Narrow down the search for your perfect triathlon running shoes with our guide to trainer types and technologies to suit your running gait.
Making the right choice of running shoes is essential for comfort, support, enjoyment and performance in your triathlon training and racing. But with so many different styles, technologies and design philosophies out there that it can prove difficult to cut through the marketing and find what suits you as an athlete.
Running shoe design varies greatly. More traditional training shoes tend to feature plenty of support and built-up heels with a drop in height to the forefoot while some brands’ have virtually no heel to toe drop at all, promising a more natural feel. There are shoes with enormous amounts of cushioning and those with extremely flexible barefoot-style soles with virtually nothing between foot and pavement. Picking the running shoe that’s best for you depends on your running style, experience and the distance for which you’re training.
Running shoe anatomy
The outsole forms the tread and is often made of blown rubber for durability. Some shoes have rubber coverage over the whole outsole while others are more selective to aid with flexibility.
The midsole is a middle layer to help absorb shock, often made from EVA foam. Different brands add different stability devices depending on the amount of motion control support needed. Dual-density foam is also common on the inside of the arches or heel and this is sometimes referred to as a medial post. Harder to compress, this foam doesn’t lose its form as readily on impact, aiding stability.
Some brands including Asics employ a plastic midfoot shank under the arch to stiffen this area of the shoe while Mizuno’s Wave technology, a plastic plate sandwiched between midsole foam layers, adds stiffness from heel to the ball of the foot.
For even more stability, dense foam or plastic guiderails are sometimes incorporated into the top part of the midsole, bridging to the upper. These can be positioned on either side of the shoe – laterally (outside) or medially (inside) – and might run for a section or even the whole length.
The upper is the material section that covers the top of the foot and holds the tongue and laces while also allowing the foot to breathe. Some brands add plastic or extra layers of material here to increase support.
The footbed is the whole area that your foot presses onto while the toebox is the section from the ball of the foot to the end of the toes. This varies greatly in shape between manufacturers and is a key consideration for your foot shape and toe spread when trying shoes on.
Your running gait
Running gaits are traditionally split into three types: overpronation, neutral and underpronation (also referred to as supination) characterised by the action of the foot as it lands and rolls forward until toe-off.
Most runners are overpronators, which is a tendency for the foot to roll inwards with ankles bending towards the centre line. This often occurs in flat-footed athletes with fallen foot arches. Overpronators have traditionally been directed towards more supportive shoes with a structure that guides the movement of the foot as it lands in order to help prevent arch collapse.
Neutral runners’ feet neither roll in or out too much, which means runners with a neutral foot strike are usually more resistant to injury. Because of this, neutral runners probably won’t require as much structure or support in their shoes, so a lower weight and more flexible shoe could be suitable in more conditions. This doesn’t have to mean a minimal barefoot-style shoe – there is still plenty of cushioning on offer if that’s what you’re looking for.
Runners who supinate too much – the foot rolling outwards – often have very high arches, which could cause injury issues due to excessive impact on the outside of the foot. Underpronators generally avoid shoes with high support and built-up arch areas, which could exacerbate the motion. Shoes designed especially for underpronation tend to be well cushioned to reduce impact forces.
Testing your gait
You can get a good idea of your own running gait at home by laying wetting the soles of your feet and standing on some sheets of paper. If there is a pronounced hollow between the ball of the foot and the heel it may indicate supination. If the middle of the foot is wider than the heel this could indicate overpronation.
Most running shops will record your stride and help guide you through which shoes are best
Taking things to the next level, you can video yourself on a treadmill from behind and then slow down the footage to gauge whether your feet roll in or out on impact. Performing these tests can help inform your choice of running shoe – most manufacturers give an indication of which shoes are intended for runners with overpronation, neutral strides or underpronation on their websites.
Sometimes though, nothing beats the in-store experience. Most decent running shops have a treadmill on site and will record your stride, take you through the results and help guide you through which shoes are best suited to your running form.
Consider your running style
The traditional advice regarding pronation and supination should be considered alongside your own running style. The rolling in or out of the foot is most pronounced for athletes who land with their heels out in front, hence the traditional trainer design, which features a thick, cushioned heel – the mass-market answer to the running boom of the 1970s and ’80s.
More recently, a midfoot or forefoot landing with a high cadence has become the go-to style for efficiency, injury prevention and speed. This is the sort of technique you’ll often see when watching elite runners or triathletes. If you run in this style, with foot landing under the hip rather than heel striking, pronation is usually less pronounced, meaning neutral shoes with less heel might suit you well.
The right shoe for the right job.
Once you’ve prescribed the best type of shoes to fit your running gait, there are plenty of options within the overpronation, neutral and underpronation categories, each with a compromise of stability, cushioning, flexibility, energy return and weight.
To further narrow your choice, you’ll need to consider what sort of running you’ll be doing – long training miles, fast 5ks, off-road courses or marathon races. If you’re mixing up your triathlon distances, you might want to have a few pairs of shoes for every running occasion.
Supportive running shoes
Traditional supportive trainers that make up a large part of big brands’ ranges tend to have fairly rigid soles thanks to a combination of a thick blown rubber outsole for durability, plastic shanks under the arches, dual-density posts or firm EVA guiderails. This built-in stability helps to control the foot’s orientation as it lands, making supportive shoes a great choice for overpronating heel strikers. This rigidity can also give a nice springy toe-off that feels responsive when running at speed however due to the amount of technology included, they can be on the heavier side.
These kinds of shoes are a good jack-of-all-trades option and can be suitable for any triathlon distance, though you might also want to consider adding some lighter racing flats for shorter-distance competition. Brands such as Mizuno and Asics are a great place to start when it comes to shoes suited for overpronators.
Motion control running shoes
At the most supportive end of the spectrum are motion-control shoes, such as the Saucony Guide Iso, which offer a lot of structure and material for severe over pronators whose feet need a lot of guiding on impact – or for heavier athletes who struggle to find support in regular trainers.
When it comes to their most structured shoes, brands use similar technologies to their regular supportive designs, but these are often beefed up to give maximum stability and foot control as well as plenty of cushioning. The use of motion control shoes is usually best diagnosed by a running store specialist. If you’re in that category, your choice is a little more limited so be sure to try on plenty of different brands to find the right fit and support.
Neutral running shoes
Designed without the majority of stability aids seen in supportive shoes, neutral shoes – such as the Saucony Kinvara – do little to guide the foot on landing, leading to a more natural, flexible and responsive feel. Uppers often feature some structural elements to hold the foot in place and avoid sliding on the footbed but generally speaking, neutral shoes are more pared-back designs. There can still be a generous amount of cushioning on offer, so pairing naturally good running form with a neutral shoe makes a good recipe for triathlon at all distances.
Generally speaking, the lower the weight, the less cushioned and more flexible the shoe will be. Sometimes called racing flats, lightweight running shoes such as the Asics Gel-DS Trainer are great for short distance triathlons with springy energy return and good road feel due to typically thinner midsole construction.
Often neutral shoes, though you sometimes get a few design nods towards stability, they’re designed for more of a ‘running on the toes’ mid or forefoot foot strike. Because there’s less cushioning you might feel that your feet take more of a pounding, so racing flats are often best suited to short course triathlon. In longer events the additional fatigue from your foot slapping against hard surfaces and reverberating up your legs might not be worth the small weight saving.
Max-cushioning running shoes
As ultra-running has become more popular in recent years, a few brands have started producing highly cushioned yet technical and often surprisingly light shoes that are ideal for long-distance triathlon training. Hoka One One is perhaps the most well-known of these brands, its entire range catering for athletes seeking maximum comfort across a variety of styles.
Most big brands including Brooks, Saucony, New Balance, Asics and Skechers now offer at least one max-cushioning model, often using softer, bouncier midsole foams for added plushness. You might lose a bit of responsiveness, but if you’re seeking comfort for long runs and Ironman competition, max shoes are hard to beat.
Within the max-cushioning category, you will also find shoes with more structure for overpronation or less for a more neutral, natural feel. All this means they’re a great option for any high-mileage runner, long-distance triathlete or just those who want a plush, comfortable shoes.
Zero drop running shoes
If you run more on the midfoot and find chunky heels bothersome, a lower heel to toe drop can help enable a fast, efficient turnover. While most brands offer a pair of shoes with negligible heel-toe drops, Altra’s range offers a selection of exclusively zero-drop designs. These come with the added benefit of comfortable, wide toeboxes that allow your toes to spread naturally.
Heel-strikers should be wary of immediately changing to a more level footbed as it takes time to transition, with more load placed on the calves and Achilles tendon. If you want to try these kinds of shoes, we’d recommend only running 10 minutes at a time for the first week or so while also concentrating on increasing cadence towards 180 steps per minute. Then you can start to gradually build up the run distance.
There is a growing community of barefoot runners, who, often spurred on by Christopher McDougall’s bestselling book Born To Run, have adopted shoes that are zero-drop, ultra-flexible and feature just a few millimetres of rubber between your foot and the ground.
Available from brands such as Xero, Vivobarefoot and Vibram, barefoot shoes are sort of like an extreme racing flat. The theory is that these shoes promote a completely natural running stride, allowing your feet to feel the ground and adapt to different surfaces with every foot landing and push off. With virtually no cushioning, shock absorption is provided by the calves, Achilles and the tendons and metatarsals of the foot – just as evolution intended.
The theory is backed up by plenty of science. Several published studies – including the oft-cited Lieberman et al from Harvard University – show that the more cushioning a shoe has, the greater the impact forces. On the other hand, there are plenty of stories of athletes going barefoot then suffering from injuries such as stress fractures. As with any shoe style that differs from what you’re used to, adaptation takes time. In this case, several months of run-walking to ease in the calves, Achilles and your feet themselves.
From time to time, manufacturers eschew traditional running shoe design and materials to create something totally new. These prototype designs often come along and soon disappear, never to be seen again, but others build a loyal following. Mizuno’s Wave Prophecy, which replaces the midsole with a springy plastic construction, is on its eighth iteration at the time of writing while Newton’s range, which includes specially sculpted outsoles as part of the brand’s ‘Action Reaction’ philosophy has long been a favourite for triathletes.
Of these more out-there designs, none has made a bigger impact on the running scene in recent years than Swiss brand On. Founded by former pro triathlete and multiple duathlon world champ, Olivier Bernhard, On’s unique CloudTec lugs are designed to compress on landing for maximum cushioning then help you spring forward, releasing the absorbed energy. The range now encompasses shoes for every running occaision, including waterproof designs.
Triathlon-specific running shoes
Some brands offer triathlon-specific shoes, with Asics Tri Noosa range probably being the most well-known. Typically, tri shoes will have a large heel loop to help you quickly pull the shoes on in transition. Of course, your choice of cushioning and structure will be quite limited in the tri-specific market, so ensure they’re giving you the support you need.
Trail running shoes
Trail shoes tend to give a decent amount of support thanks to more structured uppers and quite rigid soles. Most of the big brands including Asics, New Balance and Saucony produce a variety of trail shoes while there are also trail specialists such as Inov-8. Trail designs usually feature knobbly rubber grippers on the outsole a bit like a mountain bike tyre which aid traction on loose surfaces. Trail shoes can feel a bit ‘slappy’ on the road due to their rigidity, but when terrain is softer underfoot, they feel stable, grippy and confidence inspiring.
While trail shoes are essential for Xterra and other off-road triathlons, there are many tri events that have road-based bike courses but utilise grass and trails during the run. If your event is more off-road than on, and especially if it’s been raining in the run-up to the race, packing a pair of trail shoes for your pre-race recce can give you maximum options for the big day.