Finding the best-fitting running or walking shoe among the numerous choices isn’t always easy. Before you even put your foot in a new pair of running shoes, it’s helpful to know all the little details of the shoes that will be with you over the next several hundred miles, along with what to expect during the shoe-buying process.


To get things started, it’s helpful to understand the purpose of each element of a running shoe and how even the slightest differentiation may affect your experience. Here are the main elements to know.


Everything above the sole. Traditionally made with layers of fabrics and mesh sewn and glued together, modern models increasingly use knitting and printing to create one-piece uppers that stretch or support in appropriate places.

What to look for: An upper that is shaped like your foot and smooth wherever it touches, not binding or chafing anywhere.

Ankle Collar

The wrap at the top of the shoe opening that holds the heel down in place. Some shoes use thick padding while others rely more on the shape.

What to look for: Pay attention to whether your heel slips, how the padding interacts with the bones on the side of your ankles, and whether the curve on the back irritates your Achilles tendon.

Heal Counter

A semi-rigid cup layered inside the rearfoot that cradles and supports your heel. Some shoes have an external heel wrap that serves a similar function while minimalist shoes have eliminated the heel counter to allow full freedom of movement. Research has shown that heel counters do not provide motion control, but they do center the heel for stable landings and support.

What to look for: A heel that allows a comfortable ankle motion.


This reinforced area around the instep—the arch of a person’s foot between the ball and the ankle—that interacts with the laces to hold the shoe securely on the foot. Designers have developed a variety of overlays, eyelets, and lacing systems to mold the saddle closely to any foot shape.

What to look for: Pay attention to how the saddle fits and holds your foot, providing a secure feeling with no slippage while allowing for the natural doming of the arch during your stride.


All of the upper from the front of the eyelets to the end of the shoe. Often capped with a reinforced toe bumper that holds the fabric off your toes and protects from stubbing, particularly in trail shoes.

What to look for: A toebox that stays out of the way, allowing your foot to flex and spread out naturally in both width and length without binding or rubbing your toes.


Where the rubber meets the road. Often made of a variety of rubber or foam compounds placed in strategic areas to increase wear life or enhance bounce or flexibility.

What to look for: Materials that provide traction and durability without adding excess weight or stiffness, and for a footprint shape that matches yours and gives you the desired level of stability underfoot.

Flex Grooves/Toe Spring

To make the shoe bend like your foot bends, many shoes use grooves under the ball of the foot. Turning the toe up, called toe spring, or cutting away the midsole into a rocker pattern also allows the foot to roll through the stride. Small differences in location or angle can alter the mechanics and feel, and what degree of flex works best for your stride changes with speed.

What to look for: A shoe that flexes or rolls the way your foot wants to move—at the pace in which you’ll be using the shoes.


The foam material between the outsole and the upper, designed to cushion the runner from impact forces and guide the foot through the stride.

What to look for: A midsole thickness and material that feels right at running speeds, neither too soft nor too firm and without excess weight.

Heel Cushioning

Midsole material designed to minimize the impact shock of a heel strike. Besides using a variety of cushioning material, some shoes feature a softer “crash pad” area on the outer edge of the foot or a rounded outer heel to smooth the landing. Research has shown that the body provides the majority of cushioning for your joints and that you land harder in a more cushioned shoe, so heel cushioning is largely a matter of perceived comfort.

What to look for: A balance between cushioning, stability, and ground feel, and note whether the shoe touches down where you expect it to and rolls into the stride a way that feels right.

Forefoot Cushioning

Midsole material designed to reduce the impact of the largest forces of the stride that occur at forefoot loading and push off. While body mechanics largely provide cushioning to everything above the ankle, forefoot shoe cushioning protects the structures of the foot. The promise of new energy-return materials and designs is that they can both protect and propel your foot.

What to look for: Pay attention to the shoe’s responsiveness, looking for a balance between cushioning comfort and a firm push-off platform.

Heel-Toe Drop

The difference in height between your heel and the ball of your foot when standing in the shoe. Experts disagree on the importance of drop related to injuries, but agree that changing drop distributes forces differently to the foot and leg, and can alter your stride.

What to look for: A shoe that feels right throughout the stride, from touchdown to toe-off, and reduces stress on any weak parts of your foot.

Medial Post/Dual Density/Varus Wedge/Guide Rails/Shoe Geometry

Designers use a variety of technologies to try to keep the foot from excessive motion, primarily over-pronation or rolling inward. Scientists agree that most people do no need pronation correction, but control and stability devices appear to help some runners maintain their preferred movement path.

What to look for: A shoe that allows your foot to move comfortably and naturally through the stride, with the shoe providing stability as support, not correction.


The removable pad of foam inside the shoe that cushions the contours of the bottom of your foot. The sockliner, along with shoe geometry, provides most of what people refer to “arch support” and gives the shoe its initial step-in comfort.

What to look for: Pay attention to how the shoe feels on the run, where softer is not always better and the foot works dynamically to provide its own support and cushioning.

Avoid Common Shoe-Buying Mistakes

Mistake #1

Buying for looks. Some customers are too concerned with fashion, and we try and steer people away from that. Often, when they get a shoe that looks cool, they end up coming back in a few months and saying, ‘This shoe hurts me. I had a problem with it.’ When you buy, think feel and fit, not fashion.

Mistake #2

Forgetting to bring in your current running/walking shoes. When you go shopping, take along your latest pair of running/walking shoes, and any inserts that you’ve been using. That way we can we can get some history of your shoe wear patterns and make a realistic evaluation of how well the new shoe will fit your feet.

Mistake #3

Buying shoes that are too small. Tight-fitting shoes lead to blisters and black toenails and that kind of thing. Women in particular are used to wearing their shoes close-fitting, as they’re often more self-conscious about the size of their feet. We like to say, ‘Play the piano with your toes,’ meaning the fit should be roomy enough in the forefoot—about half an inch—but not sloppy.

Mistake #4

Shopping at the wrong time of day. A lot of times people come in the morning and say, ‘This is the shoe I need.’ Then they’ll come back the next day and say, ‘I wore them at 5 p.m. and they were too small.’ Your feet start swelling in the morning and they don’t stop until about 4 p.m. That’s as big as they’re going to get, so if you can, try/buy your shoes in the evening.

Mistake #5

Assuming your size. People assume that a size is a size—that a size 8 in a Nike will be the same as a size 8 in a New Balance. But sizes differ because of the different foot forms, the different shape of the upper, and the way the shoe is stitched together. Have your feet measured every time you buy a new shoe, and always try the shoes on for fit.

Remember, running / walking shoes should be replaced every 300 to 500 miles. Keep track of the date that you bought your shoes or let us keep track of your shoe purchase and history for you.