Understanding Running Shoe Types | Run Uncommon

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Understanding Running Shoe Types

Remember the old days when a running shoe was just a running shoe?  Today's shoe companies have done an amazing job of creating many distinct, and sometimes confusing, shoe types.  Barefoot, minimalist, cushioned, race, trail, zero drop...and more.  While the variety can be perplexing, each running shoe does have a purpose.  

The various running shoe types and purpose are described below.

Zero Drop Running Shoes

carson footwears standard issue shoe

Let's start with this shoe type as heel-toe drop is a technical term that we'll reference throughout this discussion.

Heel-toe drop refers to the difference in cushioning between the heel and the forefoot.  Traditional running shoes have a 10-12 mm heel-toe drop meaning there is an additional 10-12 mm of cushioning in the heel that "drops" away as you approach the forefoot.

As the name implies, zero drop running shoes have no heel-toe drop meaning there is no additional cushioning in the back heel, and that the heel and forefoot are level with one another.  They have become popular due to the belief that they more closely mimic a natural running form and that an elevated heel with enhanced cushioning can lead to injury.  

Example Shoe:  Carson Footwear Standard Issue

Barefoot Running Shoes

sockwa x8

Contrary to its title, a barefoot running shoe does involve wearing an actual shoe.  Rather, the term is used to describe shoes that offer the closest feel to being barefoot. They may come with separate toe pockets to let each toe flex individually, or fit more like socks or slippers.  These shoes have a zero heel-toe drop with a flexible, extremely thin layer (2-12 mm) outsole between the foot and ground. They provide no arch support or stability elements. You can wear them with or without socks (toe socks are available for barefoot shoes with individual toe pockets).

The thinnest outsole barefoot running shoe available is made by a company called Sockwa.  Sockwa stands for "Socks With Attitude" and comes with a 2 mm plastic outsole and sock-like outer layer.  These shoes definitely offer the true barefoot experience.

Example Shoe:  Sockwa X8

Minimalist Running Shoes

carson footwear blue tigersMinimalist running shoes are loosely defined as shoes that, compared to “traditional” running shoes, more closely mimic the way we naturally run when barefoot while still providing some element of protection from potential ground hazards or injury. They’re characterized by minimal amounts of cushioning in the midsoles and, in particular, by a lack of beefy heel cushioning.

Traditional running shoes feature a 10-12 mm “heel-to-toe drop” (meaning  an extra 10-12 mm cushioning underneath the heel as compared to the forefoot). By contrast, minimalist shoes usually have less than an 8 mm drop. Sometimes they have zero drop, as with the shoes described above.

Example Shoe:  Carson Footwear Blue Tigers

Trail Running Shoes

carson footwear stingers

Trail runners use specially designed shoes that differ from traditional shoes by having aggressively knobby soles that are generally more rigid than road running shoes. The midsole often contains a lightweight, flexible nylon plastic layer to protect the feet from puncture wounds from sharp rocks or other objects. Since trail running often takes place on softer surfaces (e.g., grass, dirt) than road races, cushioning is not as important so the shoes are typically less 'cushioned' than their counterparts designed for concrete or asphalt (although that trend is changing as trail running shoes are coming out with more and more cushioning, particularly for ultra marathon runners). Additionally, trail running shoes usually include a protective front plastic shield to protect the feet and toes from striking rocks, branches, or other debris while out on the trail.  For these reasons, trail running shoes are often a bit heavier than road shoes.  Drops on trail shoes can vary from zero to 12 mm and higher.

Example Shoe:  Carson Stingers

Running Sandals

shamma sandals chargers

Running sandals are the original running shoe and an ancient and proven solution for runners of all types. However, they've only recently been noticed by the running community after mention in the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall.  

While there are many styles, most running sandals stick to a purist style with zero heel-toe drop and a barefoot or minimalist-styled outsole.  They take those shoe concepts to the next level by opening up the foot and exposing it to the elements and with a lightweight design.  

Advocates often comment that they are quite comfortable and let the feet breathe, while remaining as durable and protective as running shoes.

Running sandals are suitable for road or trail, but are most commonly found on trails.

Example Shoe:  Shamma Sandals Chargers

Cushioned Running Shoes

spira aquarius

Cushioned running shoes would be the opposite of a barefoot or minimalist running shoe. Instead of emphasizing underfoot feel, cushioned shoes protect the foot and minimize the feel from the ground underneath. 

"Cushioned" has a broad definition, from normal to maximal.  Typically this is defined as a stack height, which is total height (in millimeters) of shoe cushioning.  A shoe with a 25 mm stack height has 25 mm of cushioning, which often comes in the form of an EVA foam midsole. 

Maximal cushioning shoes were became mainstream after being introduced by Hoka One One, a French shoe manufacturer that brought forward a high stack height but extremely lightweight running shoe.  While cushioned running shoes started with road running, they have since gained popularity with trail running, particularly from ultra marathon runners.

Cushioned running shoes can have any drop, from zero to 12 mm and above.  

Example Shoe:  Spira Aquarius

Race Shoes

spira stinger xlt 2

There are many differences from one racing shoe to another but the general theme is lighter weight, stiffer, and less cushioned than their non-racing counterparts.  Heavier shoes mean more mass for a runner to lift with each stride on race day.  Therefore, racing shoes ditch the weight to improve performance.  Similarly, flexible, cushioned training shoes may offer foot protection but the bounce and energy returned to the runner is minimal.  Racing shoes are stiffer and less cushioned to provide better running economy at the expense of potentially sore feet.  Thus racing shoes offer the runner a trade off...less comfort, more performance.  

Example Shoe: Spira Stinger XLT 2

Recovery Sandals

spenco recovery sandal

Recovery sandals are designed to provide cushioning to absorb shock while at the same time conforming to the feet to provide arch support and proper, normal alignment. In the hour or so following a run, your feet are in a vulnerable state. They've just spent a considerable amount of time at work, and like the rest of your body, they're tired, swollen, and could use support while recovering from their most recent effort. Unlike standard flip-flops, sandals or slides, footwear designed specifically for recovery features sturdy, supportive foot beds underneath the arch and heel that allow fatigued feet to recuperate while you go about your day.

Example Shoe:  Spenco Fusion Recovery Sandal

Thank you for reading.  Keep doing amazing things.  And however you run, Run Uncommon.

The Uncommon Runner

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