Understanding Neutral vs. Stability Running Shoes

You may hear the terms "neutral" and "stability" thrown around when trying on running shoes. If you aren't sure what kind of shoes your feet need, it can make choosing running shoes feel overwhelming.

How exactly do neutral and stability shoes work? Which is best for you? Read on to learn more.

How do Neutral and Stability Running Shoes Function?

a stack of shoes sits on the floor of a Fleet Feet.

First things first: Whereas neutral shoes have no stabilizing features, but instead allow the foot to flex and move without any guidance, stability shoes and motion-control shoes are designed to help offset excessive pronation, or the inward rolling of a runner’s feet after impact with the ground.

Every runner naturally pronates to some degree and that’s OK, but excessive pronation can lead to common overuse injuries like Achilles tendinitis, shin splints, iliotibial band syndrome, and patellofemoral pain (runner’s knee).

While the minimalist revolution of the early 2000s led to many shoes with little or no cushioning or protection, it also cued shoe brands and their designers to build both neutral shoes and mild stability shoes with slightly fewer guidance features that are lighter, more nimble, and more flexible—ultimately shoes that allow feet to move more freely and naturally through the gait cycle.

The advent of mild stability shoes helped melt away the old-school belief about the need for rigid control in running shoes, and as a result, the motion control category — maximum support/stability shoes that greatly limit how a foot moves while running — has become almost non-existent and stability shoes have become less domineering to a runner’s stride. And generally speaking, those changes have been a good thing.

“For years, the running shoe industry was focused on building shoes that control how a foot moves and limit how a foot moves,” says physical therapist Jay Dicharry, MPT, director of the REP Lab in Bend, Oregon, and a leading biomechanist, running gait expert and shoe company consultant. “Fortunately, we’ve gotten away from that. The more we can stop using words like stopping and limiting and controlling when it comes to running shoes, the better off we’ll be. Wearing shoes that allow the feet to move and flex naturally is the best starting point for most runners.”

But, Dicharry says, some recreational runners do need more support in their shoes than others, either by way of mild stability shoes or neutral shoes with after-market insoles that offer enhanced stability. And, he says, most runners can benefit from a bit of stability in the later miles of a long run or a marathon when the muscles in the feet and lower legs fatigue and can’t continue to maintain good running form.

Which Shoe is Best for You?

A Fleet Feet outfitter uses the fit id system.

So how do you know what’s best for you? And how can you find the right shoe for you?

Start by visiting your local Fleet Feet and work with an expert outfitter. Our 3D fit id® foot scanning technology allows us to gather information about your feet and the support they need by measuring your foot length, width and arch height. Our Dynamic Pressure Mapping system assesses your foot’s path of motion and stride as you walk, so we can find the perfect shoes for you.

Some telltale signs of needing stability shoes include an excessive wear pattern on the inside (or medial) edge of the bottom of your current running shoes. If that side is considerably more worn than the outside (or lateral) edge, it’s probably a sign that you’re overpronating and need stability shoes.

Lastly, the age-old “wet test” can also be helpful, although not as decisive as it was once thought. Lay a clean piece of cardboard or kraft paper (from a grocery bag) flat on the ground and then wet your feet and step onto the paper and bend your knees and sink into a partially squat before stepping off.

This low-tech test will determine if you have a high, medium, or low arch and generally, but not always, people with lower arches need stability shoes.

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