A close up of a runner through puddles

How To Choose the Best Max-Cushion Running Shoe

Here’s everything you need to know about the high-comfort design craze that’s paddling out the soles of both road and trail running shoes.

Runners have opinions. Opinions about races, running routes, trails versus roads, GPS watches, musical playlists for long runs, shoes…especially shoes. Most runners are die-hard loyalists to the brand and style of shoe they lace up on the regular. And traditionally, they won’t entertain the idea of straying from their “one true love.” But in the last several years, maximum-cushioned running shoes have infiltrated the scene, wooing runners with the promise of more comfortable miles.

Max-cushioned shoes are exactly what they sound like: running kicks with more padding beneath your feet. And the category has exploded to the point where most major running shoe brands offer at least one max-cushioned option while some brands exist entirely within the super-cush realm. These new plush shoes aren’t silver bullets for injury prevention (more on that below), but if you’re looking for a really soft ride and a smooth heel-to-toe transition, a max-cushion shoe might be right for you. They’re also a great option for beginners looking to ease into running or experienced runners hoping to find a more comfortable shoe for their daily training miles. Here’s everything you need to know before you step into the plush world of max-cushioned running shoes. 

What qualifies as a max-cushion running shoe?

What separates a max-cushioned shoe from a traditional shoe? It all comes down to “stack height,” which is the height of the sole between your foot and the ground. Stack height is measured at two spots, at the heel and the forefoot. Shoes with a zero drop have the same stack height in the heel as forefoot. Traditional running shoes and most max-cushioned running shoes will have a higher stack height in the heel than the forefoot, loading the heel with more padding to help cushion the impact of a heel strike. To give you an idea of the full range: minimalist shoes will have stack heights around 15mm; traditional running shoes live in the low- to mid-20 stack height range; and max-cushioned running shoes will have a stack height that begins at 30mm and goes up from there. The key distinction: Higher stack height means more cushion. 

What is all that cushion? 

The majority of the cushion in a running shoe is centered in the midsole, which is sandwiched between a thin insole and the outsole. Shoe companies typically use an EVA or polyurethane foam, which is soft, durable and lightweight. Today, that cushion offers more than just a plush ride, as foams have been developed to offer high levels of energy return, which can often feel as if you’re walking on trampolines. Each shoe company has its own take on foam, using proprietary tech that can include anything from strategically placed air pockets throughout the midsole to a rocker-style shape of the footbed that seems to propel you forward when you run. 

A close up of running shoes

Consider the weight 

They look clunky thanks to the oversized sole, but the majority of well-made max-cushioned shoes are not heavy and cumbersome. Thanks to advancements in foam and materials, even the thickest cushioned shoe can be as light as a traditional running shoe with half the sole padding. Most max-cushioned running shoes will weigh less than 10 ounces, with plenty of plush shoes that come in at the 7-ounce range. Trail running shoes might weigh a bit more because of the addition of rock plates, which protect your feet against trail hazards, as well as lugs and more durable, weatherproof uppers. 

Think about durability 

No running shoe is designed to last forever, and eventually that cushion beneath your feet will start to compress and lose its plush, springy feel. The typical rule is to replace your running shoes after 300 to 500 miles, which could be a few months for active runners or an entire year for casual runners. But because you run in the shoes regularly, it can be difficult to discern if the shoe has lost its bounce. The best way to know if it’s time for a new pair is to track your runs with an app like Strava, and start shopping for the next pair when you hit the 300-mile mark. 

Match your running style

You can get max-cushioned running shoes for every niche of running, from ultra-light shoes designed for racing to workhorses built to take the miles of daily training. There are max-cushioned trail runners and road runners, shoes with super-breathable uppers meant for running in heat, and shoes with waterproof uppers built to carry you through the wet, cold winter months. Think about the terrain you like to run, the conditions you’re often running in, and match the shoe to those parameters. 

But don’t expect the cushion to solve all your problems

There’s an ongoing debate about exactly how much cushion that runners should have in their shoes, with one side landing firmly in the “barefoot running” camp and the other insisting on cloud-like shoes for max comfort. One thing to consider is that all that cushion beneath your feet could help mask poor running form. There have been no conclusive studies that suggest a specific level of cushion can increase or reduce injury—meaning that your top performance still comes down to proper running form and close attention to the needs and warning signs coming from your body. Max-cushioned shoes might offer more comfortable miles, but don’t expect any shoe to keep you injury-free. And remember, the best way to find the right running shoe is to actually step into a store and try a bunch of options on your feet. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.