Wearing those feather-light, feels-like-nothing’s-there running shoes provides the sensation of effortless running. You may feel faster, but are lightweight running shoes better for speed in the long run?
Studies going back to the 1980s demonstrate that yes, lightweight running shoes are better for speed. One study from 2016 proves that for every 100 g (or 3.5 oz) added to the shoe, a runner’s performance is approximately 1% slower.
On the surface, this seems like a no-brainer: all runners should wear the lightest shoes possible!
However, as with most things, the issue is more complicated than it may first seem. After all, running is about more than just speed, and every individual runner has a unique set of needs and challenges. While a lightweight shoe may make you faster, there’s evidence it could, under certain circumstances, also slow you down.
In this guide we take a thorough look: are lightweight running shoes better for speed?
Do Light Shoes Make You Run Faster?
The available science overwhelmingly suggests that light shoes will make you run faster. The studies over the last forty years show that for every 3.5 oz added, the runner burns 1% more energy because of the additional exertion required.
The long-held theory was that the more energy required to run, the slower the runtime would be.
In 2016, a team at the University of Colorado Boulder in Rodger Kram’s Locomotion Laboratory tested the theory during the aforementioned study. Led by post-doctoral researcher Wouter Hoogkamer, the researchers used Nike Zoom Streak 5 racing flats.
To test the theory that a better running economy means better runtimes, all of the study subjects used the same shoes, but the team increased the weight by sewing lead beads into the shoe. This strategy is best for limiting variables and, therefore, purely assessing the impact of running shoe weight and no other considerations.
Studies typically don’t account for the fact that different shoes from different shoe makers are better for different runners. There’s a case to be made for cushioning, and structure is beneficial for certain kinds of runners. For example, those with foot posture problems, like overpronation and underpronation (supination), require running shoes with additional support. In some cases, they may even need custom orthotics.
Wearing minimalist, lightweight shoes won’t improve the performance of someone who is experiencing pain and injury while running.
The Pros And Cons Of Lightweight Running Shoes
Lightweight running shoes are growing in popularity, and it’s clear why: the shoes feel weightless, and the science proves that lighter shoes mean faster run times. The obvious benefit to wearing lightweight running shoes is the reduction of energy needed to run, meaning a lower rate of fatigue and faster overall runtime.
One other benefit to lightweight running shoes often cited by proponents is the belief that lighter shoes improve form. This claim drove the barefoot running movement and interest in minimalist running shoes. The argument is that lightweight shoes encourage a more natural running gait because of their low heel-toe slope.
Manufacturers are constantly finding ways to maximize the comfort of their running shoe designs while keeping the overall weight as low as possible; these companies are developing new materials and new strategies to provide cushioning and support with less physical weight.
While the minimalist “barefoot” movement in running hit its peak a decade ago and has since essentially plateaued, there is still a lot of interest in the super-light racing flats.
And there’s no getting around the fact that carrying less weight will make you run faster – even if it’s coming off your footwear!
There are a couple of obvious and not-so-obvious downsides to wearing light running shoes.
The first and the most glaring issue is durability. The material is less dense, and the fabric mesh is as thin as possible. While different lightweight shoes will have different features and materials, generally speaking, you can expect your lightweight shoes to deteriorate faster.
The rule of thumb is to change your running shoes every 300 to 400 miles, or at the first signs of physical damage. With the lighter shoes, some manufacturers recommend replacing them after as few as 200 miles.
Another downside to lightweight shoes is that you won’t get the same level of cushioning that you can find in heavier shoes. This might mean your run is less comfortable, and you may find that you encounter more issues like shin splints and Plantar Fasciitis while wearing lightweight shoes over some time.
There are other cons to lightweight footwear as well. You may find they’re less multi-purpose than a more durable, everyday running shoe. Also, if you’re accustomed to wearing a more heavy running shoe, you need to switch over gradually to avoid injury.
For example, if you’re used to a highly-cushioned shoe with a high heel-toe slope, chances are your gait is heel-striking; in lightweight running shoes, this can cause strain and pain. Instead of abruptly changing shoes, it’s better to get used to the lightweight shoes first and practice your gait while wearing them.
Is It Better To Run In Heavy Or Light Shoes?
There’s no one right answer when it comes to running shoes. Whether heavy or light running shoes are better comes down to the runner.
There are advantages to both heavier and lighter running shoes. Generally speaking, wearing heavier running shoes offers better injury protection. A firm midsole can add weight to a shoe’s design but offers better support and shock absorption, which can prevent injuries like Plantar Fasciitis and Achilles tendonitis.
There’s ample evidence to prove that runners can benefit from wearing shoes that meet their specific needs. One study published in 2000 found that a defective running shoe contributed to the development of Plantar Fasciitis and that the subject was able to become pain-free by wearing different shoes.
In the industry, it’s accepted that cushioning can improve the running experience for those who have had previous injuries, are heavier, or are older. Highly cushioned shoes are marketed as being good for your joints and exceptionally comfortable to wear. The downside of that cushioning, however, is that it adds weight.
On the other hand, the practical impact of high-cushioning on injury reduction while running is a controversial subject in the world of racing.
Some researchers argue that those pillow-soft running shoes increase leg stiffness, which can lead to injury — but a recent study published in the Journal of Biomechanics found no evidence to support that claim.
Ultimately, it comes down to the individual’s choice of whether to wear heavy or light running shoes. The science is clear on lighter running shoes being better for speed. Lightweight racing shoes make sense if your primary concern is your run time. They’re certainly a strong trend in the world of running!
The Benefits Of Having Training Shoes And Lightweight Racing Shoes
One option many high-level athletes adopt is using both heavier training shoes and lightweight racing shoes. The benefit of this is that you get a better lifespan out of both.
The training shoes will last longer, so, for example, if you run 5 miles a day, you might get three months’ worth of use out of your training shoes, whereas those lightweight racing flats could start showing signs of wear after a little over a month of daily use. It’s really important to replace your shoes regularly to avoid injury.
It’s undeniable that lightweight shoes will make you run faster. For racing or keeping track of your personal best times, lighter shoes make sense. The kind of stress injuries that could — potentially, anyways — result from wearing minimalist shoes are unlikely to happen after a single race.
Keep in mind that you would not want two pairs of shoes with dramatically different designs; because the heel-toe slope can influence different gaits, you don’t want to develop bad habits in your training shoes that you carry over to your racing shoes.
What Are The Best Lightweight Running Shoes?
There are several great lightweight running shoes in the marketplace. These range from race-ready models optimized for speed to rugged, high-traction trail running shoes that can handle rough and rocky terrain.
Best For Speed: Asics Metaracer
Asics is well-known for making speedy running shoes, and the Metaracer represents some of the best technology on the market for improving speed times.
Not only does the Metaracer have a unique upper design that maximizes airflow, allowing your foot to stay cool, but it also features the company’s “guidesole” technology, essentially optimizing your gait to propel your foot forward.
This shoe, weighing 6.7 oz in the men’s model and 5.5 for the woman’s, is the first racing shoe with a carbon fiber plate in the midsole. It’s a great option for anyone who needs a little extra structure to help with their foot posture.
Best For The Trails: Brooks Catamount
Brooks makes some great racing shoes (the Brooks Hyperion Tempo is a great all-around lightweight shoe), but the Catamount, in particular, is notable as a best-in-class for trail running. Trail shoes are difficult to make lightweight, thanks to the added requirements to hold up to the elements. Yet, the Catamount is only 2.6 oz in weight — but still offers everything you’d want from a basic trail shoe, including a Ballistic Rock Shield to protect the user from rocks, roots, and other debris.
Best For Comfort: Hoka One One Clifton 8
Hoka has a reputation for its cloud-like cushioning, and the Clifton 8 does not disappoint. The latest iteration of the iconic shoe is as comfy as can be, yet offers a surprising amount of stability while still being a lightweight option. Unfortunately, that super-plush feel does come with a bit more heft – but the shoes are lighter than they look and are a great option for people who need additional cushioning.
Best Overall Lightweight Running Shoe: New Balance 520 V6
The best overall lightweight running shoe on our list is the New Balance 520 V6. These are a great all-around option: not only do they offer durable outsoles and leading-edge foam-based midsole cushioning, but the shoes offer a surprising amount of flexibility and support. The material is highly breathable, too, making these comfortable shoes to use during the warm weather.