How to Pick The Best Running Shoes. Hint: You Don’t Have to Spend a Fortune

People participate in a 5K race in Parrish, Florida.
People compete in the Fort Hamer Bridge Run in Parrish, Fla. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

In a world where spin classes cost $30 an hour, running may seem like a no-brainer for Penny Hoarders looking to stay fit.

On the surface, it’s certainly one of the cheapest forms of exercise. There’s no gym membership, no contract, no heavy equipment required. You can get off the couch and get started today. All you need are your legs, some willpower, and a decent pair of shoes.

Which is where you might run into a problem. With sport sneakers ranging from $30 to $300, what does “decent” mean? How much should you pay for it? And how often do you need to replace your shoes to maximize your progress and avoid injury?

Running Shoes: Do We Even Need Them?

Before we talk about how much you should spend on running shoes, let’s — pardon the pun — take a step back. Do you even need running shoes in the first place?

In the late aughts, shook up the running scene with his publication of “Born to Run,” which offered a then-unheard-of conclusion: running barefoot might be the healthiest and most efficient option.

An avid runner himself, McDougall had dealt with a slew of injuries and heard most of his peers complain about them, too. Throughout his running career, he’d been told that he could avoid injury by investing in the right supportive footwear. He’d spent untold amounts of cash in search of the perfect shoe.

Imagine his surprise when he headed to Mexico’s Copper Canyons, where he found a little-known indigenous tribe called the Tarahumara. As it turns out, the Tarahumara have been running tens of miles a day for centuries and sustaining very few injuries… without the benefit of any running shoes at all.

Hence the popularization of minimalist sport shoes like Vibram Five Fingers — the ones that look like gloves for your feet — which are more focused on basic protection than support and cushioning.

But 10 years after McDougall’s book, and despite the emergence of of successful barefoot runners, the traditional running shoe industry is still going strong.

So was McDougall’s radical conclusion accurate?

Running Shoes are Helpful — But Don’t Have to Cost a Fortune

Children get ready to compete in a children's run.
Children get ready to compete in a 400-meter race during the Fort Hamer Bridge Run. Avid runner Christopher McDougall suggests purchasing lightweight running shoes. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

I spoke to half a dozen podiatrists, sports-medicine practitioners, physical therapists and runners, and they all said the same thing: It’s less about the shoes themselves, and more about how you use them.

And fortunately that means you don’t need to spend top dollar to ensure premium performance.

“Shoes are much like a tool for running,” says Dr. Alice Holland, a doctor of physical therapy and the director of Stride Strong Physical Therapy in Hillsboro, Oregon.

Your shoe choice certainly affects your run, she continues, “but ultimately, it is the body that wields the tool.”

While high-tech shoes can offset misalignments, existing injuries and weaknesses, they can’t magically transform you into a better athlete. In other words, the best way to get better at running… is to get better at running. And the stronger and better you are, the less cushioning and support you can get away with.

Lightweight, minimalist shoes do tend to be less expensive than traditional running shoes, Dr. Holland points out, which means you have extra incentive for improvement. And to McDougall’s point, it turns out that the most elaborate running shoes — i.e., the most expensive — can sometimes cause injuries. All that padding can allow runners to continue an improper gait without ever correcting their form or strengthening the underlying weakness.

Of course, there’s one major difference between us and the Tarahumara: Most of us have been wearing shoes since childhood, which means our feet and ankles haven’t had the chance to build up the same level of strength and resilience.

So if the transition to minimalist or barefoot running is rushed, Dr. Holland says, “the runner will suffer injuries.” She recommends that even veteran runners start with one mile at a time when they’re downgrading their footwear.

Eventually, even McDougall walked back his initial conclusion. Although he concedes that “shoes are sometimes better than bare feet,” he still promotes basic, lightweight options — shoes that offer “just what runners needed and no more: a little protection from rough ground and cold weather.”

“Ultimately,” he goes on, “the debate isn’t about Bare Soles vs. Shoes. It’s about learning to run gently. Master that, and you can wear — or not wear — anything you please.”

How to Get the Best Deal on Running Shoes

People stretch pro to participating in a race.
People stretch prior to participating in the Fort Hamer Bridge Run. Experts said the best running shoes cost between $80 and $100. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

All told, choosing the “right” pair of running shoes will depend on your personal fitness level and anatomy. If you’re brand new to the sport or have a history of orthopedic problems, specially crafted, cushiony shoes can be helpful. (Here are some specific tips from Dr. Holland on how to find the best shoe for your individual needs.)

But most of the experts I interviewed priced quality running shoes between $80 and $100 — so not the bottom of the barrel, but not the super-crazy $300 splurge, either.

As far as replacements go, every 500 miles is a well-accepted standard. So if you’re just starting out, chances are those kicks will last a while.

And once you get really into it, you can save cash by using specific shoes for specific workouts, like Meg Takacs, Aaptiv’s master instructor of running, does.

“I alternate through three pairs of my shoes, and that helps to preserve quality,” she told me. She chooses her footwear based on that day’s focus: long runs in one pair, speed work in another. “I spend the money up front,” she says, “and then save for a lot longer.”

Combine that advice with our tips on how to find awesome running shoes at a discount, and — what do you know? It looks like you’re totally out of excuses.

Sorry. (Kind of.)

Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a writer whose work has been featured at Fodor’s, Yahoo, SELF, Ms. Magazine, the Establishment, Roads & Kingdoms and other outlets.