Let’s start by saying that the best way to find the right sport-specific shoe for you probably isn’t by doing an online search. It’s about going to a specialty store, like a running-specific store, if you’re looking for running shoes and let the professionals who work there fit you in. “Your foot is just like your fingerprint. it’s unique to you. Every single shoe will be contoured differently and have different sensations, ”Geoff Burns, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Michigan’s Michigan Performance Research Laboratory and a competitive ultra runner, told SELF. “It’s crucial to go somewhere where someone who sees thousands of feet a month will speak openly to you about these things,”
The other reason is our brand new 2020 SELF Certified Sneaker Awards, where we test mountains of the latest shoe versions in order to reward 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 the Brooklyn Running Company, what to look for in a shoe, and then rigorously rated all entries based on their criteria. Then we took lots of notes – how we tested how the shoe worked for different runners, and how it conformed to our specific foot shapes – and rated each shoe based on the testers’ thorough ratings. While shoe shopping is personal and your favorites may be different from others (including ours!), Our SELF Certified Sneaker Awards are an excellent place to find a shoe that will work for you. You can find all of our winners of the 2020 Sneaker Award here. Read on to learn more about what our experts should look for when buying a shoe.
Evaluation criteria for sneakers
(General criteria for running, walking, hiking, cycling, cross-training, or weight lifting)
Our experts said it is important to evaluate the fit of a shoe by putting it on first and standing in the socks you normally wear. However, you must also do the specific activity for which you are buying it before deciding if it is right for you. “Sometimes an option feels perfect while standing or even walking, but after a few minutes of running it shows imperfections or problems with the fit,” says Reese. A well-fitting shoe should feel secure around your heel without slipping. A running or hiking shoe should have plenty of room for your toes to wiggle, and you will likely want to choose a size from your normal running shoe size because “your foot moves much more dynamically when you run than you do when you walk,” says Burns. With cycling shoes, your shoes should fit snugly but have enough space for your toes.
According to our experts, any sport-specific shoe you buy should have about a half-inch of space from your big toe to the tip of your shoe (make sure you size according to your largest foot, if one is bigger than the other, notes Dorworth). You shouldn’t feel any pressure points while doing your activity. We took all of this into account when evaluating shoes.
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 sneakers should feel like “an extension of your foot.” We rated the shape of a shoe and how it conforms to our foot shape, which we also described in our ratings. We determined whether the shoe has a narrow or wide toe box, an arch support, or something else that we believe is relevant for mapping to a foot shape.
Feeling of the shoe
Is the shoe padded or firmer (more responsive)? Does the arch of the shoe feel supportive or intrusive? Do you feel like you are struggling against the shoe to find a comfortable rhythm? Our experts say that all of these characteristics 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,” says Dorworth. “Buying the right shoes for you is worth every penny.”
How your body feels during and after the activity
Our experts say that an important way to judge whether a shoe is right for you is to write down how you feel after trying it on. Have you developed blisters, hot spots, or injured toes while or after running? Have you had any other pain such as shin splints or knee pain? We take all of this into account when evaluating sneakers.
Company’s right of return
Our experts say a brand’s return policy (or the specialty store you’re shopping at) should play a role when looking for a shoe. This is especially true if you’re shopping online and new to your sport and don’t have a lot of experience with different types of shoes, says Burns. “It’s really hard to know what will work for you without a frame of reference,” he says. “Even a shoe can give you a frame of reference where you can move from there.” If you try a shoe and don’t like it when you can return it, you’ll have more knowledge of the fit and feel of a shoe (and the jargon that comes with buying a shoe) that will help educate you about your next shoe purchase .
The life of the shoe
This criterion is harder to test in a short period of time, so we didn’t use it to evaluate sneakers in our Sneaker Awards tests. Burns notes, however, that knowing the life of a shoe can be helpful in determining whether or not you’re investing in a brand – after all, sneakers can be expensive. In addition, when shoes wear out, they can make you more prone to injury, our experts say. “When you’re dealing with an injury, look at the age of your shoe, says Burns. “Shoes have a limited lifespan and unfortunately wear out very quickly.” When buying shoes from a store, be sure to ask a sales representative about the life expectancy of your shoe or read online reviews from experienced athletes to get a sense of how long you can expect your shoes to be used.