For most premium sportswear brands, the kid’s footwear business does surprisingly well. In certain countries, sports footwear for children contributes to as much as 10% of a brand’s total footwear business. But when you look at a number like that, you know there’s got to be a catch somewhere.
Because you have to ask – how can children’s footwear amount to so much business?
Not all shoes in this category are bought by children. Merchandisers often buy kid’s footwear for women; after all, the grade school sizing (3Y to 7Y) share common stick-sizes with women’s running shoes. The fact that children’s shoes are lower-priced makes it an easier sell.
This mindset speaks volumes about the footwear industry’s apathy towards the female consumer.
Everybody knows that there is a fundamental difference between male and female foot anatomy, an aspect that requires different lasts (fits) and cushioning treatments. But despite this common knowledge, it is hard to find running shoes that are designed specifically for women.
Most ‘women’ running shoes are based on a ‘pink it and shrink it’ design approach. In other words, take a men’s running shoe, narrow the last to a ‘B’ width, size it down, and splash some pink or blue over the shoe – a color stereotype for women’s athletic footwear that has been done to death.
There have been some half-hearted efforts by the brands. adidas introduced the PureBoost X for women sometime back, but it was gone within a year. At the time of writing this guide, Nike does not have a gender-specific running shoe, and neither does New Balance or Saucony.
Altra has picked up the pace and happens to be the only brand to sell a credible assortment of running shoes that are specifically designed for women. This guide features three Altra models, we would have added more if there was room.
An easy way to address the dearth of women’s running shoes is to pick five currently bestselling men’s models and create a women’s version of them with a different fit, ride character, and a 10% lower price. Don’t change these models every year (which is pointless anyway), but every three. Offer these styles in at least five colors and four different widths. This, in our opinion, would be a good start.
But this is wishful thinking; it isn’t going to happen anytime soon.
So if most brands do not sell gender-specific shoes, how did we compile a list of the best running shoes for women? The short answer is: we made the best of what’s available.
We applied the following set of selection criteria, ordered by their degree of importance. Not all of these conditions are met by the recommended shoes, it’s all in bits and pieces though. Specifics are included in the individual product descriptions.
1. The running shoe should have a women’s specific last: In our list, only shoes from Altra running qualify.
2. The shoe should have a gender-specific cushioning: We often give Asics a hard time for failing to innovate and doing funny things with their upper fit. But the Japanese brand lords over the others when it comes to gender-specific cushioning. Hence, you’ll see the Asics GT 2000 here. Asics gives this treatment to most of their staples.
3. Choice of multiple colors: At the time of writing this review, we looked at the women’s running shoes that offer more than just pink or blue.
4. Unisex friendly silhouette: Not all men’s shoes look good after ‘shrinking-and-pinking’. Some models have a sleeker profile as compared to the others.
5. Multiple widths: Although the standard fit for a women’s running shoe is a narrow ‘B,’ we’ve included models that offer multiple widths. Altra shoes have broad toe-boxes by default.
Similar to how our other buyer’s guides are structured, our recommendations are grouped under running shoe sub-categories.
Best women’s neutral running shoes
1) Altra Escalante 2.5 Women’s
The Altra Escalante 2.5 is one of the few shoes on this list that are designed specifically for women. So yes – this is NOT a men’s shoe in a narrow B width, like how most of the industry does it.
That’s not the only thing unique about the E 2.5. The midsole is ‘zero’ drop, meaning that the thickness is the same whether it’s the forefoot or the heel. There’s no ‘slope’ or gradient from the heel to toe.
The toe-box is human-shaped for a change with enough toe splay room. The single-piece knit upper creates a smooth and secure-fitting interior environment.
There’s enough cushioning inside the foam midsole and 6 mm thick insole for all activities run-related. If you’re ok with a zero/negative drop running shoe, then the Escalante 2.5 should be on your list.
Also see: The Altra Torin 4.
2) Brooks Ghost 13 Women’s
The Brooks Ghost 13 is an excellent do-it-all shoe, and what we’re saying isn’t mere marketing fluff. Everything about the Ghost is an example in moderation, and all the parts in this balanced package work together to deliver a comfortable ride and smooth upper fit.
For this year, the Ghost gets a single density midsole that no longer uses a separate crash pad. So one gets the familiar cushioning comfort of the Ghost 12 but with more smoothness from the heel to toe. There’s enough midsole to make most runs – short or long – comfortable without being mushy.
The Ghost’s upper has come a long way from the time when it was overly layered and complicated. The V13 has a simple exterior that relies on a breathable engineered mesh and plush padded areas to result in a near-seamless and secure fit.
3) Saucony Ride 13 Women’s
The Saucony Ride has been through several iterations over the years but its core ride and fit character has stuck to its fundamentals.
Even with the new Pwrrun foam, the Ride 13’s underpinnings are firm – except for the cushioned insole and topsole. This firm-soft ride quality is what differentiates the Saucony Ride from other daily neutral trainers such as the Asics Cumulus and Brooks Ghost. The Ride 13 has ample cushioning for long-distance runs but it feels fast for its class. It’s easier to dial in speed when wearing the Ride 13.
The upper has a snug fit that keeps the foot secure during runs. The Ride 13 replaces the ISOFIT midfoot strapping system of the Ride ISO 2 for a simpler fit that lies flush over the foot.
4) Nike React Infinity Run Women’s
We view the React Infinity Run as an evolved and better version of the Epic React. Like the latter, the rubber-blended foam midsole is cushioned and agile feeling at the same time.
The ride character makes the React Infinity a versatile daily trainer that is sufficiently comfortable for high-mileage runs. The rocker shape and the generous outsole coverage make the transitions smooth. And we did say that the Infinity was an evolution of the Epic – even the heel clip is larger and more supportive. It cups under the heel for a higher level of ride stability.
The Flyknit upper does what it’s good at; wrapping the foot with its semi-elastic stretch for a secure fit.
Best women’s max-cushion running shoes
1) Asics Novablast women’s
The Novablast came out of nowhere to become the sleeper hit of 2020. Ok, the idea of gluing a highly cushioned midsole to a knit upper isn’t original. But it’s always good to see a fresh take on the concept that is also well-executed.
Unlike shoes from Hoka, the Asics shoe sticks to a 10 mm heel to toe offset that will appeal to most runners. The Novablast also adopts a few best practices from the max-cushioning template to help make the transition quality smoother.
For example, the midsole has a rocker shape for fast turnovers, and the foam is single-density for ride smoothness. The thick stack (31 mm heel and 21 mm forefoot) keeps the foot fresh during long runs.
If you think that the engineered mesh upper looks like a retrofit from other Asics shoes, you’re not far off. The upper is a satisfying meld of interior comfort and support, something that works for long-distance runs. That upper fit and feel complements the mileage-friendly Flytefoam midsole.
There is scope for improvement, though. All the ‘sculpting’ on the midsole sidewall makes the heel slightly unstable for anything other than straight-line running. The upper also could do with additional lacing rows.
2) Hoka Clifton 7 Women’s
The Clifton has long been the standard bearer of what Hoka One One stands for. The generous foam stack of the 5 mm offset midsole delivers the max-cushioning experience that is associated with many Hoka shoes. However, the Clifton 7 doesn’t feel as bulky as the Bondi 7; the shoe weighs just over 7-ounces.
A rocker-shape geometry is what gives the midsole its pace-friendly ride character. Being cushioned doesn’t mean slow here.
What makes version 7 a particularly good pick is the redesigned upper. Hoka checks most of the boxes here, be it the just-right interior volume or the soft-touch materials used for the mesh, tongue, and heel collar.
We’ve been tracking the Clifton’s evolution since its first version, and this is the best one yet.
Also see: The New Balance Fresh Foam 1080V10.
Best women’s traditional stability running shoes
1) Asics GT-2000 9 women’s
The women’s Asics GT-2000 9 has a lower stack height than the men’s model, and the upper is built on a B last – which most women’s running shoes are. The upper doesn’t have a fancy strapping system or an inner sleeve, but the comfortable insides have a true-to-size fit.
The GT 2000 9 is a conventional stability shoe; in other words, the midsole has a firmer wedge on the inside for medial side support. So if you prefer a ride quality with a slight bias towards the outer side, then this Asics shoe is worth considering.
As a medial posted stability shoe option, the Kayano 27 works too. For the additional heft, one gets a heavier shoe that is priced $40 higher over the GT-2000.
2) New Balance Fresh Foam 860V11 women’s
Just like the Asics GT-2000 9, the New Balance 860V11 is another stability shoe with a firmer midsole wedge. So while the overall ride has a cushioned and supportive quality, one gets an undertone of the ‘motion control’ behavior.
At the same time, the medial post doesn’t feel invasive. There’s a layer of midsole and soft insole between the foot and the wedge.
The new 860V11 is softer, thanks to the Fresh Foam midsole. It feels softer under the foot, something that’s also helped by a segmented outsole that uses a soft blown rubber under the forefoot.
The just-right cushioning makes the 860 good for different types of runs, and the upper fits true-to-size and sells in four widths. But don’t ask us about New Balance’s obsession with the heel design. Depending on the runner, the molded heel cup can be a hit or miss.
Best Women’s lightweight running shoes
1) New Balance Fresh Foam Tempo Women’s
Remember the Zante? The Fresh Foam Tempo is almost identical, except for a few bits here and there.
That means that the Tempo packs plenty of versatility, be it tempo runs, 10K personal bests, or fast daily runs. The low profile Fresh Foam midsole is comfortable enough for long runs, but it won’t deliver the cushioning of plusher neutral trainers like the 880 or the 1080.
The upper fit is narrow, as befits a tempo-friendly shoe. The Fresh Foam Tempo does sell in a wide too.
2) Saucony Kinvara 11 Women’s
The 6.7 oz Kinvara 11 is the eleventh edition of one of the most recognizable 4 mm drop lightweight trainers of all time. An airy and lightweight upper fits well and feels great over the foot. Last year, the 10th edition cleaned up the unnecessary overlays, and the Kinvara 11 is more of the same.
This shoe is good for daily training, half-marathons, and everything in between. The firm-ish midsole is also responsive, courtesy of a Pwrrun+ Topsole. This secondary insole adds a bit of springiness to the ride without slowing you down.
The Kinvara 12 is out now, but it’ll be a few months before we have enough wear-test data on the shoe.
3) Skechers GoRun Razor+ Women’s
Now in its 3rd year, the Skechers GoRun Razor+ manages to hold its own within the crowded lightweight trainer space.
Making that possible is its firm and lightweight Hyberburst foam midsole that distills the Razor+’s weight to just 5-ounces for a US size 7. The mesh upper is nothing special, but it gets the job done as far as delivering a secure fit goes.
The Razor+ is a speed shoe that disappears over the foot during fast runs while being cushioned enough to last the distance. There’s also a surprising amount of outsole rubber for a shoe this light; the large Goodyear-branded rubber lugs provide durability and traction.
Best Women’s road racing shoe
Altra Escalante Racer Women’s
The Altra Escalante Racer doesn’t have some of the features that one would expect from a speed shoe. For example, the outsole doesn’t have an aggressive lug geometry or a dual stencil process forefoot. The midsole is also zero ‘drop’ meaning that the midsole is 22 mm thick from heel to toe; there’s no slope here.
The E-racer also does a few other things differently. The upper fit is designed specifically for women, and the insides are roomier than standard racers.
Both the accommodating interior and the cushioned midsole make speed runs comfortable without compromising the fit security or transitions quality.
Best Women’s trail running shoes
Altra Lone Peak 4.5 Women’s
Why is the Altra Lone Peak 4.5 on this guide instead of any other trail running shoe? Is it because of the women-specific fit?
Sure. But there’s a lot more to the Lone Peak than just the fit. It has all the essentials of a versatile trail running shoe. To begin with, the midsole is cushioned enough to make trail outings comfortable.
There’s ample protection in the form of the rock plate, and the outsole has aggressive geometry and rubber compounding that’s suitable for various trail surfaces. The zero offset midsole (same heel and forefoot thickness) makes full-contact landings and transitions easier.
Apart from the protective layering and the secure fit of the upper, there’re a couple of other useful features. The low-cut upper has gaiter attachment points in the front and rear for the optional splash and debris protection. Also, with the Lone Peak, one gets the broad forefoot that has enough room to wriggle your toes.
Also see: Altra Superior 4.5.