By Noel Paine
“I see shoes as tools.” – Runner and Coach Angie Hotz
Running shoes are what we use to protect and cushion our feet when we run. Perhaps in a perfect world, we would grow up running and playing in bare feet on grass and terrain that would give us strong feet – but the modern world is about concrete and pavement. For most, running shoes help us walk, run and stay active in a busy world and keep our feet happy. The human foot is a complex structure with 26 bones in each foot plus muscles, tendons and ligaments. Everyone has a foot that is different in construction, width and length.
Pick your Running Shoes Based on What’s Inside
Running shoes have evolved from the very basic leather shoe that provided little protection or comfort and often broke your foot in before you broke them in. Runners still ran impressive times and ran long distances in the early shoes, but changes were coming. Technology was coming to change and improve running shoes. Here is an interesting article on the history of running shoes!
Some people have argued and presented evidence that running shoes do not help people and are not the best for your feet. The vast majority of runners of all abilities still buy a running shoe to train and race. I ran barefoot on the grass as a child but am glad I got running shoes to help me run down the road from the house and hook me on a sport I continue to do many years later.
“I personally started running around 1987 amid the running boom and when running shoes were really taking off. I remember one of my first shoes being the Reebok World Trainer which debuted some midsole technology to improve the shoe’s cushioning. As a 12-year old, I thought they looked cool and they felt amazing!”
Parts of a Running Shoe
All the parts that make up a running shoe are important, but the most important, the reason we really wear running shoes is the cushioning. The cushion in a running shoe is underneath your foot in what is called the midsole. This is usually a white-colored foam augmented by some company’s special technologies to improve the feel, shock absorption or responsiveness of the shoe.
The midsole cushioning is usually some version of EVA (the white marshmallow stuff) that helps absorbs shock. Each company will often come up with their own recipe and patent their version of foam and give it a cool name. Each foam has a different feel and then other stuff (technology is added) which can really change the feel.
Technology and Running Shoes and What it Means for you
So, what does this all mean for you? The cushioning and bells and whistles will affect how your running shoe works and feels. The more you know, the better informed you are when you go online or into a running shop to find a shoe. Different foams in the midsole are designed for different things and different runners.
*My first stop for running shoes, if I can, are the locally owned, independent specialty running shops. You can find this kind of store in your area on the Independent Running Retailers website.
Here is my guide to shoe technology and some of the shoes from running shoe companies out in the world. I will highlight shoes from different brands and talk about the cushioning technologies used.
History of Nike Running Shoes : Nike shoes have been around for quite a while and really came along with the big 1980s running boom. I have not run in a lot of Nike shoes but did early on wear a pair of Nike Air Max shoes and have tried on and tried many of their shoes over the years.
Nike Pegasus 40 - Neutral Cushioned Training Shoe
React technology: This shoe has been around for quite a while in the Nike inventory is various versions. This shoe has always been a go-to for a well-cushioned (not max cushion) shoe that a reasonable price range and uses Nike React technology: A lightweight, durable foam that is supposed to deliver a comfortable, responsive ride.
The cushioning material is also supposed to bounce back from the compressing that happens during a run, to keep its original feel. The Nike website says the foam was developed to help with running injuries. Good cushioning that is not too soft or too firm.
What you like and what works for you will vary depending on many factors including your foot type and weight.
Nike Zoom Fly 5 - Neutral Cushioned Training Shoe
ZoomX and more: Okay this is the shoe that gets people excited. Its all about technology. This was a shoe designed to go fast and mainly aimed at elites and hoe they run, but many recreational runners have also used and like to run and race in. It is just a step down from the pure racer, the Nike AlphaFly 2.
The midsole of this super light running shoe is made up of Nike’s ZoomX foam, a new addition to this already fast shoe. The foam is supposed to be lighter and more responsive, giving the lightweight training shoe an even faster, responsive feel. What Nike adds to the foam is carbon-fibre plate delivers a propulsive sensation and a smooth transition. The plate buried in the foam provides what they describe as a sort of roll-forwards feel that makes you want to take on the next step. Very soft, responsive cushion.
I have worn a version of this shoe and experienced the foam and the carbon fibre plate. The foam is quite soft and very responsive and when you add the plate it really feels like you need to be on your forefoot. The combination makes for a spongey light experience where more efficient, lighter runners who heel strike less will appreciate for fast training or racing.
The history of New Balance : They go back to 1906 and entered the running shoe world in the 1970s. My introduction to the shoe brand was as the company that offered a huge range of widths for many of their shoes, with a good deal of thought put into accommodating different foot types. I wore a lot of New Balance shoes in the early 2000s.
New Balance 840v5 - Stable Cushioned Training Shoe
Abzorb: The cushioning is this New Balance shoe is ABZORB. The company explains it as a combination of foam and rubber that gives it an ability to resist being compressed after repeated runs. I see it being used in their shoes where a more firm, stable ride is better. From my experience the foam is soft but not marshmallowy. A good choice for someone who is heavier or who needs a more stable shoe. Abzorb is also used in the NB 940v4, a stability shoe.
A good reliable, slightly firmer cushion. I have tried on shoes with this cushion and liked the feel.
New Balance FuelCell Rebel V3 - Lightweight Neutral Cushioned Shoe
FuelCell: This 7.4 ounce shoe is meant to be light, responsive and feel fast. Like other shoes in the same category, to make it light and feel bouncy, it gets spongey, light foam. FuelCell foam is described by the New Balance folks as, their highest energy return midsole material. This means its put into shoes where they need high return or energy and responsiveness. The foam also goes into their FuelCell Super Comp Elite racing shoe and has even been used together with a plastic plate in the shoe (to give it a stiff rocker)(like in a carbon fibre shoe) in their FuelCell Propel v4. Light, soft, responsive cushion.
If you see this in the shoe, I would advice trying if you are a lighter runner, with no foot issues and want to train or run at a fast pace in a very soft, responsive shoe.
History of Mizuno : Mizuno has a history going back to Osaka, Japan in 1906 but only launched into making running shoes in 1983.
Mizuno Wave Creation 20 - Maximum Cushioned Shoe
For Mizuno, their thing is the wave, a plastic wave that is incorporated into a lot of their shoes. The Mizuno Creation, a maximum cushion shoe shows a big wave plate in the midsole – so big you can see through the holes it creates. Mizuno calls this wave plate their PEBAX Wave Plate and they say the wave plate is made with Arkema Pebax® Rnew® polymer, a bio-based thermoplastic derived from castor beans. The wave plate adds to the energy return of the midsole cushioning in the shoe. Mizuno seems to use a mix of EVA foams in their shoes called Enerzy, firmer and softer as needed to then fill out the midsole.
The distinct and different plastic wave in the Mizuno shoes give them a distinct feel. I always found them well cushioned but not as soft as some other brands. The plastic and foam combination gives a unique, stable cushion.
History of ASICS - The Asics brand emerged in the 1970s and their history stemming from Japan has been one of lots of innovation. The famous Lasse Viren, a Finnish long-distance runner, wore ASICS shoes to win a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics. On his victory lap, he famously took off his Onitsuka Tiger shoes and waved them to the crowd.
ASICS GT-2000 11 - Moderate Stability Shoe
The Asics shoes I know use mainly of different EVA type foams and the additional their patented Gel that adds extra cushion in high impact areas (heel and forefoot). The cushioning in this model is a mix of FF BLAST™ technology provides lightweight cushioning and a responsive rebound and FLYTEFOAM™ cushioning helps keep the shoe lightweight. The foam and gel create a soft cushioned feel with extra help from the gel in the heel and forefoot and with denser foam adding support on the inner (medial side).
I have tried on and run in Asics shoes and you cannot really feel the Gel but the shoes feel cushioned. The combination of foam and Gel gives a durably soft cushioned feel without being too soft or hard. The technology may not be as flashy as some other brands, but it seems to work!
History of Brooks : Brooks’ history started in 1914 with ballet slippers not running shoes but saw the light after seeing an American Frank Shorter win an Olympic medal in the marathon. They jumped in with their first shoe called the Villanova with feedback from Olympic middle-distance runner Marty Liquori.
Brooks Ghost 15 - Cushioned Shoe
So what does Brooks use for cushioning? Well in the Ghost 15 the midsole is packed with a full length DNA LOFT V2 cushion foam, which Brooks says is softer and lighter than the last model. DNA LOFT is made up of a combination of EVA foam, rubber, and infused with nitrogen gas. I have seen other reviews that have confirmed by testing the durometer (how soft something is), that the claim is true. The goal for this shoe is to make it a smooth ride with soft cushioning. I do not see any addition tech added to the midsole of this shoe.
If you see this type of foam in Brooks shoes you are probably going to get a soft marshmallow ride meant for lighter runners with no foot issues. I have tried a version of this shoe on and it’s a light, spongey cushioned ride.
History of Altra : This shoe company has a shorter history than some others but they stand out for their foot-shaped shoes. Founded by two friends who met during college cross-country and working at the same shoe store. They started with an idea to make shoes that worked for them.
Altra Escalante Racer - Cushioned Race Shoe
This shoe from Altra is cushioned but in the racer category, meaning it is designed to be fast, light and for going as hard as you can on race day. Altra has used their Altra EGO™ midsole (that they describe as powerfully plush). The cushioning is designed to be firmer for added return and an increased response.
Their website says the foam is made to harmonize the balance between responsiveness and comfort. This one you may need to try on to see how you like the cushion, some people like different things for their race shoe. Other Altra shoes use variantys of the Altra Ego foam with the well cushioned Torin 7 using Altra EGO™ MAX foam that gives a softer feel.
I have worn Altra running shoes and was an ambassador at one point. I loved the foot shape that allowed me lots of room and no rubbing but the zero drop and some of the cushioning was not for me. Worth a try.
The About Us section of the Hoka site does not tell you too much but when you do some research you find out they were formed in 2009 in France but is based in California. Their focus is well cushioned but light.
Hoka Clifton 9 - Cushioned Shoe
Chunky monkey, but light monkey! This brand seems to rely less on technology or at least their own version of foams and extra things thrown in and more on the amount of cushion and how they put their shoes together. The Clifton 9 just uses compression molded EVA foam (not new) for the midsole that they say is engineered for lightweight cushioning. EVA is normally soft and light and HOKA uses a lot and well.
These shoes blew me away when they came out. They look heavy but are light and soft and super cushioned. I have worn a few models and current run in the Carbon X model (their super shoe) and once again its just EVA, but this time with a carbon fibre plate.
History of Adidas : The history of this shoe brand goes back a long time. The start of the company was in 1924 in Bavaria, Germany but running shoes did not come out until with the signature three stripes until 1949. This brand has been going strong ever since.
Adizero Boston 11 - Lightweight Cushioned Shoe
The name of the shoe is about the Boston marathon and racing. Adidas uses Lightstrike Pro+ cushioning and what they call ENERGYRODS to limit energy loss during running/racing. I had trouble finding details about the cushion’s composition but that is not surprising as its their newest secret formula for light and responsive foam in their fastest shoes. The plastic rods added to the foam are like the carbon fibre plates in other super shoes that help form a rocker and return more energy. If you see this foam its going to be light, soft and very responsive.
Adidas has come up with quite a few cushioning methods like UltraBoost, Adizero and even a 3D-printed midsole for different types of their running shoes. Lots of options and cushion types.
A brief glimpse at some other shoe technologies you might come across:
Like running on pods of cushion that compress as you run. Some people love their shoes, I tried a number of models and found them a bit off to run with. Everyone is different!
Nike WinFlo 10
Nike does not use “Air” as much anymore in their running shoes, but the plastic sacs of air used to be used a lot in their shoes to add more cushion to the regular foam cushioning. It has a distinct feel when larger more firm air units are used. Do not see as much in their real running shoes now.
Endorphin Speed 3
This lightweight, fast shoe uses a lighter version of the PWRRUN foam cushioning used in other shoes and adds a PB to the end to indicate it’s a lighter and more responsive foam. Both are light and quite soft.
Every brand tends to have their own version of white EVA cushioning or more than one type for softer or firmer shoes and then add their unique cushioning enhancers to help or give the shoe brand its unique feel. What you foot feels will be different than what another person may feel. Knowing more about each shoe and what they use, helps you make an informed decision.
The Fit of the Shoe
When you find the right shoe for your foot and find the right cushioning, make sure the shoe fits! The shoe should not be tight, nor sloppy, just snug and comfortable. Make sure nothing is rubbing and you have some room at the toe of the shoe, so that when your foot moves and gets hot and expands a little during exercise – your toes will not hit the end!