In 1960, Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia raced through the streets of Rome to win what is still considered to be one of the most memorable Olympic marathons in history. The slender 28-year-old crossed the finish line in two hours, 15 minutes and 16 seconds, becoming Africa’s first-ever Olympic gold medalist and the new world record holder. Even more impressive: he did it running barefoot.
Bikila’s stunning, probably blister-inducing feat, was never replicated (not even by him: Bikila wore shoes in the next Olympic marathon in Tokyo in 1964). Barefoot running, save for a few fads, has steadily fallen out of style since the legendary marathoner’s victory, and then all but disappeared five years ago with the advent of new, paradigm-shifting shoe technology.
As the story goes, Bikila had become accustomed to running barefoot because sneakers were too pricey. The majority of today’s runners can relate: The rise in running-shoe quality across the board justifies a hefty price increase and runners must now be careful about how they invest. Generally speaking, top brands now typically sell three tiers of running shoes: superlight racing shoes (supershoes) for roughly $320, a padded version of those racing shoes for training sessions (let’s call them supertrainers) for about $250, and then classic, carbon-less training shoes for approximately $180.
In 2017, Nike came out with the VaporFly 4%, the first commercially available “supershoe”: a running shoe infused with a carbon plate and a thick layer of light midsole foam, woven together to create better energy return and faster finish times. Soon after, Saucony, New Balance and many of Nike’s contemporaries came out with their own versions of supershoes, for races and for training sessions. Several studies since then show they make everybody – including Olympians, weekend warriors and beginners – several minutes faster in road races from 10 km to the marathon. Bikila’s 1960 world record, for instance, would not rank him in the top 500 in the world today.
Major running companies now make high-performing versions of supershoes, supertrainers and the traditional trainer, and so choosing the right tier of shoe has become more important than choosing the right brand. But picking between several levels of expensive sneakers can get dizzying, especially if your running-shoe budget is less than $1,000 a season. To help you make the right decision, I’m diving deep into the three categories of running shoes, and three investment strategies to choose from as you prepare for your fall races. And a note to beginners and casual runners, rest assured, you don’t have to break your budget.
Meet the 2022 shoe family
1. The supershoe
The supershoe will make you run your fastest. They could potentially improve your finish time by up to 5 per cent – a huge margin in a marathon. But they tend to lose part of their pop after around 200 km. So, it’s best to buy a pair and save them for races and key workouts only, to preserve their advantage for as long as you can.
You may like: Nike ZoomX Vaporfly; Saucony Endorphin Pro; New Balance FuelCell RC Elite 2; Brooks Hyperion Elite 2; Altra Vanish Carbon; On Cloudgo Echo; Puma Deviate Nitro Elite
2. The traditional trainer
The dawn of supershoes has made these carbon-less flagship trainers appear a bit ordinary, but running in them does not make you a Luddite. Wearing more economical traditional shoes in training can give you a psychological edge on race day, when you switch into your supershoes and feel that extra bounce. Wearing traditional shoes on race day, however, will put you at a speed disadvantage.
You may like: Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 39; Saucony Kinvara 13; New Balance 880 V12; Brooks Ghost 14; Altra Provision V6; On Cloudgo; Puma Velocity Nitro 2
3. The supertrainer
Think of these sneakers as a middle ground between the supershoe and the traditional trainer, in both performance and price point. They tend to boast midsole foam and a carbon plate, all wrapped in more padding than the supershoes, which adds weight but makes them keep their bounce for a bit longer. Their carbon plate also makes them a popular upgrade from traditional trainers, as they can help the lower legs and feet to absorb landing forces and to push off the ground. Supertrainers are perfect for long, key training days, because they replicate some of that supershoe spring feel while providing more cushioning, and being easier on the wallet.
You may like: Nike Air Zoom Tempo; Saucony Endorphin Speed; New Balance FuelCell Rebel V3; Brooks Hyperion Tempo 2; Altra Vanish Tempo; On Cloudflash; Puma Deviate Nitro 2
Choosing the right buying strategy for you
Now that you know more about the main tiers of running shoes and their price, it’s time to build your arsenal of footwear for the season. Here are three standard buying strategies:
Buy shoes of each tier, and alternate them accordingly: easy runs in the traditional trainer, workouts in the supertrainer, races in the supershoe. I recommend this strategy for best results, and to make it through the season without wearing out your trainers.
I stick to this strategy when starting my season. To cut costs, I always ask vendors if they carry last year’s shoe models. Most brands release new versions of their shoes every year, and previous versions, despite feeling similar to their update, often sell at a discount.
Approx. cost: $800
Just the staples
Save money by buying one pair of trainers and one pair of supershoes, while foregoing the supertrainer. Use the traditional shoe for easy runs and most workouts, and break out the supershoe for your top two or three workouts of the build and the races. Here, you save money, but depending on how much you run, your training shoe might become worn out before the end of your build.
Approx. cost: $550
On a budget (ideal for beginners and casual joggers)
Buy a supertrainer, and wear it for all your runs, including your race. This tactic is not a good fit for someone who plans to run more than 1,000 km in their build, but can work well for beginners who are not looking to break the bank.
Approx. cost: $200-250
Finally, as you walk (or run) to your nearby sports store to purchase your footwear for the fall, never forget the most important part of buying shoes: to find what works for you. Your feet are unique (and probably even different from each other): maybe they roll a bit inward, our outward, when they land. Maybe they’re wide, narrow, with a high arch or low arch. All those characteristics can make you respond to some shoes better than others. So, when you land on something you like and that keeps you fit and healthy – be it a supershoe, supertrainer or traditional trainer – stick with it.
Alex Cyr is a writer and runner based in Toronto. A former varsity conference champion, he hopes shoe technology keeps improving so that he can finally beat his old personal bests.