Thanks to the pandemic, 2021 has been a banner year for running. According to a survey by RunRepeat, roughly 28 percent of current runners started pounding the pavement during the virus crisis. What's more, race organizers have postponed and squeezed every major marathon to autumn, which is how Shalane Flanagan ran all six World Marathon Majors in seven weeks.
The industry shows no signs of slowing down either. Our favorite brands continue rolling out new versions of favorites, upgrades to classics and more brand-new foams and lasts than you’d even think possible.
While finding the right pair of sneakers is incredibly personal, we keep tabs on the latest releases and try them out to see what lives up to the hype. This list incorporates recent winners as well as time-tested standbys — broken down into three key categories — so you can find the perfect pair of shoes no matter how you run.
The Best Cushioned Running Shoes
For many runners, the level of cushioning in their shoe is a top priority. When you're looking for a plush and comfortable ride, these five picks should be the top of your list.
The award-winning Bondi X is back and better than ever, with Hoka's well-known ultra-cushioned ride as its foundation. The Bondi X features plush cushioning — it's designed to provide a forgiving impact and ride, without a ton of weight. The newest Bondi also features a carbon fiber plate, which maximizes efficiency without sacrificing comfort. If you're looking for the plushest of rides, you'll find it in Hoka.
Weight: 11.01 ounces
Heel to Toe Drop: 5mm
The ZoomX Invincible Run Flyknit builds on the foundation of the original ZoomX: think a big platform made of foam designed with maximum shock absorption, a wider forefoot for stability and a more curved outsole for easier heel-to-toe transitions. Nike topped this shoe off with a Flyknit upper, enhancing breathability and a secure fit.
Weight: 11.07 ounces (size 10)
Heel to Toe Drop: 9 mm
The Ghost has been a part of Brooks's running line for seemingly forever — and it's constantly at the top of the best-selling list for its all-around running prowess. Beginners to experts alike will find this shoe does what they need it to do. The new version has a combination of proprietary cushioning, creating a smooth, balanced feel underfoot, even through your long training runs. If you've run in the Ghost before, the latest version will still be very familiar.
Weight: 10.1 ounces
Heel to Toe Drop: 12mm
When Adidas launched Ultraboost in 2015, it was revolutionary. The foam, fit and feel package was strong, and people loved the crossover value each sneaker carried, from runways to air travel to run commuting. The latest version has the most updates in a while, most notably a thicker Boost foam sole. That and a midsole insert for additional stability bring the shoe back into the realm of performance running, though we've found its size and weight are ideal for easier efforts.
Weight: 12 ounces
Heel to Toe Drop: 10 mm
New Balance nails the fit on version 11 of the well-cushioned and comfortable 1080s. Testers praised the previous iteration's supreme comfort, and nothing has changed with v11. Pull these on for your weekly long runs to feel supported yet springy, so your legs are fresh the next day. Testers also found the Fresh Foam in the midsole to be incredibly responsive and on par with the plushest foams in any shoe. The new form-fitting upper is the icing on top of this cake, though one tester says it was a little snug and uncomfortable in the midfoot.
Weight: 9.3 ounces
Heel to Toe Drop: 8 mm
The Most Responsive Running Shoes
Some runners may want a cushiony feel underfoot as they log miles, while others prioritize responsiveness and a close-to-ground feel. If you fall into the latter camp, these next five shoes are for you. They're supportive without feeling overdone, and flexible and sensitive where you need it.
Like Altra's Torin 4, which previously occupied a place on this list, the new Rivera is lightweight despite the very plush 26 millimeters of cushion underfoot. A foot-shaped toe box means your toes have room to breathe, though Altra made sure to equip the Rivera with a snug-fitting upper. As with all Altra shoes, this one has a zero-drop stack — Altra now refers to this as "Balanced Cushioning" — so it might take some getting used to. GP testers keyed into that aspect: "I was more responsive on the balls of my feet," one tester observes. Altra gave the Rivera lots of its EGO foam for spring and support but kept outsole rubber to a minimum to maintain its 9.1-ounce weight.
Weight: 9.1 ounces
Heel to Toe Drop: 0 mm
Like all its shoes, the Cloudflyer includes On's proprietary Cloudtec midsole pods. The company built them with lots of its Helion foam, which isn't as bouncy as others on this list but is plenty supportive and responsive. Additionally, the Cloudflyer has a super-comfy upper and a heel counter for stability; it's pretty light, though feels solid underfoot. Note: Our testers found the outsole channel on this and other On shoes can pick up gravel if you're running on dirt trails, so it may not be the best for offroading.
Weight: 9.88 ounces
Heel to Toe Drop: 7 mm
To kick the FuelCell into high gear, New Balance injected it with the highest-rebound foam the brand makes. Then it deconstructed the heel counter to make it lighter without losing too much support and created a close-fitting upper to buckle your foot into the proverbial cockpit. "The ride is soft and bouncy, but it doesn't sink in," says one tester, who also gave it top marks for cushioning, comfort and overall performance. "If this isn't the best shoe on the market, it's the best shoe under $130." The same tester noted that the upper blew out after roughly 150 miles but adds, "I'll probably buy another pair."
Weight: 7.2 ounces
Heel to Toe Drop: 6 mm
Reebok got back into running in 2017, but that relatively short stint has already proven impressive. The third iteration of this model is more streamlined than previous ones, thanks to a new breathable mono mesh upper. There's also ultralight but responsive Floatride Foam cushioning, and the whole stack is exceptionally lightweight at just 7 ounces. Though they shine at speed, they're a good bet for everyday runs too.
Weight: 7 ounces
Heel to Toe Drop: 8mm
The Gel-Kayano is a mainstay in the Asics stable, though the Lite version is much newer. To reduce its weight, Asics gave it a lighter mesh upper and tweaked its overall construction to move some of its stability-providing elements inside of the build. Those include firm shapes on top of the midsole — there's a concave one on the outside and a convex one on the inside — to combat overpronation. Runners without that issue might find these elements unwanted, though they're more subtle than in other similar models.
Weight: 10.2 ounces (size 10.5)
Heel to Toe Drop: 10 mm
The Best Running Shoes for Trails
Trail running shoes are designed for variable terrain — they typically feature bigger lugs on their grippy, rugged outsoles that can steamroll over small pebbles and rocks and climb efficiently without losing traction. Trail runners are also known for their stiffer midsoles, which offer more support on uneven surfaces and trails. When you want to walk/run on the wild side, choose from one of these top picks.
Salomon is known for engineering top-of-the-line trail runners, and the Speedcross 5 Gore-Tex continues that tradition. Built to withstand the rigors of trail running across seasons, the newest iteration uses a new Gore-Tex construction with a floating tongue that improves comfort (and streamlines the look of the shoe, if that's important to you). The Contagrip TA sole is made with muddy and soft conditions in mind, so you'll have no problem lacing up on rainy days.
Weight: 12 ounces
Heel to Toe Drop: 10mm
The Flight Vectiv made waves when it was introduced in early 2021, thanks to its propulsive 3D carbon fiber plate and rocker midsole, along with its Sole Vectiv tech, designed to maximize energy on the trail. The Flight Vectiv's design works in concert with your body's motion to propel you forward while stabilizing your foot. The 3.5 mm lugs, reinforced, breathable knit upper and responsive TPE footbed can handle any trail, from snowy to sandy, with ease.
Weight: 10.05 ounces
Heel to Toe Drop: 6mm
Allbirds came out with its rugged, all-condition Trail Runner SWT this fall, and we haven't taken them off since. Made from sugar, wool and trees (hence the name) the shoes continue the sustainability mission of the brand. The FSC-certified Tencel Lyocell (eucalyptus tree fiber) and ZQ Merino Wool blend upper are a one-two punch of breathability and comfort, while the SweetFoam midsole is a sugarcane-based material that provides a durable and stable ride. While a little on the heavier side, the shoes make up for it with superior grip, balance and comfort.
Weight: 12.36 ounces
Heel to Toe Drop: 7mm
Named for Hoka athlete Karl “Speedgoat” Meltzer, this award-winning trail runner is the ideal mix of neutral stability and balanced cushioning. Grippy on the ascents and secure on descents, the Speedgoat 4 has been updated with a new breathable mesh upper, allowing for increased airflow. The 3D printed overlays provide additional support in the midfoot, and the wider forefoot, combined with the Vibram Megagrip outsole, make for a grippy yet responsive underfoot feel. If you're looking for a capable and plush ride, slide on the Speedgoat.
Weight: 10.08 ounces
Heel to Toe Drop: 4mm
Saucony is synonymous with running, and its Peregrine 11 is a speed machine, with versatile and responsive cushioning and aggressive PWRTRAC tacky rubber lugs that grip and rip the trail. With a secure feel in mind, the Peregrine 11 builds on its predecessors with an even more robust upper than ever before, as well as a rock plate for additional protection. The PWRRUN cushioning optimizes a responsive feel, while maintaining balance.
Weight: 10 0unces
Heel to Toe Drop: 4mm
How We Test Shoes
Throughout the year, our crew tests and reviews some of the most buzzed-about running shoes. We work with a variety of brands to make sure we’re on top of what you’ll see when you walk into your local running specialty store.
We take to the roads in 90-degree weather and 0-degree weather, noting how that temperature affects the foam and gel. We also wear the shoes to walk around all day and on long travel weekends to get an overarching picture of what each shoe can actually do and what its limitations are. Beyond pure fit, we evaluate shoes from a durability, comfort and reliability perspective. We note if the shoes make us feel zippy, help us slog through training miles or fall a little flat.
We then separate them into three distinct categories because we know that in order to prevent injuries, it’s best to rotate sneakers. While it can seem pricey, it helps your sneakers last longer and will keep your feet in better shape.
What's a Running Shoe's "Drop?"
Simply put, a running shoe's drop is the difference in height between its heel and toe (it's often referred to more specifically as "heel-to-toe drop"). The difference puts you in a more forward position and builds extra padding into the heel, which is where many runners land in a stride.
Ten millimeters is often considered the ideal amount of drop, though the number varies by shoe. You'll notice that many of the shoes in this buying guide have less than that — lower-drop running shoes are something of a trend, mainly because they promote a landing in the mid- or forefoot versus the heel. Altra has built its brand on the idea of zero-drop or Balanced Cushioning, which it says creates better alignment and form while reducing impact. Also, a shoe with lots of foam and a high stack height won't necessarily have a higher drop.
If you're thinking of switching from a high-drop running shoe to a model with less, keep in mind that this is a change you'll feel. It'll take some getting used to, and you'll likely have to adjust your form. Start with lower-mileage runs and build up, even if you already have a high output.
When Should You Buy a New Pair of Running Shoes?
The lifespan of running shoes varies, but it's important to know that they do have a lifespan. You know a shoe is done when the outsole begins to peel off, or your toes explode through the mesh upper, but at this point, you're likely far past when you should've upgraded.
A few brands will list a shoe's lifespan in miles on its product page, but most don't. Consider 400 miles a ballpark figure — that's five months of running 20 miles a week. Some can take more, some less.
Keep an eye on your shoes too. Is the tread worn down? Does the foam feel less responsive? Are your muscles more sore or tired after running your usual loop than they should be? These are all signs that it's time for a new pair.