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Cheap Vs. Expensive Shoes: Does It Matter?

When it comes to running shoes, do you really get what you pay for?

Time and again, runners are warned about the perils of cheap running shoes – the oft-repeated justification for a pricey pair of footwear is that running shoes are an investment – and don’t we want to invest in the very best?

But when the average price of a pair of running shoes in a specialty running store in $114, that investment can sometimes sting. Do you really get what you pay for? Yes and no, says RunRepeat founder and statistician Jens Jakob Andersen.

Though all-purpose athletic shoes are often sold at lower price points than shoes designed specifically for running, they’re also not designed to withstand the rigors of running; treads wear down faster, and uppers disintegrate earlier. That alone makes a compelling case for investing in a dedicated running shoe, which usually costs more than their all-purpose counterparts.

“While any shoe can be used for any activity, it’s important to note that running shoes are crafted to function more resiliently than regular sporty kicks,” says Andersen. “The reason why specialty running shoes get more appreciation than regular footwear is that they have the features, the materials, and the construction to go with their price tags.”

Shoes specific to running have a precise construction, designed to hold the foot, encourage forward motion, and maintain comfort. Andersen notes that running shoe technology is continually evolving, fueled by a distinct body of research that looks to create faster, healthier, and happier runners. All-purpose athletic shoes, on the other hand, haven’t changed much over the years: “General athletic shoes tend to reuse the same materials, the same assets, and the same blueprints. Their manufacturers hardly innovate; in some cases, they even imitate.”

But innovation comes at a cost – the more expensive a running shoe is, the more likely the design is a result of a lot of people doing a lot of research. Still, that doesn’t mean that pricier running shoes are always better. In fact, Andersen’s study of 391 shoe styles from 24 running shoe brands found that the higher the list price of a running shoe, the lower ratings from customers.

“Brands have strong incentives to promote high-priced running shoes, but our study very clearly outlines that runners buying more expensive running shoes are less satisfied than runners buying mid-range or cheap running shoes.”

In other words, new technology is nice, but many runners prefer to stick with what they already know works for them. Because tried-and-true shoe styles from established brands sell well, more of them are produced, thereby driving down the cost.

At the end of the day, however, it comes down to individual preference. Some are willing to pay a higher price for a particular feature, be it energy-returning foam or an eye-catching design. Others swear by a shoe’s capacity for injury prevention or faster splits, making a high-priced shoe well worth the cost. Shoes are as individual as the runner wearing them – a new runner (or one in search of their sole mate) should on a variety of styles at a variety of price points, rather than simply assuming more money automatically equals a better shoe.

“Many people buy running shoes for their efficacy during their intended activity. On the other hand, there are those who purchase kicks just because they look cool,” says Andersen. “It all boils down to the wearer’s level of comfort regarding quality, design, price, construction, and features. The cost won’t become a sheet of discouragement if the potential buyer believes that what they have chosen is for them.”