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Among running injuries, back pain is consistently one of the most reported injuries by both new and seasoned runners. However, despite a seemingly ubiquitous presence of back pain for runners along with a well-documented academic relationship between the two, experts agree that the individual causes are highly variable.
Much of this is due to the complexities of the human musculoskeletal system, which feature numerous moving parts and dynamic interactions.
As a result, treatments are extremely individual-specific and can include everything from addressing muscular imbalances to exercises and stretches to improving posture to even evaluating walking/ running pace.
One area that many medical professionals may typically investigate as a contributor to lower back pain is to carefully examine the foot and the corresponding shoes an individual runner utilizes.
Many experts agree that because the foot can lead to imbalances or conditions that can contribute to back pain, ensuring that the individual wears proper footwear is extremely important.
However, given the vast landscape of running shoes, there is not a one-size fit all solution and we highly recommend that all runners consult medical professionals to get a better understanding of their specific foot. We also cannot overstate the importance of getting properly fit by a running professional at a running specialty store.
In fact, there are only two generally accepted rules in choosing running shoes:
- Get Properly Fit.
- Replace Often.
Professionals can also ensure the individual understands their running tendencies including gait, posture, and stride length, which are absolutely critical to minimizing back pain. Additionally, when choosing running shoes, we recommend that the runners pay careful attention to a few aspects of the shoe:
- Support: What is my gait? Do I overpronate, supinate, or am I a neutral runner? Is there a removable insole if I want custom support?
- Upper: Is the shoe flexible and breathable? Will my feet be cramped in the shoe and alter my stride?
- Cushioning: How much shock absorption do I need and where?
- Traction: Will the shoe provide secure contact and grip on the ground?
By going through this list, runners can, generally speaking, be categorized into three key categories based on running shoe needs: Motion Control, Neutral, or Minimalist. To that end, we compiled a list of our favorite shoes in each category along with some general tips on what to look for.
- 1 Motion Control or Stability shoes
- 2 Here are our favorite Motion Control and Stability Shoes:
- 3 Neutral
- 4 Here are our favorite Neutral Running Shoes:
- 5 Here are our favorite Minimalist Running Shoes:
Motion Control or Stability shoes
Overpronators tend to roll excessively inward with their thigh, knee, or foot. As a result, they tend to put a lot of pressure on their lower body and back resulting in some discomfort and even pain.
This could be due to a number of issues including muscular imbalances in the foot or legs to the runner’s weight to the runner’s posture. Those suffering from these conditions may find that motion control or stability shoes could provide some relief and support.
Motion control and stability shoes are designed to help the runner resist the inward roll by providing support through a medial post and a rigid arch. These shoes also feature a significant amount of rigidity throughout the shoe to reduce excessive lateral movement during running.
As a result, the runner will experience a more normal pronation pattern by restricting a collapsing arch and inward move.
When shopping for motion control and stability shoes, it is important that runners consider the following:
- Weight: Motion control and stability shoes tend to be “beefier” and heavier to give the runner a more stable ride. However, runners should make sure the shoe is not too heavy, which could contribute to other running issues. Too much shoe weight could promote excessive “pounding” and hard landings. Therefore, runners should make sure they are able to safely handle the weight of the shoe.
- Cushioning: One of the most important aspects of motion control and stability shoes a runner should consider is the level of firmness and quality of cushioning. Motion control shoes should provide a decent level of firmness to restrict the runner from depressing too much into the shoe and rolling inward.
However, runners should also make sure that the cushioning provides ample shock absorption as overly firm running shoes can adversely impact the runner particularly in the legs and lower back.
The first place runners should inspect on motion control and stability running shoes are the medial post. This structure is commonly available in motion control shoes and varies in size, density, and structure. Therefore, it is important runners try on various styles to ensure the best fit.
Lastly, an often-underrated aspect of running shoes, runners should normally choose shoes with removable insoles. Doing so will enable the runner to create a more customized fit through custom orthotics should his or her doctor recommend it.
- Traction: Because motion control and stability shoes essentially “straighten” a runner’s gait, we recommend runners also carefully evaluate both the quality and the design of a shoe’s traction. If the traction is poorly designed, the runner can slip on certain surfaces causing further injury. Also, nondurable outsoles can wear quickly limiting both the life of the shoe along with compromising some of its motion control and stability features.
Here are our favorite Motion Control and Stability Shoes:
Brooks Beast 16 (men)(13.6oz) / Brooks Ariel 16 (women)(11.4oz)
Continuing on their long lineage of their highly successful Beast and Ariel stability line, the Brooks Beast/Ariel 16 is the most recent iteration of their motion control line.
The Brooks Beast/ Ariel 16 features a synthetic mesh upper promoting breathability, which users appreciated on long runs. It also features strategic overlays including a substantial heel counter and a traditional lacing system to provide a secure fit for runners.
Aesthetically, we found that some users appreciated the technical look of the Brooks Beast/ Ariel 16 including the unique Brooks logo ornamenting the side of the shoe.
The Brooks Beast/Ariel 16 features a soft foam midsole on top of a substantial medial post for added stability to help minimize overpronation. This is substantially aided by a full-length crash pad which is designed to be both a shock absorber and also provide a smoother transition.
The crash pad also aids in the shoe’s flexibility giving the Brooks Beast/Ariel 16 a more natural stride. As many motion control and stability shoes are inherently rigid, we found that many users enjoyed the substantial arch support combined with the reasonable flexibility for long and short distance runs.
However, we found that many users commented that the sizing was incredibly inconsistent with many stating that they had to size up considerably. As a result, we found that users that consulted a local running store for sizing assistance were the most pleased with the Brooks Beast/ Ariel 16.
Additionally, like many of Brooks’ offerings, we found that the Brooks Beast/ Ariel 16 to be a bit cost prohibitive particularly for low mileage runners. However, for those logging a lot of miles a week and rotate their shoes consistently, the Brooks Beast/ Ariel 16 may be worth exploring.
Asics GT-1000 6 (M-10.2oz)(W-8.3oz)
As one of the leaders in the running shoe space, Asics continues to offer multiple motion control and stability shoes for those looking for additional support from their Kayano to Gel Foundation line.
Among their stability offerings, one of their most popular offerings continues to be the Asics GT-1000. Now in its sixth version, the Asics GT-1000 6 is a lightweight runner with moderate stability support for those suffering from overpronation.
The Asics GT-1000 6 features a simplistic, engineered mesh upper that promotes considerable breathability. Asics also provides structural support using strategically placed overlays around the foot and the heel. The Asics GT-1000 6 even utilizes the logo to provide additional support around the sides of the foot.
As an aside, we found that many appreciated brands’ use of branding to serve a functional, stability purpose similar to Adidas’ use of the three-stripe midfoot cage on the nuclear-popular Ultra Boost. Asics employs a similar method here and it contributes to sleek, lightweight package.
The Asics GT-1000 6 also features a roomy toe box; a feature that we found many reviewers of varying foot sizes considerably appreciated.
The Asics GT-1000 6 features Asics’ well-tested SPEVAFOAM midsole, which is designed to improve energy return and minimize breakdown or excessive flattening. The SPEVAFOAM also aids in supporting the runner with additional pronation support by combining it with Asics’ DuoMax Support system.
DuoMax is a dual-density midsole that focuses support throughout the rear of the shoe including the interior to minimize excessive inward roll. The Asics GT-1000 6 also utilizes a rear foot Gel cushioning system on the lateral side of the shoe to promote a soft-landing and promote smoother transitions.
The Asics GT-1000 6 also features a removable insole for those looking for additional stability support in the form of a custom orthotic insole.
We found that many users commented on how the support of the Asics GT-1000 6 was adequate without being overly so. However, we found that some users commented on how narrow the shoe was so we recommend trying on a pair prior to purchasing.
Neutral runners tend to have a more natural heel to toe gait. They do not roll inwards or outwards and thus do not require corrective technologies. In fact, a neutral runner in a motion control or stability shoe could experience some back, knee, or ankle pain as it causes them compensate for a problem they do not have.
Neutral running shoes are typically less chunky than motion control shoes sporting a sleeker overall profile. Neutral running shoes also typically utilize a slimmer, less dense midsole allowing the runner to more naturally move with the terrain.
These shoes also feature strategic cushioning systems in the heel and forefoot areas to promote an easier transition during running. Lastly, neutral running shoes are also lighter than their motion control counterparts and often offer traction patterns built for speed.
However, when getting fit for running shoes, it is not enough to understand initial or “early-mile” gait tendencies. Neutral runners should carefully evaluate the number of miles they plan on running and their corresponding tendencies when fatigued.
One place neutral runners could start is by identifying pain points after long runs whether it is in the heel, knee, shin, or even lower back.
This will help the neutral runner understand if they tend to severely overpronate, heel-strike, or drag late in runs. They can use this to better choose the right pair of running shoes and the features important to them to help alleviate pain.
When shopping for neutral running shoes, it is important that runners consider the following:
- Flexibility: Neutral runners should choose shoes that promote a natural running motion. One aspect that helps this is the flexibility in the both the upper and the sole of the shoe. Neutral runners should also look for shoes that are not restrictive both horizontally and vertically giving the foot plenty of room during runs.
- Cushioning: Depending on the personal preferences of the runner along with their level of skill, runners should carefully look for the level of cushioning available in neutral running shoes. Most neutral runners will opt for softer cushioning systems with a decent amount of energy return. However, some runners may seek a more responsive ride.
Here are our favorite Neutral Running Shoes:
Nike Pegasus 34 (M-10.4oz)(W-9oz)
Among Nike’s considerable line of running shoes, perhaps no shoe stands out more, due in large part to the history, than the Nike Pegasus line. In what has become a staple for the line, Nike introduced the Nike Pegasus 34 in 2017 as a continued high-quality offering for those looking for a little correction and adequate cushioning.
The Nike Pegasus 34 features a “Flymesh” upper, which is a single piece of engineered mesh that encases the wearer’s foot while providing breathability and support. The only true structural overlay of the Nike Pegasus 34 is on the heel counter and the swoosh logo.
As a result, the Nike Pegasus 34 continues to remain extremely flexible in the upper. This flexibility prevents intense restriction in the foot while promoting breathability along with reducing the likelihood that structural overlays will alter the runner’s gait.
We also found that users enjoyed the generous horizontal and vertical toebox over competing models giving the runner a “roomier” fit, which is important in maintaining a consistent gait.
Nike also continues to employ its Flywire technology which in combination with the traditional lacing structure helps give the wearer a close and customized fit. The Nike Pegasus 34 also promotes lockdown by employing a sleeved tongue to prevent excessive movement or sliding.
The Nike Pegasus 34 continues to use Nike’s Cushlon foam midsole which encapsulates Zoom Air bags in the forefoot and heel. As a result, the runner gets a responsive, firm ride without having to worry about losing road feel. For those requiring additional support through custom orthotics, the Nike Pegasus 34 also comes with a removable insole.
We should also note that despite being classified as a neutral runner, we found that users commented, positively, on the amount of arch support and stability in the Nike Pegasus 34.
As a result, for those looking for a true neutral runner, we recommend that consumers try on the Nike Pegasus 34 to ensure that the support is not destructive. Lastly, the traction pattern and outsole rubber compound continues the Pegasus’ tradition of delivering impressive durability and excellent traction.
Mizuno Wave Rider 20 (M-9.6oz)(W-8.3oz)
Despite its considerable fingerprints in baseball and golf, Mizuno continues to position itself as a leader in the running shoe market. Much of this is due to their wildly successful Wave Rider line now in its 21st edition. Despite the newer model, we found that the Mizuno Wave Rider 20 continues to be a popular choice for neutral runners.
The Mizuno Wave Rider 20 features an engineered mesh upper with a nearly seamless design. However, unlike other engineered mesh systems, we found that users commented on the comfortable amount of stretch in the upper.
However, we found that the stretch did not sacrifice the lockdown of the shoe and actually promoted a more comfortable running experience.
The Mizuno Wave Rider 20 features a “euphoric” dual-density midsole that is balanced between providing the runner with responsiveness and ample cushioning. Mizuno combines this with their “cloudwave” technology within the heel of the shoe.
As a result, many runners commented that this shoe provided quick transitions without drastically altering the runner’s gait, which is essential for a neutral shoe. The insole is also removable for those requiring a customized orthotic.
The Mizuno Wave Rider 20 features a minimal traction pattern that does well in keeping the runner from slipping without getting stuck to road surfaces. Much of this, we believe, is due to the rubber compound Mizuno has been able to perfect in their Wave Rider series over the years.
We found that some users mentioned that the Mizuno Wave Rider 20 was even adequate enough to run on semi-wet conditions. We found that users enjoyed the secure fit and the air flow as a result of the breathability of the upper.
However, users should note that the extreme breathability may present issues during colder winter months. This problem may be exacerbated by the traction that does well in most conditions, but may present issues in snow or icy circumstances.
Despite the boom of the minimalist or “barefoot” movement helped in part by marketing and the Nike Free line, minimalist running shoes are still going strong as a popular option for runners. Minimalist running shoes typically feature a low profile flexible sole that most closely resembles the foot’s natural movement patterns.
Minimalist running shoes also promote considerable ground feel giving the runner better proprioception and awareness of the body. This can help the runner navigate difficult terrain on trail runs for instance, and also help the runner understand how and where the foot is contacting the ground.
Minimalist running shoes provide the runner the ability to build, over time, the requisite back, leg, and foot strength needed for running. In addition to form and technique training along with stretching, minimalist shoes can help address some issues that cause different types of pain.
However, minimalist running is still highly advanced and requires careful discussions with professionals, particularly those with lower back pain or other issues.
When shopping for minimalist running shoes, it is important that runners consider the following:
- Offset: One of the most common revelations of the minimalist movement was that doctors agreed it was “too much, too soon.” Runners were immediately jumping from cushioned shoes with a 10mm or higher heel-to-toe drop right into barefoot or 0mm drop shoes. As a result, they were not able to develop the adequate muscular strength, technique, and form to safely benefit or utilize minimalist running shoes. Therefore, runners first transitioning into minimalist shoes should carefully evaluate their current running shoes’ offset and ensure that they are choosing shoes that do not require too much too fast.
- Durability: Many minimalist shoes will “skimp” on durable materials in the shoe to promote a more natural feel. However, as a result, minimalist runners often report blowouts or holes in the upper of the shoe. Therefore, runners should carefully consider the materials a minimalist running shoe utilizes in order to maximize durability.
Here are our favorite Minimalist Running Shoes:
Merrell Vapor Glove 2 (M-5.8oz)(W-4.8oz)
One of the leaders in the minimalist running shoe space, Merrell completely changed the game with the original Merrell Vapor Glove. Many reviewers noted that the first version was the closest to barefoot comfort and feel without the inconvenience of dirty feet.
Building on that success, Merrell introduced the Merrell Vapor Glove 2, which is an improvement over the original in nearly every capacity.
The Merrell Vapor Glove 2 features a completely synthetic upper made up of a lightweight breathable mesh, which is also vegan-friendly. We found that it felt thinner than traditional engineered mesh and more “airy” than even knit uppers. As a result, the Merrell Vapor Glove 2 is both extremely flexible and amazingly comfortable.
The first edition of the Merrell Vapor Glove often succumbed to blowouts or severe wear holes.
To assist in durability, the Merrell Vapor Glove 2 added TPU in strategic places to assist in durability. We found that many users did not notice the additional reinforcements and commented that the Merrell Vapor Glove 2 was still extremely airy and free-flowing. Merrell also provides a generous toe box allowing the runner to fit into the shoe comfortably.
True to minimalist shoes, the Merrell Vapor Glove 2 maintains as little cushioning as possible. The Merrell Vapor Glove 2 utilizes a compression molded EVA midsole. As a result, the cushioning is extremely flexible, durable, and responsive. The Merrell Vapor Glove 2 provides amazing ground feel without feeling like the runner is pounding the ground.
This is aided by Merrell’s “air cushioning” in the heel, which helps minimize heel impact and adds stability.
The Merrell Vapor Glove 2 utilizes a Vibram TC1 outsole, which is widely recognized for its durable and tacky rubber compound. It features a low and smooth lug pattern that allows the shoe to provide great traction for both roads and trails.
The smooth lug pattern also allows the outsole to more naturally mimic the runner’s foot and gait pattern.
We found that runners praised the low-profile traction which affords extreme flexibility. Most notably, the Merrell Vapor Glove 2 features a 0mm heel drop giving the runner a low profile and even run.
The Merrell Vapor Glove 2 builds upon the success of the first edition and we found that users continue to enjoy this minimalist offering from Merrell. We found that users appreciated the lightweight breathable upper which afforded extreme flexibility and comfort.
However, the natural tradeoff is that the Merrell Vapor Glove 2 may not provide enough warmth in extreme cold conditions or water resistance. We also found that the Merrell Vapor Glove 2 provided one of the most natural foot movements of all the minimalist offerings on the market.
As a result, the Merrell Vapor Glove 2 is a perfect choice for those seeking a minimalist shoe to strengthen muscular imbalances to help the pain.
New Balance Minimus 10v1 Trail (M-7.4oz)(W-6.3oz)
While offering a number of popular running shoes such as the stability-focused 860v8 and the speedier Fuelcell, New Balance continues to provide quality offerings for those interested in a minimalist shoe with the New Balance Minimus 10v1 Trail.
A long-time staple in the minimalist running community, the New Balance Minimus 10v1 Trail combines superior feel with low-profile responsiveness.
The New Balance Minimus 10v1 Trail is comprised of a synthetic mesh upper with considerable structural overlays to secure the runner into the shoe as well as provide added durability. Most notably, the New Balance Minimus 10v1 features a midfoot strap along with a semi-structured heel counter to provide the runner with stability.
However, given these features, the New Balance Minimus 10v1 still remains extremely breathable due to the mesh materials that comprise the majority of the shoe. We found that the structural overlays also do not hinder the flexibility of the shoe giving the shoe a more natural movement.
The New Balance Minimus 10v1utilizes an Acteva midsole; a lighter foam unit than comparable midsoles. The Acteva midsole is also extremely durable and resists compression, which should be minimal in a minimalist shoe.
The New Balance Minimus 10v1’s thin midsole allows it to provide the runner with supreme road and trail feel. Additionally, the New Balance Minimus 10v1 features a 4mm heel drop making this an excellent transition shoe for those coming to more traditional higher drop running shoes.
The New Balance Minimus 10v1 also utilizes the Vibram rubber outsole which brings its patented durable, “grippy” traction. The New Balance Minimus 10v1 features strategic grooves on the outsole which aid in overall flexibility of the outsole.
In fact, users have reported being able to completely fold the shoe over demonstrating its elasticity. The New Balance Minimus 10v1 also feature pods to help promote nimble traction without weighing the shoe down or featuring overly protruding lugs.
The New Balance Minimus 10v1 is a quasi-minimalist runner that is perfect for transitioning runners looking for a barefoot experience. It features a highly flexible upper with a breathable mesh that makes it the perfect shoe for warm climates.
We found that many customers enjoyed that the New Balance Minimus 10v1 maintained a comfortable climate for most conditions. We also enjoyed the improved durability over other true minimalist shoes due to the unique midfoot strap and additional overlays.
We found that many users enjoyed the New Balance Minimus 10v1 because it provided an easy transition into the minimalist market without immediately jumping into zero-drop shoes and potentially risking injury.
The only negative we could speak to is that some reviewers commented on the narrow and smaller sizing, so we recommend that consumers try on a pair to ensure a comfortable fit.