How to choose running shoes? Cushioning can hurt you, studies suggest

How to choose the right running shoes? We’ve reviewed studies that look into runners, their shoes, and injuries. According to those, modified, cushioned shoes will only hurt you. 

It seems that the best running shoes are the ones you wouldn’t even think of. 

So how do you choose footwear that makes running a pleasure, based on scientific research?

Cushioned, or even more cushioned? 

Present-day running shoes are one-upping each other in cushioning. Thick soles, gels, foams, springs… However, studies show that we’re only hurting ourselves with cushioning. 

  • A 1991 study found that runners in cushioned shoes with pronation support suffer from injuries more frequently than runners in regular running shoes. 
  • Another study in 2015 revealed that 94% of runners in cushioned shoes land dangerously harshly on their heels. 
  • Professor Daniel Lieberman also agrees. He found that runners in modern-day running footwear land heel first, while barefoot runners (without cushioned shoes) tend to land on their fore-foot. 

When there is a cushion under your heel, you don’t feel that you are landing on it. However, the impact on the heel is still immense and damages your joints. That’s why runners in present-day shoes suffer more from injuries than those who run barefoot. 

a man and a woman holding the Chitra Trek&Trail barefoot shoe, squeezing it
Feet have natural cushioning—toes and arch. That’s why you need shoes that don’t restrict them.


Does that mean that I should simply start to run without cushioning?

Not right away. 

Yes, “barefoot“ shoes with no cushioning are the healthiest alternative for running. However, after years in modern shoes, you’ve gotten out of the habit of running and walking naturally. You’re probably landing on your heel, and you could hurt yourself in shoes without cushioning. 

Therefore, go for shoes that are close to barefoot walking while partially softening the impact on the heel. The Ahinsa shoes Comfort line with a special insole and a layer of Technogel meets this requirement.

Reading tip: How to start running barefoot: A guide for runners and non-runners

a comfortable foam insole for Ahinsa shoes Comfort line

The soft insole cushions the heel without restricting the toes.

What is a “drop“, and what is it good for? 

In the description of every good pair of running shoes, you will find the term “drop“. What is that? It’s the height difference between the heel and the tip of the shoe. A drop of 1 cm means that the heel is 1 cm higher than the tip of the foot. You’re most likely to encounter 0, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 10 mm drops.

You can’t measure the drop of the shoe and you won’t recognize it at first glance. In some running shoes, the sole extends higher to protect the fabric and the seam. It may then seem that the shoe has a high drop, but it’s not the case. 

That’s why you should examine the parameters of running shoes. The manufacturer should provide information about the drop. 

And which drop to choose? That’s not that simple. 

➡️ 8 mm and more = high drop. Is it even desired?

From 8 mm upwards, we’re dealing with a so-called high drop. That’s often recommended to runners known as heel strikers. That means that you land with your heel first, and then transfer your weight to the toe. 

Caution! This running style is dangerous even with the highest drop or cushioning.

In fact, high drop doesn’t effectively deal with heel impacts. It even makes you land more significantly on your heel. And because you can’t feel the impacts through the thick sole, you tread with less sensitivity. Studies suggest that this can lead to more frequent injuries. 

If you happen to be a heel striker, we recommend: 

  • Start with a lower drop. 
  • Practice correct running techniques. 
  • Once you’ve mastered it, gradually transition to a zero drop. 

Learn to run in a healthy way. Find out how in the article How to start running barefoot: A guide for runners and non-runners. 

➡️ 1 to 7 mm = low drop. Compromise running shoes 

The heel-to-toe height difference up to 7 mm is referred to as a low drop. However, low doesn’t mean zero, so expect these shoes to alter your running style. 

Any drop causes you to land on your heel more. Plus, it tilts your body, changing its natural posture. 

Shoes with a low drop can serve as a compromise if you haven’t been paying attention to your running style. They partially soften the impact upon landing, but don’t deal with it in the long term. Therefore, practice a healthy forefoot strike and gradually transition to shoes with a zero drop. 

Illustration of the effects of a heel on the body

Even a small drop tilts the whole body.

➡️ 0 mm = zero drop. Healthy shoes for experienced runners

So, shoes with a zero drop should be the best choice for runners. Right? 

They don’t tilt the body, they don’t change the running style. That’s true, but… 

This type of shoe is ideal for runners that are already able to run naturally. They land on the forefoot, which acts as a cushion. The arch and toes soften the impact. 

Can you land on the forefoot? Excellent, go for zero-drop shoes. 

But if you know you land heel first, we recommend starting with a low drop or special insoles for impact cushioning. Focus on your running technique, practise natural landing and rebound, and over time, you can switch to healthy running shoes as well. 

a woman running through the terrain in zero-drop shoes

The foot arch naturally acts as a spring. That’s why an experienced runner doesn’t need thick cushioning under the heel.

Wide toe box for maximum rebound

Do you know where the push-off happens? Ideally, in the tip of your foot, specifically, the toes. That’s why you should opt for shoes that allow the toes to work naturally. You’ll recognize them by the wide toe box. 

The toes shouldn’t be squeezed together. When that happens, you disable their function and lose strength. That’s exactly what most common running shoes do to your feet. 

Learn how to utilise your toes during the rebound motion in our article How to start running barefoot: A guide for runners and non-runners.

women’s Chitra Run running shoes

Shoes with a wide toe box free the toes for the push-off.

The toe box is related to the overall width of the shoe. To fully use your foot’s strength, the shoe shouldn’t constrict or tighten it. However, it may surprise you that most running shoes are narrower than you need. 

Just because you are able to squeeze into a shoe doesn’t mean it fits. 

How to recognize running shoes with the right width? 

  • Online shopping: Stand on a sheet of paper. Fully step on your foot, center your toes and trace your foot on the piece of paper. Measure at the widest point (usually the toes). This is the width of your foot. Look for shoes that you can fit in without being constricted. 
  • In-store shopping: Take the shoes you want to buy and pull out the insole. Stand on it and center your toes. Can you see the edges of the insole, or does your foot exceed them? If it does, it means that the shoe is too narrow. 

Always check the exact width, because different manufacturers label different shoes as “wide“. 

Rugged terrain or flat road? Feel free to get two pairs of shoes 

Do you know your running circuit well? Great, let’s divide it into three categories. Based on those, you can choose shoes that will have your back both on rough terrain and wet roads. 

What group are you part of? 

  1. I run on the roadway, farm roads, in the park and on gravel. 
  2. I run in nature, I don’t mind mud, rocks and sandy surfaces. 
  3. I switch it up. Some days on roads, some days on proper off-road trails. 

1. Roadways and farm roads ask for road-running shoes

On paved surfaces, you’ll make good use of so-called road-running shoes. Don’t be misled by the name, you use them to run even on a compacted forest path and farm road. 

Roads like these are hard on the joints, that’s why road-running shoes often have a softer landing. You don’t have to move up the gear like on rough terrain, so there is usually no significant tread pattern on road-running shoes. 

How can you recognize road-running shoes? 

  • They protect the heel from hard landings (for example the Chitra Trek&Trail Comfort). 
  • They are light. The longer the track, the more you appreciate lighter shoes. 
  • The tread pattern is usually not that pronounced. 
  • The sole is durable. The road is mercilessly scraping it. 
  • They have a good grip. That means that they are reliable on wet surfaces. 

We tested how running footwear by Ahinsa shoes perform. And the results? They stick like glue, even on wet roads. 

Be careful, significant cushioning is not a long-term solution. Yes, it does help before you get used to landing on your forefoot. However, as long as you keep landing heel first, you’re hurting your joints. Practise natural running and gradually, you can reduce the cushioning. Even on the road. 

Road-running Chitra Run shoes by Ahinsa shoes

Road-running shoes are light and reliable on wet roads.

2. Nature requires trail running shoes

When it comes to terrain, always opt for trail running shoes. You can recognize them by their distinctive tread pattern, which will adhere to nature and won’t let you fall. It won’t even slip on mud or wet leaves.

What is typical for trail shoes?

  • A more robust structure which supports the leg but isn’t too tight.
  • Distinctive outsole pattern, useful for muddy areas and sand.
  • Less cushioning. Natural cushioning is provided by the terrain itself.
  • Softer sole. One that is not suitable for the road, it would wear out quickly.

Trail running shoes are often waterproof. However, be aware that shoes with waterproof membranes aren’t as breathable as typical netting.

You don’t necessarily need track spikes for regular trail running. The legendary Vibram outsole on the Chitra Track&Trail shoes works great in the terrain.

Trail running shoes Ahinsa Trek&Trail

Trail shoes support feet in off-road conditions. A distinctive outsole pattern is typical.

3. Switching it up? Get versatile running shoes (or invest in 2 models)

For both styles runners are versatile running shoes the best choice. They provide necessary cushioning on the road and they also work in terrain. They support the foot and are light enough at the same time. You can use them both for shorter jog and long run.

However, if you don’t change the terrain within one run, purchase two models instead. One for the road, and the other for the terrain. Specialised shoes in their intended environment are always a better choice than universal ones. Furthermore, experts recommend alternating running shoes, as each shoe affects your running technique.

stretching woman in trail shoes, road-running footwear by Ahinsa shoes is lying in background

One pair for the city, another pair for nature. You will benefit from alternating shoes.

What are Pronation and Supination? Should I look into it?

You will often come across footwear being divided into three categories, shoes with:

  • pronation support
  • supination support
  • regular push off 

During pronation, the ankle turns inward, during supination, it turns outward. The best solution is exercise.

During pronation, the ankle turns inward, during supination, it turns outward. The best solution is exercise.

Pronation means that you turn your ankle inward when you push off. Shoes with pronation support try to compensate for that with a reinforced strip on the inside.

Supination is the exact opposite: the ankle turns outwards.

How to find out how you run? Record yourself. Film your run from different angles and watch the slow-motion footage as well. You’ll discover if you're turning your ankles inwards or not, and whether you’re landing on your heel or toe.

Do you need pronation support? Studies reveal that you don’t. For instance, a previously mentioned study from 1991 says that runners with modified shoes for pronation support were more likely to suffer an injury.

How is that even possible? You see, external support for the human body actually works differently than people anticipate. When you support a certain body part, your body stops trying to support it itself. Pronation support can therefore paradoxically worsen the ankle condition.

If pronation is something you struggle with, we recommend exercises to centre and strengthen your ankle. You can find them in the e-book Step by step to healthy walking (free to download). For running, choose shoes without support so that you strengthen your ankle naturally.

women exercises on physiotherapeutic equipment

For ankle strengthening we recommend exercises on balance trainer

Did you know? A Study from 2008 showed that it doesn’t matter how worn out your footwear is. As the shoe and its cushioning changes, so does the way you run. You are adapting to the shoe without even realising it.

Light and breathable shoes = joyful feet

Every gram counts when running. However, the difference between each shoe model is significant. For example, trail shoes can weigh 408 g per pair (Chitra Trek&Trail) as well as 700 g (we prefer not to name).

The good news is that lightweight materials are often breathable as well. And, as we stated before, breathable shoes mean joyful feet.

Did you know that feet don’t just start to stink on their own? Fungi and bacteria, which thrive in damp places, are responsible for the unpleasant odour. So if your foot isn’t able to breathe and the shoe doesn’t wick away moisture, you can bet on the smell beating you. And that’s not all. Shoes that don’t allow ventilation can cause you some other problems:

  • pressure sores and abrasions of moist skin
  • mycoses
  • skin fungi

That’s why we recommend shoes made of breathable netting, especially for summer. The CoolMax lining, which wicks away moisture from the feet and cools them down, has proven successful. We use it for Chitra Run and Chitra Trek&Trail shoes.

Thin netting tends to tear. Look for proven, durable materials, such as Italian AirNet.

man in barefoot shoes is performing a backflip

Great running shoes are light just like this.

Manufacturers improve boots for winter and extreme conditions by adding a waterproof layer. We recommend it for rainy autumn, but not for summer. These materials do not wick moisture away from the foot. Instead, it keeps your feet in a pool of sweat.

Add an extra half centimetre

Look before you leap… or before you buy shoes.  Once you measure your feet, add an extra 0.5 to 1 cm. When running, the foot tightens, expands, moves and swells. Therefore, you need enough space.

Also, consider the conditions and weather in which you will be running. For example, in summer, the foot tends to swell more than in cold weather.

Reading recommendation: How to choose your size and how to correctly measure your feet?

Do you need special insoles?

Not if you can run naturally. You land on the front of your foot and you push off with your toes.

If you’re not that advanced, heel protection will come in handy. It is precisely the heel that most runners land on and hurt their joints. As stated by Daniel Lieberman, dropping on your heel creates a shock comparable to someone hitting you with a hammer and with full force. Then it spreads further into your body and hurts the knees, hips, and spine.

If you are unsure of your running style, we recommend insoles that:

  • gently cushions landing on the heel
  • don’t affect the toes and the toe tip
  • are wide enough—as we explained in the section about shoe width
  • wick sweat away from the feet

This insole can be found in all running footwear in Ahinsa Comfort collection.

Pay attention to your socks

You’ve chosen the perfect pair of shoes, but it still doesn’t feel quite right. Why is that? Socks.

Yes, socks affect how you run. Especially when they pull the toes together, are too tight around your ankle, and they aren’t breathable. So, how do you choose the right socks for running? Look for ones that:

  • Provide enough space for the toes. Try spreading your toes apart while wearing them, can you keep them that way?
  • Don’t contain elastane. It compresses the feet, especially toes.
  • Are loose around the ankle, so that blood can flow freely to the feet.
  • Are made of natural or breathable materials.

Take a look at these bamboo socks and read more about why shoes and socks don’t get along.

Our tip: Try running without socks. Ideally just for a short distance to make sure your shoes are not rubbing against your foot.

a woman and a man are putting on barefoot socks which are loose around ankle

Great socks won’t leave a mark around your ankle.

We sincerely wish you lots of joyful running sessions. Take a look at the healthy running footwear by Ahinsa shoes. If they don’t fit, we’ll exchange them.

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