acknowledging that the best way to find the right sport-specific shoe for you is probably not through an online search. It’s from going to a specialty store, like a running-gear store if you’re looking for running shoes, and getting fitted by the professionals who work there. “Your foot is just like your fingerprint; it’s unique to you. Every single shoe is going to be contoured differently and have different sensations,” Geoff Burns, Ph.D., a researcher at the Michigan Performance Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan and a competitive ultrarunner, tells SELF. “Going somewhere where you can have somebody who sees thousands of feet a month talk to you very frankly about these things” and then trying a bunch of different options is key, he says. That being said—we’re in a pandemic, and finding and going to a specialty store isn’t as straightforward as it used to be. In any case, even if you’re planning on visiting a store IRL, doing research on what to look for and questions to ask can be very helpful. That’s one reason why we made this guide to buying sneakers.
The other reason is for our brand-new 2020 SELF Certified Sneaker Awards, where we test mountains of the latest shoe releases to award our favorites with our SELF Certified seal of approval. For the awards, we asked experts, including Burns, physical therapist Steph Dorworth, DPT, and Kate Reese, general manager of Brooklyn Running Company, about what to look for in a shoe, and then rigorously evaluated all of the entries based on their criteria. Then we took a lot of notes—how we tested, how the shoe performed for different runners, and how it matched with our own specific foot shapes—and scored each shoe based on testers’ thorough evaluations. So while shoe shopping is personal and your favorites may be different from someone else’s (including ours!), our SELF Certified Sneaker Awards are an excellent place to find a shoe that works for you. You can find all our 2020 Sneaker Award winners here. Read on for more about what our experts say to look for when buying a shoe.
Sneaker Evaluation Criteria
(Overall criteria for running, walking, hiking, cycling, cross-training, or weight-lifting shoes)
Our experts said that while it’s important to evaluate the fit of a pair of shoes by first putting them on and standing in them in the socks you’d normally wear, you also need to perform the specific activity you’re buying them for. “Sometimes an option will feel perfect standing or even walking but reveal deficiencies or fit issues after a few minutes of running,” Reese says. A well-fitting shoe should feel secure around your heel, without slippage. A running or walking shoe should have plenty of space for your toes to wiggle, and you’ll probably want to size up from your normal shoe size for running shoes, since “your foot moves much more dynamically when you’re running than when you’re walking,” Burns says. For cycling shoes, your shoes should fit snugly but with adequate toe space.
Any sport-specific shoe you’re shopping for should have about a half-inch of room from your big toe to the tip of the shoe, according to our experts (make sure you size according to your largest foot if one is bigger than the other, notes Dorworth). You should not feel any pressure points when performing your activity. When evaluating shoes, we took all of this into consideration.
Shape of the Shoe
Our experts agreed that the shape of the shoe should mimic the shape of your foot for the best fit. Burns calls it mapping to your foot, while Reese notes that any sneakers should feel like an “extension of your foot.” We evaluated the shape of a shoe and how it mapped with our foot shape, which we also made sure to describe in our reviews. We noted whether the shoe has a narrow or wide toe box, arch support, or anything else we felt was relevant to how it maps to a foot shape.
Feel of the Shoe
Is the shoe cushioned or more firm (responsive)? Does the arch of the shoe feel supportive or obtrusive? Do you feel like you’re fighting the shoe to find a comfortable rhythm? Our experts say that all of these features are important when evaluating a shoe, both for comfort and for injury prevention. “Your anatomy and biomechanics can make you more prone to injury, but wearing the right shoes for you can make you less prone to injury,” Dorworth says. “Buying the right shoes for you will be worth every penny.”
How Your Body Feels During and After Activity
Our experts say that one key way to evaluate whether a shoe is right for you is to take note of how you feel after you try them out. Did you develop any blisters, hot spots, or bruised toes during or after running? Did you experience any other pains, like shin splints or knee pain? We take all of this into consideration when evaluating sneakers.
Company Return Policy
Our experts say you should factor in how flexible a brand’s (or the specialty store’s) return policy is when looking for a shoe. That’s especially true if you’re buying online and are newer to your sport and don’t have a lot of experience with the different types of shoes available, says Burns. “It’s really hard to know what’s going to work for you with no frame of reference,” he says. “Even one shoe can give you a frame of reference on where to move from there.” If you try a shoe and don’t like it, if you’re able to return it you’ll have more knowledge about the fit and feel of a shoe (and the jargon that comes with shoe shopping) that will help inform your next purchase.
Life of the Shoe
This criteria is harder to test in a short period, so we didn’t use it to evaluate sneakers during our Sneaker Awards testing. But Burns notes that knowing the expected life of a shoe can be helpful in determining whether or not to invest in a brand—after all, sneakers can be expensive. In addition, as shoes wear out, they can make you more prone to injuries, our experts say. “If you’ve started dealing with an injury, look at the age of your shoe,” Burns says. “Shoes have a finite life, and they wear out unfortunately quite quickly.” If you’re buying shoes in a store, be sure to ask an employee about the life expectancy of your shoe, or look up online reviews from experienced athletes to get a sense of how long you can expect to use your shoes.
In addition to these overall criteria, our experts said to also evaluate the following features for certain sport-specific shoes.
Additional Criteria for Trail-Running Shoes
When shopping for trail-running shoes, our experts say to be aware of what surface the shoe is made for. “Trail shoes are wildly different. There’s an enormous spectrum of them, and it varies enormously today,” Burns explains. “The most important thing when choosing one is understanding the types of trails you’ll be running on.” So when looking for a trail-running shoe, you should have an idea of what types of trails you need them for, and go from there. Are the trails in your neighborhood sandy and rocky? Muddy or grassy? When testing trail shoes, we noted what surface(s) we tested the shoe on and what surfaces we would recommend the shoe for.
Additional Criteria for Hiking Shoes
Hiking shoes require a specific level of support, especially around the ankle. There are different styles of hiking shoes, from low-, mid-, to high-cut depending on whether you want ankle support or not. Our experts advised us to note the level of support a hiking shoe provides, so we took into consideration the following criteria: Does the shoe provide stability and support? What level of ankle support does the shoe provide?
The grip a hiking shoe offers is important, especially when you’re climbing up a gravelly trail. When evaluating hiking shoes, we noted whether the sole provides adequate traction and gripping ability.
Additional Criteria for Weight-Lifting Shoes
Dorworth says that most people tend to wear shoes with thicker heels for Olympic lifts like the squat, clean and jerk, or snatch, especially if they have limited ankle mobility, whereas flat-soled shoes tend to be preferred for deadlifting. When evaluating shoes for weight lifting, note the following: Is the shoe thick-soled or thin? Does the shoe have a minimal heel?
When evaluating weight-lifting shoes, note the following: Is the shoe comfortable? Does it feel heavy or light? Do you feel in touch with the ground when you perform weight lifting or other exercise moves?
And a Note About Running Shoes
Traditionally, running shoes have been divided into mainly two categories: neutral and stability. Stability shoes have motion-control features like posts or foam to help keep your foot from rolling too much inward (a movement called pronation) or outward (a movement called supination) while you run. Neutral shoes are those that don’t have those motion-control features. However, research has shown that not all runners who supinate or pronate need a stability shoe, which is why the experts we talked said these categories may not always be the way to shop for running shoes. “Certain foot shapes may benefit from additional medial support, but we also want to respect the body’s ability to adapt,” Reese explains. “If someone presents with a flatter arch but is running happily and healthily in neutral footwear, we don’t want to disrupt established, successful movement patterns.”
Stability shoes may be helpful for certain newer runners or those recovering from injury, although it depends on your personal preference, as well as things like what a shoe is made of and how it’s shaped, says Reese. In any case, the neutral and stability categories are a helpful starting point, especially if you’re someone who over- or under-pronates or has flat feet. For more on stability and neutral shoes and how to choose the right running shoe for you, check out our explainer on the topic here.
Experts Consulted for These Guidelines
Kate Reese, general manager, Brooklyn Running Company
Geoff Burns, Ph.D., researcher at the Michigan Performance Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan
Steph Dorworth, PT, DPT, MTC, CSCS, CNC, BHSc, CertPilates, physical therapist, and coach
Product Reviews Using These Guidelines
This sneaker buying guide was developed for our SELF Certified Sneaker Awards. See all our 2020 winners here.