How the heck do you know which shoes to buy this spring?

With such dramatic changes in running shoe styles in recent years, how the heck do you know which shoes to buy this spring? Not to worry, here are a few tips.

– Shop at specialty stores. Start by shopping at a local specialty running store, not a sporting goods store or an online shop. Sure, you can get price discounts here and there, but the running knowledge and shoe-fitting skills of the running specialty shop staffers are priceless. Plus, you’ll likely find other inspiration at a specialty shop — other clothes or accessories, a chat with a running coach, a group run or just a simple notice about a local race. (Specialty shops often have running shoes that aren’t sold at larger sporting good stores or national chain retailers.)

– Throw your brand loyalty out the window. (At least for now.) Through the years, runners have typically been incredibly brand loyal, mostly because they have liked the way a certain shoe or line of shoes fits and rides. That’s great, but in the last three or four years, most brands have made such radical changes (with last shapes, stack heights, types of foam and other materials, construction techniques and flex patterns, for example), so it’s best to go to a store with an open mind and start from scratch. You might wind up with the same brand, but check out with a few other brands and models to see what’s out there. (Along those lines, be careful about buying the updated model of a shoe without at least trying it on.)

– Before you start shopping, consider what you really want and need. How a shoe fits your foot size and shape is very important, but so is finding a model to match your agility, lower-leg strength and weekly mileage. Don’t buy something super-minimal if you’re out of shape and hoping to finish a 10K, or if you’re a relatively new runner aiming for your first marathon. And, don’t buy something heavy, extra foamy and rigid just because you’ve worn motion control shoes in the past. Chances are it was always too much shoe for you then, so take a step up and find a lightweight stability shoe.

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– Find shoes with a lower heel. Know the heel-to-toe drop of your current shoes and consider transitioning to a model with a slightly lower differential, for example from 12mm to 8mm or 8mm to 4mm. The single biggest thing you can do to help you reduce the ill effects of overpronation is to reduce the dramatic levering effect of heel-striking in a shoe with a high heel-toe drop. Runner beware: you will likely feel some soft tissue strain as you make the transition, but if you do it in moderation and add form and strength drills to your training, that soreness should go away in time. However, if the shoes you’ve run in for years are working for you, there’s no reason you have to change. Stick with what works and “don’t fix what ain’t broke,” right? However, in general, it’s easier to run faster and more efficiently at any pace if you’re in shoes that are inhibiting your natural foot movements.

– Develop a quiver of shoes. If you have a couple pairs of shoes to choose from, you can wear more cushioned models for longer runs and lower-to-the-ground models for faster workouts. I’m not advocating for runners to buy several pairs at once, but if you are alternating between several pairs in your quiver, you’re less likely to be prone to overuse injuries because your gait habits and footstrikes change slightly in different shoes, and you’re not going to wear out shoes quite as fast.

– Beware the bargain racks. Look at a store’s table of close-out shoes, but be careful. Often certain models didn’t sell for a reason — for example, because of an awkward design or because of a lack of durability. Paying $65 for a shoe that’s outdated by a season or two might seem like a bargain at the time, but there might be hidden consequences, too.

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– Listen to your feet. Your feet ultimately know best when it comes to which shoes are good (or not so good) for you. Walking and jogging around in a shoe during the try-on process is hugely important because it lets your brain and foot tell you if it’s a good possibility for you based on how your foot moves and interacts with the ground. (Consider that most people make buying decisions based on color and other aesthetic features more than the functional aspects of a shoe.) Ultimately, you should be able to have an “a-ha!” moment while you’re trying on shoes, but that might only help eliminate shoes you don’t want.

– It’s not about the shoes. Remember, when it comes down to it, it’s less about the shoes and more about how you run. Ideally, a shoe is only there to offer a little bit of protection and comfort from the hard surfaces below your feet. How committed you are to getting really fit (and that might mean a variety of things) and how dedicated you are to doing drills and improving your form are what matter most. Shoes are necessary and they do help, but only a little.