How We Test Running Shoes
Our experienced team of 24 wear-test runners in Boulder, Colo., and San Diego, Calif., tests more than 75 pairs of shoes every year, including trail, road and racing shoes.
A quick look at the shoe wall of your local running specialty shop will remind you there are a lot of running shoes out there. And every single one of them is different. Each one offers a different level of cushion, stability, agility and flexibility. And then there are the three biggest factors in shoe buying—comfort, color and aesthetics, which are individual to a specific runner’s foot size and shape and, of course, personal taste.
It’s almost as if there are too many to choose from. Certainly there were too many to fit into our 2015 Running Gear Guide and still too many to include in online reviews. So how do we determine the shoes we choose to review?
Every year, after after meeting with each shoe brand to find out what each has coming out for the next year, we request wear-test samples of about 30 to 50 models per season and have our experienced team of 24 wear-test runners in Boulder, Colo., and San Diego go running in them. Yes, it’s fun and there’s a lot of running involved, but it’s also a quite a process for each runner. Our testers are experienced runners with years of running and numerous races (from 5K to ultra-distance races) under their belts. Before we start the process, we give our testers a few insights—the most important of which is to judge each shoe on its own merits. Having experience running in many different shoes develops an acute understanding of how a particular shoe fits the specific size and shape of your shoe and how it affects your running.
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Over a four- to five-month period, we try to have each runner run three times in each shoe, ideally varying the length, pace and type of run to get a fairly complete understanding of each shoe. For each shoe we test, wear-testers fill out a two-page questionnaire that addresses various aspects of the fit, feel and ride of the shoe. We use those evaluations to shape our reviews and also weed out any shoes we don’t think are worthy of praise. (Truth be told, there haven’t been many “clunkers” or “dogs” put out there lately, but there are still some shoes that aren’t a good match for many runners.) We don’t have nearly enough space in the pages of a magazine to highlight everything we learn about a shoe, but we also don’t want to overwhelm (or bore) runners, just inspire them.
It’s not rocket science, but the process of getting feedback from runners goes a long way in understanding how shoes fit, feel and ride. We don’t believe putting running shoes through laboratory testing does anything for readers of our shoe reviews. Quantifying a shoe’s softness or flex or responsiveness can be a fun little lab exercise, but it’s junk science. How a midsole reacts when a 5-pound weight is dropped on it has nothing to do with how it reacts according to the dynamic movement and positioning of a runner’s foot while running in that shoe. Our goal is to inspire runners to explore the range of shoes at running stores and to give them insights (and yes, eye candy, too!) so they can go try on shoes to see what works specifically for them.
Ultimately, the process of finding the right shoe is entirely individual to you, your foot size and shape and how you run. And that involves trying on several pairs to narrow down your choices.
The shoes our wear-testers like the most best earn awards, including this spring’s Road Shoe of the Year and Trail Shoe of the Year. Yes, that’s pretty high praise for models that come out in the spring, especially considering every brand has additional models hitting stores in the summer and the fall. We give that distinction to shoes for several reasons, not the least of which is that those are pretty darned good shoes. But we also admitted those awards probably don’t allow us to do justice to the dozens of other great shoes out there. (However, that’s why we also highlight shoes in our weekly “Shoe of the Week” feature, too.)
But while awards call out the shoes that excel and add some notoriety, runners shouldn’t be steered by awards. The only way to determine the best shoe for you is to take time to find out what matches your needs. The most important variable in finding the best pair of shoes for you is to start by finding a shoe that fits the specific size and shape of your feet. But keep in mind there is no one single shoe among the 100 or so models on a store’s shoe wall that is best for you. There are several that can fit your needs and probably several that will fit your feet well. Keep in mind, too, that you should have multiple pairs of shoes in your quiver and use different shoes for different kinds of training runs.