The Best Running Shoes? A Guide To 10 Neutral Pairs

The Best Running Shoes? A Rundown

New Balance Fresh Foam Trail shoes in action at Machu Picchu in Peru. (Phil Hospod)

One of the most common questions people ask me is: “What are the best running shoes?” Variations include: “What running shoes do you wear?” “What’s your favorite brand of running shoes?” and “Who makes the best running shoes?”

My answer is always the same. There is no one best kind, or pair, or brand of running shoes. What works for one runner might not work for someone else. And what worked for one runner a year ago may no longer work for them now. We all have different foot shapes, sizes, gaits, body weights, stride lengths, form, muscle weakness, imbalances, strengths, injuries and all the other things that affect how we run. And even then, it’s good to rotate your shoes and wear different types of shoes for different types of workouts. Brian Metzler at Competitor wrote a great column about it: Why You Should Have A Quiver Of Running Shoes.

And yet, we’re all on the quest for the perfect shoe. I’m no exception. I was once fiercely loyal to Mizuno’s Wave Rider, until they dramatically changed the shoe and it was no longer my personal glass slipper. Since then I’ve worn other pairs of Mizuno, ASICS, Nike, New Balance, K-Swiss and Saucony searching for that perfect pair. Here’s what I’ve found in 2014.

The Best Running Shoes? A Rundown of 10 Pairs: New Balance runDisney Shoe

New Balance 890v4 runDisney Cinderella shoes

Karla’s Best Running Shoes of 2014

I’ve tried 30 pairs of running shoes in the last year. What can I say? I really like shoes. I am a Cinderella runner after all. Athletic companies sent complimentary pairs of some for me to try. Others I purchased myself. Some I took for a treadmill run or two only to return them because they didn’t work for me. Others, I kept to test on the road. Among those, I give some away once I decide they’re not for me. But I keep the best of the rest.

These are the 10 best running shoes of the bunch for me. Keep in mind that these are all neutral shoes and I am a neutral runner with high arches. If you have low arches, wear a stability or motion-control shoes, these may or may not work for you. (Need to learn more? Read: Gait Analysis For The Nike Women’s Half Marathon SF)

All the shoe vitals are for the women’s version as provided by each respective manufacturer. I tried each pair in a women’s size 9 and I’ve listed them by brand. Happy shoe shopping!

The Best Running Shoes? A Rundown

ASICS Gel-Kinsei 5

ASICS Gel-Kinsei 5

MSP: $200
Weight: 9.4 oz
Drop (from heel to forefoot): 10mm
Colorways: 8

I bought the Gel-Kinsei looking for a sturdy trainer for marathon and half-marathon training. I got more than I bargained for.

I put in 300 miles in these shoes on the treadmill, road and in races, and they served me well. The seamless upper makes for an insanely comfortable fit, and the heel cup is perfect, gripping my heel in place but not coming too high onto my Achilles tendon. The cushioning is plush, and the exposed gel for the heel-strikers of the world really does soften the landing. These shoes are meant for keeping you comfortable for miles and miles.

The problem? I just didn’t love them. After a while, they just felt like a bit too much shoe for me. I trade out a heavier trainer like this with a lightweight shoe for track and speed workouts. When I’d switch back to these they just felt clunky. I really wanted to love them because they are so darn comfortable. But I really want something just a bit lighter. So after retiring these shoes (I retire most of my shoes between 300-400 miles. These started showing wear around the 300-mile mark), I decided to try a different trainer from ASICS.

Is this the shoe for you? Yes, if you’re a heel-striker looking for superior comfort and plush cushioning in a traditional trainer. Maybe not if you want to play with speed.

The Best Running Shoes? A Rundown

ASICS Gel-Excel33

ASICS Gel-Excel33 3

MSP: $120
Weight: 7.4 oz
Drop: 10 mm
Colorways: 3

Hoping to find a shoe that fit me as well as the Gel-Kinsei 5, but in smaller packaging, I turned to the third edition of the Gel-Excel33 when ASICS offered to send me a complimentary pair of shoes.

I tried other ASICS neutral trainers, like Gel-Nimbus 15, which was too heavy and stiff for me. So I headed to shoes at the other end of the ASICS spectrum. The Gel-Excel33 had been recommended to me as a runner with high arches, since arch support has been a complaint of mine in many shoes.

The Gel-Excel33 fits the bill perfectly. At 2 ounces lighter than the Gel-Kinsei, I really feel the difference. The ASICS website promises “supreme underfoot comfort from the new FluidRide midsole and Ortholite Lasting,” and it delivers. The cushioning is soft and especially springy underfoot, more than any other shoe I’ve tried. Plus, my high arches feel like they’re being gently cradled with each step. A deep groove in the outsole makes the shoe unusually flexible for such a cushioned trainer. And the seamless mesh upper makes for a comfortable fit with an especially stylish look. I’ve gotten compliments every time I’ve worn them. Now that’s a feat.

I’ve worn the Gel-Excel33 on the treadmill, track and road up to 15 miles in one long run with great results. The fit is perfect, the shoe is responsive and it looks good too. These have earned a spot in my permanent rotation. In two words: it’s love. I don’t have a bad thing to say about the Gel-Excel33. This is a versatile shoe that could swing two ways: as a cushioned trainer for runners who like to race in light flats, or as a racing shoe for a runner who wears a heavier daily trainer.

Is this the shoe for you? Yes, if you’re looking for a blend of cushioning, fit, flexibility and responsiveness in a mid-weight shoe. Maybe not if you prefer a sturdier trainer or need a bit more stability.

The Best Running Shoes? A Rundown

New Balance Fresh Foam Trail Shoes in action in Italy. (Phil Hospod)

New Balance Fresh Foam 980 Road and Trail

MSP: $110
Weight: 7.27 oz Road
Weight: 8.1 oz Trail
Drop: 4 mm Road and Trail
Colorways: 10 Road, 3 Trail

New Balance sent me complimentary pairs of both the road and trail versions of the Fresh Foam 980 shoes.

I put them both to the test, wearing the road shoes on the treadmill, road and in a race. The trail shoes traveled with me to Cinque Terre in Italy and Machu Picchu in Peru, where they earned their stripes on trail runs and strenuous hikes.

The Best Running Shoes? A Rundown

New Balance Fresh Foam 980 Road


The new Fresh Foam 980 is a shoe that defies labels. The 4 mm drop from heel to forefoot, versus a more traditional 8-10 mm, puts it in the minimal shoe category, but the luxe cushioning separates you and the road, more like a maximalist shoe.

The sole is made from a single piece of foam with a lower midsole meant to feel “more natural underfoot.” It does and gives the shoe a comfortable ride. One of the surprising things about the cushioning is how firm and supportive it is. The rubber outsole comes into full contact with the ground, unlike many shoes. And I love the air mesh upper. It’s incredibly breathable. I wore these shoes in a triathlon this summer, looking for a shoe that would get air to my water-logged feet. And they did.

But as comfortable as it is, this is a neutral shoe that rides a bit more like a stability trainer. With little flexibility, some neutral runners may find the sole too stiff. It’s the second stiffest of all the shoes I’ve tried lately. And as a high-arched runner, there’s just not enough support mid-sole for my feet. My arches don’t come into contact with the insole, and I feel the ache at the end of some runs.

I could also use a bit more room in the toe box, especially around the inside edges of the big toe. And the heel doesn’t grip as well as I’d like. At first, my feet kept sliding forward. I had to play with lacing patterns to find one that kept my foot in place. Once I did, I didn’t have any more issues. While I like the feel of the ride underfoot and enjoy running in this shoe, it’s not a perfect fit for me. But I personally know a few runners who are closer to the stability end of the spectrum who swear by this shoe.

The Best Running Shoes? A Rundown

New Balance Fresh Foam 980 Trail


What I didn’t love in the road shoe, I found myself liking in the trail shoe. While I prefer a flexible running shoe, I’m not the most sure-footed person in the world. My husband jokes that I swim like a fish and hike like a fish. It’s not an elegant sight. So I appreciated the extra sturdiness of this shoe on the trail. I’m also used to a stiff hiking boot. This felt freeing by comparison, but still kept my feet protected. I don’t like feeling rocks and twigs through my running shoes. With a thick sole, these gave me a smooth ride.

The trail shoe is largely the same as the road shoe, but with a gussetted tongue to keep debris out. It worked for me. And the tread is meant to grip uphill and downhill. Wow, it really does. I did a lot climbing and descending in Cinque Terre and Machu Picchu, in both dry and wet conditions, and the traction performed fantastically.

The Best Running Shoes? A Guide To 10 Pairs

Running in Cinque Terre (Phil Hospod)

I spent 6 hours in one stretch running and hiking in these sneakers in Cinque Terre, ascending 2,710 feet over the course of almost 9 miles. Machu Picchu was a tougher test: 6 miles over 10 hours and 5,560 ft of elevation change, topping out at 10,112 ft. The conditions were wet, muddy and dry on grass, dirt, stone and teeny, tiny ancient stairs. At the end of the day my feel appreciated all that foam cushioning. What’s more, I felt secure in them, which is what I need when I’m running or hiking on the edge of a cliff, as I found myself doing in both Cinque Terre and Machu Picchu.

When it comes to the trail shoe, my only complaint is, like the road shoe, the toe box could be roomier. This is a shoe you might want to size up.


Is this the shoe for you? Yes, if you’re looking to try a “minimalist” lower drop shoe that still has loads of cushioning or are a neutral runner who sits close to the stability end of the spectrum. Maybe not if you have especially high arches or like a more flexible shoe. As a trail runner, if you want added stability in a cushioned ride with reliable tread, this is a good try. But maybe not if you want to feel the trail under your feet.

The Best Running Shoes? A Rundown of 10 Pairs

New Balance 890v4

New Balance 890v4

MSP: $110
Weight: 6.4 oz
Drop: 8 mm
Colorways: 6 standard, 15+ Limited Edition shoes including HKNB, Graphic, Pink Ribbon and City Series Shoes

I bought the runDisney Cinderella edition of these shoes at the 2014 Walt Disney World Marathon. I mean, a shoe with Cinderella on them and ribbon laces? Yes, please.

Aesthetics aside, I’ve worn these shoes on the treadmill and the road on runs up to 10 miles. Per New Balance, the “FantomFit no-sew overlay upper uses panel-like construction to ensure a secure arch wrap.” Indeed it does. The shoe hugs my high arches just right. And the heel cup grips my foot in place. Plus, the ride is supple and soft. Grooves in the sole make for a flexible forefoot. And the outsole encourages full ground contact. Ounce for ounce, the 890v4 provides seriously impressive cushioning for such a lightweight shoe. These are trainers for logging marathon miles and running fast.

The 890v4 is incredibly close to a perfect fit like Cinderella’s glass slippers. My only complaint, if you can even call it that, is the toe box, which could be a touch larger for me. One of my toes rubs a bit. It was nothing some glide couldn’t handle for a 10-mile run, but I’m not sure how my toes would fare on, say, a 20-miler. Aside from that, I love these shoes. If I’m in a bad mood and need to put a smile on my face, these glass sneakers have sparkle in all the right places.

Is this the shoe for you? Yes, if you’re looking for optimal cushioning in a lightweight package. Maybe not if you prefer a roomy toe box.

The Best Running Shoes? A Rundown of 10 Pairs

New Balance 1400v2

New Balance 1400v2

MSP: $100
Weight: 5.4 oz
Drop: 10 mm
Colorways: 5

Back in 2013, I bought the New Balance 1400 shoes and quickly fell in love with the light weight, comfortable fit and fast ride of the brand’s standby racing flats.

In 2014, New Balance sent me a pair of the 1400v2 update to wear while hosting On The Run at the Brooklyn Half, a race they sponsor. My eyes lit up when I saw the Purple Cactus Flower with Diva Pink and Lime colorway. I love a pair of bright purple shoes, especially in my beloved 1400s. At first, I was nervous that they’d dramatically changed the shoe with a stitchless and vented welded mesh upper versus a softer synthetic brush in the last iteration. But it was love at first run. Dare I say it? I like the 1400v2 even more than the original.

The fit is perfect in every way, the ride is soft and supple, and I don’t even notice that I’m wearing shoes at all. The foam compound comprising the midsole is 30 percent lighter than other New Balance foams, but with the same level of performance. They’re surprisingly cushioned for such a light shoe.

The 1400v2 racing flats have taken me from the track to the road. I’ve raced personal bests and distances ranging from 5K to half-marathon in these shoes. They’ve become my go-to pair for race day. They make me feel fast, even when I’m not. There’s not a single thing that I don’t love about these kicks. If I could marry a pair of running shoes, these would be it. I do!

Is this the shoe for you? Yes, if you want a light, responsive, fast and fun racing flat that doesn’t compromise cushioning. Maybe not if you prefer to race in your steadfast trainers.

The Best Running Shoes? A Rundown of 10 Pairs

Nike Free 3.0 Flyknit

Nike Free 3.0 Flyknit

MSP: $140
Weight: 5.7 oz
Drop: 4 mm
Colorways: 5

Few shoe companies do flash better than Nike. And the Nike Free 3.0 Flyknit are as flashy as they come. I first tried these shoes at a Nike running event for media types like me, where I was given a complimentary pair. I wrote an in-depth review of the shoes that you can read here: Nike Free 3.0 Flyknit Running Shoes Review

The short of it? The Nike Free 3.0 are barely-there slippers that fit like a comfortable second-skin. They feel different from every other shoe I’ve worn. The sole’s hexagon flex groove pattern allows the foot to move in any direction. The heel is anatomically shaped with a slim, round design, meant to roll with your foot strike. The Flyknit upper gives the shoe a nuanced fit—flexible, with areas that stretch, support and breathe. Those laces you see on the shoes? Mere decoration. Think of this shoe as a sock or baby bootie, no laces needed.

I’ve run in these shoes on the treadmill and the road up to 6 miles. I love the way they feel under the heel, like someone is cradling it in their hand. And the Flyknit upper hugs your feet in all the right places, without being too tight. Certainly, there will be runners who still find the fit too snug. They’re much more fitted than your average running shoe. But for me, they fit like second skin in a good way.

Is it the shoe for you? If you’re looking for a barefoot-like ride with minimal cushioning and a second-skin fit, it might be worth a try. If you have claustrophobic feet, maybe not.

The Best Running Shoes? A Rundown of 10 Pairs

Nike Free 4.0 Flyknit

Nike Free 4.0 Flyknit

MSP: $120
Weight: 6.6 oz
Drop: 6 mm
Colorways: 15 + custom NikeiD

At the Nike Free media event, Nike let me iD a custom pair of the Free 4.0 Flyknit shoes. They arrived a few weeks later in my chosen colors with “Run Karla” written on the tongues. I can’t get them off my feet. I know you’re not supposed wear running shoes for walking around, car rides and errands, but I can’t help myself. These puppies are comfortable and cute.

The Best Running Shoes? A Guide To 10 Pairs

My Nike 5.0 Flyknit iD shoes

Where the Nike Free 3.0 Flyknit upper might be too fitted for some folks, the Nike Free 4.0 is the perfect marriage of Flyknit and a more traditional upper. You get the same support and hug from the stretch, but without the squeeze. Instead of a bootie, this shoe has a more traditional tongue and lace construction. With the laces, you can set the Flyknit to fit the way you like.

The Free 4.0 also has more cushioning that the Free 3.0 with a nearly-as-low 6 mm drop. The ride is firm and you feel very connected to the ground. The toe box is incredibly comfortable and wide, more so than the 3.0. But the Flyknit upper still works hugs your feet. My arches feel supported, even if it is a minimalist shoe.

I’ve run on the treadmill and the road up to 6 miles in this shoe. Like the Nike Free 3.0, it might be too firm for runners who like a plush ride. It still feels a bit like a minimalist shoe, so I save these for shorter runs and use more cushioned shoes on longer runs. But it’s fun for feeling fast and feeling the ground beneath my feet. Plus, it’s just so darn comfortable.

Is it the shoe for you? Yes, if you’re looking for a perfect fitting flat that melds minimalism with more traditional construction. If you need a lot of cushioning, maybe not.

The Best Running Shoes? A Rundown of 10 Pairs

Nike Flyknit Lunar2

Nike Flyknit Lunar2

MSP: $150
Weight: 7.2 oz
Drop: 11 mm
Colorways: 8

OK, I’m slightly obsessed with Nike Flyknit. Every time I try on a pair of Nike shoes, I gravitate toward styles with Flyknit. It’s the most secure, comfortable, form-fitting upper among all the shoes I’ve tried. The one-piece upper is woven from polyester yarn in a pattern that yields flexibility or support in areas that need them, hugging your feet in all the right places.

But what sold me on this shoe, after trying two other Nike styles in addition to the Free 3.0 and Free 4.0 above, was the cushioning at the heel and smooth ride. The liner hugs your foot, the ride is responsive, plush and springy. I love them so much, I’ll be running the Nike Women’s Half Marathon in San Francisco in them, courtesy of Nike.

I’ve run on the treadmill and road in these shoes up to 13-miles, including the recent Maraton RPP Scotiabank, a half-marathon in Lima, Peru and the Triathlon Valleyfield in Canada. I chose them as my triathlon shoes because the seamless Flyknit upper is breathable with perforations woven throughout, a fantastic option for running sockless. Plus, a heel tab makes them easy to slip right on. Every time I wear them, I turn to my husband and say, “Gosh, these shoes are so comfortable!” Yes, I really talk like that. I know, I’m from the Midwest.

My only caveat is that the sizing is a bit smaller than all my other shoes, especially in the toe box. While I wear a 9 in most running shoes, I could easily wear a 9.5 in the Lunar2. Unlike most shoes, the Flyknit stretches and moves with your feet, so the tighter fit is okay for me. But if you like a bit of wiggle room at your toes, you may need to size these up. For comparison, the Nike 4.0 Flyknit has a much wider toe box and the 9 fits me perfectly.

Is this the shoe for you? If you want a lightweight, cushioned and responsive shoe with a cradling fit, absolutely. But maybe not if you like a roomier shoe.

The Best Running Shoes? A Guide To 10 Pairs

Saucony Ride 7 GTX

Saucony Ride 7 GTX

MSP: $140
Weight: 9.2 oz
Drop: 8mm
Colorways: 1

I’m running the GORE-TEX Philadelphia Marathon in November as a member of Team GORE-TEX, who put the GTX in the Saucony Ride 7. But when GORE-TEX sent this shoe to me, they did so while saying they understood I’d wear the brand and shoes that worked best for me come race day, no matter what that was.

After running a 10-miler in these trainers meant for heavy mileage, I’m thinking of going the whole 26.2-miles in them.

Cushioning? There’s a lot of it. This is a shoe aimed at runners who are pounding the pavement. But the cushioning is definitely on the firmer side, rather than soft and supple. This is the stiffest among shoes I’ve tried, giving it a bit of that “stability” feel. But the flex groove tread at the forefoot aims to offset that for such a hefty shoe. It’s the second heaviest on this list. The standard Saucony Glide 7 weighs in at 8.5 oz.; the GORE-TEX fabric accounts for the added weight.

But that GORE-TEX fabric is waterproof, keeping my feet dry all the livelong day. I tested it on a puddly run after a torrential rain. Instead of steering around and over puddles, I splashed right through them. To my delight, my feet stayed dry. That will come in handy on race day. Even in the driest conditions, a marathoner’s feet tend to get soaked after wading through a dozen or more water stations with spilled liquids and the like. But not only is it waterproof, the liner is breathable and wicks moisture from sweaty feet. Plus, my arches feel supported in this shoe, a detail I’ll need on marathon day.

It’s the newest shoe in my rotation, so I’m going to run in it a bit more before I make my final race-day decision. While I tend to prefer lighter, softer, and more flexible running shoes—like the ASICS Gel-Excel33, New Balance 890v4 and NikeFlyknitLunar2 above—the waterproof fabric and maximal cushioning make it a contender for marathon mileage.

Is it the shoe for you? If you’re looking for extreme cushioning in a stable and waterproof shoe, this is definitely worth a try. Maybe not if you want a lighter, softer ride.

Running Panama City, Panama! From: Marathon Training Derailed? Get Right Back On Track

Running in Panama City (

More of the Best Running Shoes

Looking for more options? Runner’s World recently released their 2014 Fall Shoe Guide, which also includes the Nike 3.0 and 4.0 Flyknit, along with the New Balance 980 Fresh Foam Trail in their Trail Shoe Guide. They’ve got even more options and a considerably more scientific approach than mine. Competitor’s Fall 2014 Running Shoe Buyer’s Guide has a totally different line-up than me for even more choice, too.

ASICS, Nike, New Balance and GORE-TEX gave me complimentary shoes, with the following exceptions: ASICS Gel-Kinsei, New Balance 890v4 and New Balance 1400, which I purchased myself. As always, all posts and opinions are purely my own. I’m always honest about my experiences. Seriously. For more information, read my Disclosure policy.

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10 2014