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How Should Running Shoes Fit?

Sheryl Cannes
Updated on: September 03, 2022

Miles and miles of your feet hitting the pavement can take its toll on your body. A running shoe that fits perfectly can help those distances pass in comfort. However, your sneakers do more than make your feet comfortable. A poor fit can affect your gait, the health of your feet, ankles, knees, and hips, and your ability to meet your fitness goals. Of course, to get that perfect fit, you need to know a little more than just your shoe size.

Running Shoe Fit Factors

A running shoe that works for one person may not work for another because feet come in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Many people’s feet don’t even conform to the most common standard sizes. Fit comes down to knowing how a shoe should feel and finding a pair that works for the unique characteristics of your feet.

Toe-Box

The toe-box houses the forefoot, the widest part of your foot. It should fit snugly but leave room for the toes to wiggle a bit. The end of your longest toe, which isn’t always the big toe, should have at least a thumb’s width between it and the end of the shoe.

If your toes can’t move, they could get pressed into the end of the shoe. Long-distance runners’ feet swell after three or four miles. In that case, a toe-box that’s too tight could create hot spots and blisters. You may also need to consider a wide-width sneaker to accommodate any injuries or foot issues, like bunions and calluses.

Heel

Poor fit in the heel can cause the heel to slip out of the sneaker. The shoe’s heel cup should hold your foot in place to prevent slipping and to make sure you get the full benefit of the shoe’s features. If the foot stays in place, that puts the arch and the rest of the foot in position for correct and adequate support and cushioning throughout the remainder of the sneaker.

Some people have trouble getting their heels to fit well in running shoes. If that’s you, you may want to look for footwear featuring an internal and external heel counter. A heel counter offers extra structure to hold the heel in place.

Arch

The foot’s arch can be a weak point for runners. Running puts a lot of shock and stress on this vulnerable area. The shoe’s insole should follow the curves of your natural arch. Some people have a low arch and others high. A low arch can, but not always, cause overpronation or inward rolling of the foot and ankle. For some, it doesn’t cause any pain or problems. For others, it can be painful to the point of limiting how much running they can do.

Running shoes with extra arch support and motion control features, like medial posts and guard rails, help reduce and control overpronation.

Lacing System

Laces aren’t just laces. They’re part of a design that snugly holds the foot in the shoe to make sure you can take advantage of all the shoe’s features. Some lacing systems follow the foot’s natural fall line, resulting in an eyelet row that curves from the ankle towards the toes. Others have extra eyelets, so you can use different lacing techniques to adjust the shoe to your foot. Lacing systems that offer extra adjustability help you to get a better, customized fit from the sneaker.

Overall Shape of the Running Sneaker

A shoe’s overall shape can indicate the foot shape it will best support. For example, some shoes have a narrow profile, others wide. Still, others follow the foot’s natural shape with a narrower heel that leads to a wider forefoot. Match the shoe shape to the natural shape of your foot.

Finding the Right Shoe

A good fit comes down to a number of factors, even though there are some general rules of thumb. For example, there should be at least a thumb’s width of space between the end of the shoe and the tip of the longest toe, leaving enough wiggle room for adequate blood flow especially as your feet swell. Through the heel and forefoot, it should be snug to reduce rubbing. You can check the heel fit by putting on the shoe, tying the laces, and holding the back of the shoe while raising your heel. There should be little if any movement if you have the right fit.

However, the best fit also takes into consideration a few more factors.

Personal Preferences

We all have personal fit preferences. Some people like a little more wiggle room, while others want their shoes locked down while they run. All mesh in the upper part of the sneaker or a stiffer upper may make a difference for some runners, too.

When getting a good fit, factor in your unique foot characteristics or medical conditions, from the length of your foot to lingering injuries. Doing so increases your comfort and acts as another layer of injury prevention. Plantar fasciitis, stress fractures, bunions, and even calluses can affect the shoe’s comfort and effectiveness. Extra cushioning can relieve the pain associated with some ailments, while wide width shoes may be the solution for others.

Running Distance

It’s important to make room for swelling to reduce rubbing, blisters, and awkward positioning for your toes. Generally, your foot swells more and more the longer you run. Sprinters and short distance runners—those who run under three miles per day—should buy their regular shoe size. On the other hand, mid- to long-distance runners—those who run three to ten miles each time they lace up—typically need to order their shoes a half size larger than normal. That extra space accommodates the natural swelling that occurs from further distances. If you’re running marathon lengths, you may need to wear sneakers in a whole size larger than normal to accommodate all the swelling.

Running Surface

Different running surfaces put different stresses on the shoes and on your body. A track or running trail’s flat surface doesn’t usually require extra traction unless you’re racing. Natural surfaces or shock-absorbing surfaces also reduce the need for extra cushioning.

But if you’re on the pavement for long runs, you not only need the right shoe size, you need a shoe with extra cushioning to absorb the shock of each footfall. Steep or rocky trails may require a stiff midsole to protect your feet from rocks along with deep treads for added traction.

Size and Weight

Bodyweight and size affect how quickly the shoe’s support and cushioning system recover and wear out. The more you weigh, the greater the forces the shoes have to support, wearing out the shoes faster. If you’re larger than average, the best shoe for you may be one with extra cushioning or a stiffer midsole that will withstand heavier pressure for a longer time.

If you undergo drastic weight changes, you may need to replace your shoes to make sure you get adequate support.

The Takeaway

A comfortable shoe lets you focus on the road ahead. Proper fit also reduces your chances of injury. Every person is unique in their foot shape and personal preferences. Your left and right foot may even be different sizes. As you take the time to analyze exactly what you need from your running sneakers, you have a better chance of getting the ideal fit and fully supporting your running goals.

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