There’s no such thing as the perfect running shoe. When it comes to running, all sorts of things come into play – your biomechanics, your weight, the surface you run on and the shape of your feet, meaning no one shoe will suit every kind of runner.
One of the things we’ve noticed over the decades of producing shoe reviews at RW is the way our network of runners express themselves when they’re filing their feedback on the shoes they’ve tested. Quite often, they don’t talk about the things the shoe does but instead focus on the things it doesn’t do. As in: it doesn’t pinch, it doesn’t feel heavy, it doesn’t make their feet sweat – and so on. This shows that, for many runners, the aim in choosing footwear is simply to find shoes that stay out of your way, don’t intrude upon your run and just allow you to get on with it. The more experienced you become, the more you may look for a specific required characteristic within a shoe – which is why we give each model such a thorough inspection – but it’s worth remembering that, at a basic level, comfort is key.
How to choose your perfect running shoe
Each shoe on the list below was chosen due to its high overall performance scores, but we also looked at three important categories that should help you find the best model for you:
Weight: Lighter shoes typically have less cushioning, which can make them feel faster. That said, if you’re going long distances, the extra cushioning of a heavier shoe might be a better option.
Drop: A shoe’s drop is the difference between the heel and forefoot measurements, or in simple terms, how much your toes drop below your heel. A higher drop can lead to more heel striking. Most shoes have a drop between 8 and 12 millimetres, some shoes have less than 6mm and a few minimalist designs have zero drop.
Cushioning: Cushioning provides impact absorption. In the lab, we looked at cushioning measurements in the heel and forefoot, to give you an idea of the overall cushioning in each shore.
How we choose the best running shoes for 2020
The sweat test: We receive multiple pairs of each shoe from the manufacturers. These go to more than 200 runners of varying abilities and preferences. Each spends a month running in their shoes over multiple sessions, before filling in a detailed questionnaire.
The lab test: Under the direction of veteran biomechanist Dr Martyn Shorten, mechanical tests – see below – are conducted on each shoe at the RW Shoe Lab in Portland, Oregon, US. When the detailed wear-test and lab-test results are in, we distil the information from both sources into the reviews you see here.
Cushioning: A machine called an impact tester measures how soft or firm each shoe is underfoot. An 8kg weight is repeatedly dropped onto the heel and forefoot of a men’s size 8 shoe from a height of two inches. The lab gauges the force of impact and how much the midsole compresses.
Flexibility: Flexibility indicates how smoothly a shoe will move with the foot from heelstrike to toe-off. We measure this by securing a shoe’s forefoot to a machine that bends it 45 degrees – about the same as the foot flexes on the run – 60 times in 20 seconds. The force required to achieve this indicates how pliable the shoe is.
Height and weight: We weigh men’s (size 8) and women’s (size 5) models. We also measure ‘stack height’: the outsole foam rubber, midsole foam and insole. We use a digital contact sensor to determine the shoe’s ‘heel drop’ – the difference in height from heel to forefoot.
What are the best running shoes for 2020?
The wait is over, here are the shoes that made it onto our list, and the ones we’re looking forward to seeing later in the year:
1.Hoka One One Mach 3
Won: Highly Commended 2020
Weight: 245g (M), 204g
Heel/toe drop: 5mm
Part of Hoka’s Fly (performance-shoe) range, along with the Cavu and Elevon, this is an extremely light model that nevertheless offers the cushioning of a much heavier shoe. Updates from the previous version are on the minor side, with the midsole tuning being slightly tweaked to give a softer feel in the heel and a firmer platform from which to push off in the forefoot. The upper has been updated to a seamless bootie construction for a better midfoot wrap and the jacquard mesh has been made more breathable– handy if you’re putting the hammer down during a fast race (precisely the sort of situation the Mach was made for). However, this isn’t just a shoe for speed demons; slower, heavier runners found the Mach 3 to be perfect for their own quicker runs and shorter races, thanks to the wide platform and pleasing feeling of bounce. Note: it’s best togo up half a size because the fit is noticeably snug.
2. New Balance 1080v10
Won: Best in test 2020
Weight: 280g (M), 238g
Heel/toe drop: 8mm
The 1080 is New Balance’s flagship cushioned shoe (and the one used by the RW Pace Team at the London Marathon each year). Version 10 is a continuation of a superb run of form and is all the more impressive because NB has not played it safe, instead providing significant updates. There’s more of their supremely bouncy FreshFoam midsole foam; the medial side has been built up slightly to give a kind of soft medial post for fatigue-based over pronation; a more aggressive rocker gives better transition and helps pop your foot off the ground a bit quicker; the heel section is sculpted to give a more secure fit without the need for extra materials on the heel counter; and, finally, the outsole grooves have been played with a little and NB says the new configuration gives better flex. Our testers loved all of it, raving about the plush feel, bounce and responsiveness. Veteran club runners and speedsters might find the ride a little squishy, but as an everyday training shoe for everyone else, the 1080 is leading the way.
3. Salomon Sonic 3 Balance
Won: Best new shoe 2020
Weight: 252g (M), 215g
Heel/toe drop: 8mm
Continuing its recent success in bringing its trail quality to the road, Salomon’s Sonic 3 Balance is an extremely competent and well-performing road-running shoe. The main design feature of note is that two types of cushioning foam have been used (one for shock absorption, one for propulsion). That said, this isn’t the overly plush shoe you might think at first glance; it feels comfortable, yet firm and impressively responsive. This reassuring ride may give you some idea where the ‘Balance’ part of the name comes in, as testers felt the shoe offered performance without compromising comfort. Salomon may claim it’s the ‘Geometric DecouplingAxis’ (a full-length heel-to-toe outsole groove aimed at improving the speed of foot transition) that makes the ride so balanced, but testers were more impressed with the roomy toe box and breathable upper, as well as the abundant amount of grip the Sonic 3 offered, even on water-soaked roads and light trails.
4. Asics Gel Contend 5
Won: Best value 2020
Weight: 291g (M), 230g
Heel/toe drop: 10mm
Proof that you don’t need a second mortgage to find a decent pair of running shoes. The Contend 5 may not boast any tech to cause World Athletics headaches, but the shoe’s unwavering performance means that without seeing the price tag you’d be hard pressed to peg it as a budget shoe. Our testers praised the comfortable fit and breathable mesh in the
upper, and found the midsole offers decent cushioning and support, combined with perfectly acceptable responsiveness for an all-round pleasant ride. The outsole grip
was also felt to perform well on a surprising variety of surfaces for a road shoe. The standout feature, though, is that all this can be delivered for the low price. ‘Probably the best-value shoe I have ever worn,’ said one tester, while another was ‘shocked (in a good way) at the price’. Long-term durability may prove to be an issue, but these are a brilliant choice for new runners, or those who won’t be doing huge mileage and don’t want a serious dent in their bank account.
5. Under Armour Machina
Weight: 295g (M), 241g
Heel/toe drop: 8mm
If this is a sign of things to come, then Under Armour seems to be getting to grips with the running market. This reminds us of a chunkier Saucony Kinvara. It’s responsive, quick, very cushioned (it contains 20 per cent more Hovr, UA’s proprietary foam, than any other of the brand’s shoes) and has a light propulsion plate underneath the midsole that contains carbon. The shoe is plush, but testers found it hit the sweet spot between comfort and response. That said, new runners might find the firmer feel in the forefoot a little off-putting if they are looking for the reassurance of full-length cushioning. As with most UA shoes, the Machina comes with a chip that records metrics – distance, pace, cadence, ground contact time – and relays them to the MapMyRun app. For now, you’ll need to run with your phone to make the most of this, but later this year there will be compatible updates for smart-watch support and you’ll be able to get real-time coaching cues direct to your watch, too.