How to buy shoes for running, walking, cross-training, and hiking
By Anna Marrian
With so many options available, buying a new athletic shoe can be exciting, overwhelming, or if you’re picky, just excruciating. I want a shoe that’s not too heavy, lest I feel like a lumbering antelope, but I want something with plenty of cushion to protect my aging 40-something joints.
Whether you are picky or not, basic knowledge of your foot mechanics and foot type is essential for safety and performance when choosing a shoe. “Knowing your foot shape is important, especially in the athletic world,” says Jason Mandell, athletic-shoe buyer for Paragon Sports in New York City. According to the American Podiatric Medical Association, flat feet tend to pronate (roll inward) and need stabilization and motion control, and highly arched feet tend to take all the shock on the foot and need more cushioning. Neutral feet with average arches benefit from equal amounts of stability and cushion to absorb shock.
Mandell says there’s no best shoe for any sport, as foot shapes and gaits vary, as do the shoes themselves. “Trying on shoes is important, as the fit and cut of shoes vary by brand and model.” And here’s an interesting tip: the American Heart Association recommends shopping in the evening, when feet are the most swollen. You should bring the type of socks you typically wear—preferably wicking socks rather than cotton ones, which can cause blisters—and add a half inch at the toe of any shoe you try on.
Tiffany Chag, an exercise physiologist at the Women’s Sports Medicine Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, says that during forward motion like walking, running, and easy hiking, pronation and supination (when the foot lands on the outside edge or rolls slightly outward) are a natural part of foot mechanics. “However, excessive pronation or supination can create problems in our feet and up the kinetic chain—think knee, hip, back,” says Chag, and can lead to injury. Both Mandell and Chag recommend going to a reputable store where staff members know about foot mechanics and will measure and assess your foot and gait.
Lindsay Siddiqi, the Brooklyn store manager of JackRabbit, a national running franchise, says running—a repetitive-motion activity—can be hard on your back and joints, and well-cushioned running shoes are designed to soften the skeletal impact. Siddiqi gave me the lowdown on some popular cushioned running shoes and recommends using an in-store treadmill to try them.
Double cushioned with light foam in the midsole and gel cushion in the forefoot and heel, this shoe is Siddiqi’s recommendation for treadmills, a hard and unforgiving surface. The sole is segmented and flexible for gait efficiency.
Brooks Ghost 9
Nominated in 2016 by Runner’s World as a best buy, the Ghost provides a midsole cushion. It is flexible, has a grooved sole, and features breathability. Siddiqi says it’s a great beginner’s shoe.
Hoka Clifton 3
Often used by people with foot issues or by supermarathoners, the Clifton looks like a space-age, heavily cushioned shoe but performs like a dream, says Janice Campbell, a professional trainer at the Dodge YMCA in Brooklyn. Campbell, who is a supinator with arthritis, says she could run two miles straight the day she got the Clifton, after a three-month hiatus. “They are supportive but superlight,” she says.
A Swiss performance brand, endorsed by Olympic triathlon champion Nicola Spirig, On touts the Cloud as the lightest running shoe in the world, with maximum cushioning due to zero-gravity foam and a segmented sole designed to respond to your individual gait.
Soft, supportive, and light, with a dynamic fit that adapts to your stride, the Triumph’s cushioning is evenly distributed over the entire foot. Siddiqi says it’s recommended for wide feet and is a good, durable marathon shoe.
“Walking is a heel-to-toe motion, and walking shoes are made to provide cushioning and support throughout the entire walking movement,” says Chag. Sneakers should be lightweight, breathable, and flexible enough to hinge around the ball of the foot to accommodate a heel-toe stride. Gabrielle Baptiste of the Super Runners Shop in Brooklyn Heights, New York, sees a lot of customers referred by their orthopedists—often for plantar fasciitis or bone spurs—who buy running shoes for walking. She says running shoes will often have better padding and arch support, especially for flat feet. Top-rated walking shoes from Road Runner Sports, a national walking and running franchise, and Zappos include the following:
Brooks Addiction Walker
This shoe has a rear-foot and forefoot cushion system and an energy “returning” cushiony midsole. Brooks claims that the Addiction Walker offers maximum stability with flexibility, which enables a balanced, efficient gait.
Ryka Women’s Devotion
Voted best for “All-Day Comfort” by Prevention magazine in 2014, the Devotion offers a breathable mesh upper, midsole cushioning, and bounce, plus a thick, wide, grooved, durable rubber sole. Rykas have a narrow heel and roomy forefoot and offer many wide options.
Skechers Go Step Lite
This is my perfect shoe: light, cushiony, breathable. Featuring memory foam and ample cushioning, the Step Lite was intentionally designed to have a comfortable, custom-fit, squishy feeling. Yet it also has cushion rebound technology for a responsive, energized walking experience. At 5 ounces, the shoe is one of the lightest choices.
While running shoes are designed to lift you up for forward motion, cross-trainers encourage the foot to sink into the shoe, to stabilize the ankle during lateral or pivot motions, as in volleyball, CrossFit, weight training, cardio classes, and Zumba, says Siddiqi. Some of the best-sellers at Road Runner Sports include these options.
New Balance Minimus 40
This minimalist, flexible shoe has a mesh upper and bounce technology. A durable Vibram sole with good traction makes it a good all-around shoe for outdoor sports as well as stability in the gym.
Reebok CrossFit Nano 7.0
Breathable but durable, the Nano has forefoot traction and flexibility and a shock-absorptive and extracushioned midsole. A heel lock makes it a preferred shoe for weight training and CrossFit.
The Influence is a light, flexible, cushioned shoe popular for Zumba because it has pivot points plus traction toward the edges, characteristics that Mandell says are needed for Zumba or dance-type classes.
Hiking Shoes & Boots
Chag recommends a little extra room at the toe of a hiking boot. “As you descend a trail, your foot slides forward in the shoe, and if your toes are constantly bumping up against the front of the shoe, you can kiss your toenails good-bye,” she says. Your heel should feel locked in, minimizing up and down motion, and the shoes should feel good immediately, with minimal breaking in needed, says the American Hiking Society (AHS). Before you hit the Pacific Crest Trail, the AHS recommends wearing hiking shoes around the house.
Both Chag and the AHS suggest consulting the expertise of an outdoor store and trying various options for feel and weight by walking up and down a ramp—most stores have one. REI, the national outdoor store, recommends pairing hiking shoes with your chosen terrain. Picking the right lugs—the thick treads on the outsole—is essential. Deeper, thicker lugs are best for backpacking and mountaineering; wide-spaced lugs provide good traction and shed mud more easily. A heel brake—a clearly defined lug pattern distinct from the forefoot—minimizes the chance of sliding during a steep descent.
Here are the top customer-reviewed hiking shoes at REI.
Merrell Moab 2 Low Hiking
Merrell calls the Moab series the “mother-of-all-boots.” The company touts the out-of-the-box comfort for these waterproof but breathable shoes. Made of suede leather and mesh, they have Vibram soles with significant tread. They are lace-ups, with heel-shock air cushion and support. Weight of pair: 1 pound, 12 ounces.
Salomon X Ultra Low 2
Available in Gore-Tex, these shoes provide molded, midsole cushioning, supportive heel cups, and rubber toe caps and have intense outsole traction for rugged terrain. The breathable mesh upper has a single-lace pull. Weight of pair: 1 pound, 7.2 ounces.
Teva Arrowood WP
Lightweight and waterproof, the Arrowood WP has midsole cushioning and is made of leather and mesh with a bungee lace system. Teva calls these “adventure shoes with style.” With a shallower tread than other shoes, the Arrowood is more like a sneaker than a serious hiking shoe. It is probably best for light trails and those wanting a shoe that transitions to everyday activities. Weight of pair: 10 ounces.
According to Baptiste, the main difference between trail runners and street runners is that the former have a coarser outer sole to manage rougher, unpredictable terrain. Otherwise, they have the same internal cushioning and bounce as a street runner. Like hiking shoes, they should have a snug feel that will keep you feeling confident while running in the outback.
Here are REI’s top customer-rated trail runners.
Salomon Speedcross 4
Breathable yet water-resistant, these flexible speedsters have a quick-lacing system and a design that hugs your foot and minimizes slippage for a secure fit. They have midsole cushioning and enhanced stability due to a lowered heel ride. The rubber on the outsoles helps with traction on wet surfaces and rugged trails. Weight of pair: 1 pound, 2 ounces.
At less than a pound for the pair, these light trail runners have directional lugs for uphill and downhill traction. A feature called propulsion plates creates a stable platform for supported toe-offs. Dynamic, adaptive-stride midsole cushioning allows the heel and forefoot to move independently for a strong push-off. Weight of pair: 15.8 ounces. DW
Anna Marrian is a freelance writer, gym rat and surfer, based in Brooklyn, New York.