When you are looking for a good running shoe, two primary styles you will encounter are neutral and stability shoes. These terms can be confusing when you’re on the hunt for the best running shoe for your feet. This guide is designed to help you decide which option is best for you.
Both of these types of shoes have their own set of pros and cons, which we will explore below. In this article, we will take a look at the differences between neutral vs stability running shoes, as well as who should be wearing each type.
The Key Difference: Movement of the Foot and Ankle
Neutral running shoes allow natural movement of the foot and ankle, while stability shoes provide more support and restrict movement to some degree. Stability shoes are sometimes referred to as “motion-controlled” shoes as well. These typically prevent excessive pronation or inward rolling of the foot.
Who Needs Pronation Control?
Pronation is a normal movement of the foot and ankle that is necessary for proper shock absorption. It becomes a problem when it is excessive and leads to inward rolling of the foot, which can cause pain in the knees, hips, and lower back. Excessive pronation is also correlated to overuse injuries such as Achilles tendonitis, shin splints, IT band syndrome, and posterior tibialis pain.
If you have been diagnosed with overpronation by a podiatrist or physical therapist, you may benefit from using stability shoes.
The Basics of Neutral Running Shoes
Neutral, minimalist, and low stability shoes have taken the running world by storm in the past two decades. The appeal is that these shoes allow your feet and legs to move more naturally, which some experts believe reduces your risk of injury.
Made popular by the book “Born to Run”- many runners have now experimented with the use of barefoot or minimalist running shoes. The thinking is that by allowing your foot and ankle to move more freely, you use different muscles, which may help to reduce your risk of overuse injuries.
The Top Features of a Neutral Shoe
- Minimal support and cushioning
- Room for the toes to move freely
- Has a low heel-to-toe drop (the difference in height between the heel and the forefoot)
- Supports midfoot and forefoot running (in contrast to running with a heel strike in more traditional running shoes)
It’s important to note here that running in minimalist shoes requires a change in biomechanics. Running with a heel strike in neutral shoes can lead to overuse injuries from the excessive joint and bone impact.
The Pros of Neutral Running Shoes
Some runners simply love the feel of neutral running shoes. They are designed to optimize local foot function and allow for a more natural running style.
The top pros for this choice of shoes include:
- Allows natural movement of the foot, which is important for proper biomechanics and potential injury prevention
- More flexibility in the forefoot, which can be beneficial for those with high arches
- Lighter weight than stability shoes
The Cons of Neutral Running Shoes
The main downside of neutral shoes is that they do not provide the same level of support as stability shoes. This can be a problem if you have flat feet or high arches, as you may need the extra support to avoid pain in the feet, knees, or hips. Additionally, neutral shoes do not provide as much cushioning as stability shoes, which can be a problem if you are training for long-distance running or are dealing with existing joint pain.
A summary of the cons includes:
- Does not provide support for those who need it
- Can worsen symptoms for people with conditions such as plantar fasciitis
- Can lead to various foot and ankle injuries without proper training and slow progression with use (this is particularly true if you’re switching from stability shoes)
Who Should Wear a Neutral Running Shoe?
Ideally, neutral running shoes are best for runners who have been injury-free for at least six months and have no underlying foot problems. They are also a good choice for those who are curious about changing their running mechanics and are seeking a more minimalist shoe. If you choose to switch to neutral shoes, it’s important to do so gradually and increase your mileage slowly to avoid injury.
The Basics of Stability Running Shoes
Stability shoes are designed to provide support for those who overpronate or have low arches. They usually have a medial post (a denser material on the inside of the shoe near the arch) that helps to control pronation. In addition, they often have extra cushioning in the heel to help absorb impact and protect against injury.
The Top Features of a Stability Shoe
- A medial post to control pronation
- A heel post of greater than 10 mm
- More support in the arch area
- The heel counter is stiffer to resist excessive inward movement (pronation) of the heel
The Pros of Stability Running Shoes
The main advantage of stability shoes is that they provide support for those who need it. This can help to prevent injuries such as plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, and shin splints. Additionally, stability shoes tend to have more cushioning than neutral shoes, which can be beneficial for long-distance runners or those with existing joint pain.
The top pros for this choice of shoes include:
- More support and cushioning than neutral shoes
- Extra cushioning in the heel for shock absorption
- Can help improve symptoms for people with conditions such as plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendonitis
- Reduces strain on intrinsic muscles of the foot and ankle that are commonly injured with running
The Cons of Stability Running Shoes
The main downside of stability shoes is that they can be heavier than neutral shoes. Additionally, they may not be as comfortable for those who are used to a more minimalist shoe. Additionally, too much reliance on the shock absorption of the shoes can lead to increased stress on the joints and other local tissues as well- making running mechanics crucial.
A summary of the cons includes:
- Restricts natural movement of the foot, which can be detrimental to proper biomechanics
- Less flexibility in the forefoot, which can be problematic for those with high arches
- Heavier than neutral shoes
- May not be as comfortable for those used to a more minimalist shoe
Who Should Wear a Stability Running Shoe?
If you have been injured in the past, are new to running, or have underlying foot problems such as flat feet or low arches, stability shoes may be a good choice for you. It’s important to consult with a doctor or certified running coach before making any changes to your running shoes, as they can assess your specific needs and make recommendations based on your individual biomechanics.
While there are pros and cons to both neutral and stability running shoes, ultimately the best choice for you depends on your individual needs. If you’re trying to choose the best shoes, use the recap below to help you decide.
Who Should Wear Neutral Shoes?
- Runners with low to moderate pronation (aka pronation that is within normal limits and functional- rather than excessive)
- Runners who have been injury-free for at least six months
- Runners who are seeking a minimalist shoe
- Runners that prefer to run with midfoot to forefoot strike (rather than the heel)
Who Should Wear Stability Shoes?
- Runners with high levels of pronation or other stability issues of the foot and ankles
- Runners who are recovering from an injury and need the extra support
- Beginner runners or those new to the sport
- Long-distance runners who need the extra cushioning, particularly at the end of a long run or race day when the muscles are fatigued and more susceptible to injury
- Any runner at a higher risk of injury due to previous injuries, genetics, or structural anomalies
How to Choose a Shoe for Running
Now that you know the pros, cons, and features of each type of shoe, you can begin to narrow down your choices. Here are a few tips on how to choose the best shoe for you:
- Consider your pronation level and foot type when choosing a shoe. If you have high pronation, you’ll likely need a stability shoe. If you have low pronation, neutral shoes may be best. If you’re not sure, you can get some clues into your foot and ankle mechanics by looking at the wear on your shoes. Overpronation is typically indicated with excessive medial (inside) shoe wear.
- Think about your usual running surface. If you run on softer surfaces like trails or grass, you may want a shoe with less cushioning. Harder surfaces like concrete will require more cushioning.
- Choose a shoe based on your preferred running style. If you enjoy long-distance running, look for shoes with extra cushioning. If you prefer speed or agility, a lighter shoe may be best.
- Think about the type of support you need. If you have problems with your ankles rolling inward (known as medial ankle instability), you’ll want a shoe that provides extra support on the inside of the foot.
- Consider the arch support. If you have high arches, look for shoes with soft arch support. If you have flat feet or low arches, shoes with stiffer arch support may be best.
- Select a shoe based on your budget. Shoes range in price from around $50 to $250. It’s important to find a shoe that fits your needs but is also affordable.
- Think about your preferences. Some runners prefer shoes with more support, while others like a minimalist shoe. Some runners prefer neutral shoes, while others need the extra stability of a stability shoe. Consider your preferences when making your selection.
- What is your current running style? If you are a heel striker, neutral shoes might not provide enough support and a stability shoe might be better. If you are a forefoot or midfoot striker, a neutral shoe might provide enough support.
- Don’t forget to replace your shoes regularly. Most shoes will last between 300 and 500 miles, so it’s important to keep track of how many miles you’ve run in each pair. Once you reach the end of their lifespan, it’s time to buy a new pair.
- When in doubt, consult with a doctor or certified running coach who can assess your specific needs and make recommendations based on your individual biomechanics.
Finding the Right Fit
While there is no one “perfect” running shoe, by taking into account the factors above, you can be sure to choose a shoe that will provide the support and cushioning you need to run your best. If you choose one type of shoe and find it’s not working, you can simply try a different shoe style with your next purchase. Some running shoe companies will even let you test run their shoes before you keep them.
There is a lot of overlap between neutral and stability shoes these days. Running shoes can range from true “barefoot” shoes that are simply protecting the foot from the elements to support and lasts that make the feet feel like they’re in a cloud while running. With some experimenting, you will find where on this spectrum you will land. For many runners, it’s somewhere in the middle. Consider these additional options as well:
- You can add customized support to neutral shoes with the use of orthotics
- You may have more than one style of shoe for running that you can swap depending on the terrain and length of the run you are completing that day
- Talking to a physical therapist and getting your run mechanics analyzed is the best way to get a personalized recommendation
Conclusion – Neutral vs Stability Running Shoes
There is no one “right” type of running shoe. The best way to find what works for you is to experiment with different types and styles of shoes. Consider your needs and preferences when making your selection. And be sure to replace your shoes regularly to avoid injury and keep yourself running comfortable mile after mile.
These days, there are so many shoe choices on the market that you are bound to find something that fits your unique foot and needs. Happy running!