How To Buy the Best Running Shoes for Cheap
Don’t say this too loudly at your next race, but buying good running shoes is never about spending more money or having the latest model. The truth is, it’s all about you. When it comes to running shoes, you are a special snowflake. Your feet are different from your funny buddy’s feet even if you wear the same sized shoes. Here are twelve tips for getting the best running shoes for you at a deep discount.
Tip #1: Expensive shoes are just expensive.
Believe it! Over the past decade running shoe prices seem to have been on a skyward trend. Sure manufacturers have R&D costs to cover when they create their shoes and creating new lasts (the form for the shoe) or using newer material technologies costs more than re-using existing ones but that doesn’t make a new shoe cost its weight in gold by itself. Marketing is the main driver of cost. Even if a cost+profit margin equation spits out a $40 retail price for a pair of shoes the marketing department doesn’t care. What matters is which shoes on the market was this shoe created to compete with.
If the competition’s similar shoes are $120 you can guarantee that the $40 shoe will be priced at $119. What does this mean for you? It means that you can ignore the price when you start looking at shoes. The price only partly reflects the quality and technology, and it definitely isn’t going to tell you if it’s the right shoe for you.
Your feet aren’t like my feet and my feet aren’t like anyone else’s. Find the shoe that works for you, not your running partner.
Tip #2: The shoe you need is the shoe that works for you.
This is where the price blindness I mentioned in tip #1 helps you find the right shoe. In a minute I’ll explain how you can get expensive shoes for cheap if you find that the perfect shoe for you is a chunk of change. When looking at shoes, pay attention to the following:
Tip #3: Avoid putting on (shoe) weight.
When you pick up the shoe for the first time does it feel like you are lifting a six-pack or an empty can? The lightest shoes aren’t necessarily the best but the heaviest shoes should be avoided. Think of it this way. If you put steel wheels and 7-ply tires on your car, you are forcing your car to work harder to go the same distance. It’s the same for your body: your knees and legs will not be happy. Fortunately, even if you are buying shoes online you can easily find out how much a shoe weighs and compare that number against others.
Tip #4: Your toes need room. (Toe Box)
The toe box is the area of the shoes where you put (you guessed it!) your toes. Too many people buy running shoes that are too tight but tell themselves that they’ll break in. NO!!! Modern running shoes don’t break in. They either fit correctly or they don’t. The toe box dimension is a factor of both the design of the shoe and the sizing. If you find a pair of shoes you like but it’s slightly too tight around your toes and to the left and right of the ball of your foot, try the next size up. It’s not only about foot length. More about this below.
Some shoes are notoriously narrow and some are designed to be very wide in the toe box area. Shop around. Your toes shouldn’t be anywhere near the front of the shoes and your feet should sit comfortably on the footbed without feeling like they are sitting in a vice. Also, make sure you stand up and walk/run around before deciding if it is too tight or too loose in this area. Without all your weight pushing down on the shoe you can’t make a decision.
Tip #5: Pay attention to shoe mouth design. (ankle clearance)
Those of you with ankles that seem to be halfway up your legs will never have to worry about this but for the rest of us: pay attention to what your ankles are saying. If you feel the mouth of the shoe (where you stick your foot in) rubbing against the side or bottom of your ankle bones (medial malleolus or lateral malleolus) don’t buy the shoe. Some shoes have low mouth openings and some have an odd shape (like many Brooks models) so pay attention.
Tip #6: Watch out for heel slip.
The right shoe for you will lock your heel in place without rubbing. Sometimes you need to lace your shoes using the second hole along the mouth of the shoe (SURPRISE! That’s what it’s for) or use the slightly more advanced heel lock lacing in order to get a really snug heel fit (lacing is discussed in a minute). However, if you try these additional steps and your heel still slips then try different shoes.
Tip #7: Understand heel drop. (aka heel-toe differential)
You will see this term thrown around with a number assigned to it expressed in millimeters. You will also come across the term “zero drop” or “low drop” but don’t panic. This simply refers to the height of the heel compared to the ball of the foot, typically 0–12mm. A zero-drop shoe has a heel that is no higher than the rest of the shoe. A 12mm or higher drop has a built-up heel. Why is this a thing? Who cares what that number is? Well, you might. There are a number of factors that make the drop of a shoe an important consideration. It’s a little too much to discuss here, but you can read a short explanation then keep your range in mind as you shop.
Tip #8 Don’t be a slave to your shoe size.
I’ll admit that I was a shoe size slave for years. At some point in my life, someone I trusted told me that a men’s 9.5 (42 Euro/26.7cm) was the shoe for me and I doggedly stuck to it. If I tried on a shoe that didn’t fit in a 9.5 I moved on. I probably missed out on a lot of great shoes, and I know I suffered through some that just weren’t right even though they matched the magic 9.5 number. It’s not unusual for experienced runners to buy shoes that are a whole size or more larger than what they normally wear in a street shoe (equal to moving up to a 43 Euro/27.3cm). With a larger shoe size you not only get more room and length but the shape can be different enough that it makes a badly fitting shoe perfect.
Tip #9 Pay attention to your socks.
Raise your hands if you thought that all running socks were created equal. Good running socks aren’t your stinky off-white gym socks from under the bed. Choosing the right socks is a great way to get a perfect fit for a shoe. With the correct shoe size and design you can get 90% of the way there. Socks can do so many things for you. They keep your foot cool or warm, they act as a buffer between your skin and potential hot spots inside the shoe (like seams or any place that might rub), they can act as a little more cushion for your soles (but not much) and most importantly they can act like expandable foam in a fragile package. Test both a lightweight and mid-weight (or even thicker hiking sock-weight) sock when trying on running shoes. It can make a huge difference.
Tip #10 Lacing your shoes is like tuning a musical instrument.
It’s rare that I leave the laces as-is on a new pair of shoes. There’s usually something I need to adjust even if it’s just moving the last eye as I mentioned in “Heel Slip” above. The right lacing pattern can help solve problems with a heel that slips out, numb toes, a tight toe box, numbness or pain on the top of your foot, arch pain, and more. Check out this guide to alternate shoe lacings. Along with the right socks, a different lacing pattern can help turn an okay shoe into a perfect match for your foot.
Tip #11 Never buy shoes at the mall and never pay full price.
I was once dragged along to a generic mall chain shoe store by a family member who has now gone into hiding from shame. To be honest, they were looking for cheap kids’ shoes so we were probably in the right place. However, I witnessed a terrible tragedy that has haunted my memory ever since. An employee was assisting someone who said that they had never run before and wanted to start so they needed shoes. This is fine, you don’t need a great pair of shoes to start running, but the employee (likely just a kid in a summer job) fed them a truckload of bull that stank a mile away. The person left the store thinking they needed the pair of awful shoes they paid too much as well as the expensive padded inserts because “running is so bad for your knees.” I wanted to scream and attack the employee but my partner intervened. So…
For the love of your own personal god, guru or garden gnome don’t buy running shoes at a mall shoe store unless you are looking for a specific shoe. And even then, DON’T. The kid in the mall has no idea about good running shoes even if he had them in the store, which he doesn’t.
So while you are looking for shoes AWAY from the mall, there is no need to pay full price. If you are looking in late winter and sometimes late summer you can often find last year’s models at a much reduced price over the upcoming year’s models. What’s the catch? Usually, there isn’t one. The style is updated but often the shoe’s form stays the same. Sometimes a change is made that may make the newer version better for your feet but don’t automatically think that version 7 is better than version 6 or 5. Remember that version 6 looked amazing to people only months before.
Tip #12 Don’t be a jerk to your local running store.
I have never worked in a running store but I have bought from plenty. Most are a tremendous wealth of information about finding the right shoes, local runs, races, running culture, nutrition, and rumor. Sure there are a few that are still selling shoes like it’s 1988 but that’s not the point. Don’t be the jerk that comes in and spends an hour trying on shoe after shoe then goes home and buys the shoe they recommended online for less money. If you take their advice, buy the shoe from the store even if it’s $30 more. The extra money you spent was worth it because you didn’t know what you needed and you got the right shoe.
Are you a jerk if you have a local running store and skip them completely to buy running shoes online? No way. That’s your choice. There are so many different shoes available that your local running store can’t possibly stock them all. The middle ground is to figure out the exact shoe you want based on your own research, find the best price online, then go to your local running store and ask them how close they can get to the price. They might surprise you.