Here’s the deal on cushioning: It’s very closely related to the perceived comfort of a shoe. Who doesn’t love that ahhh sensation of your first step in an exceptionally soft ride? The models here undeniably popped in the cushy department, more so than any other category, in both our lab and the wear-tests.
Best Cushioned Running Shoes
- Best For Uptempos: Hoka Mach 4
- Best For Stability: Altra Paradigm 6
- Best For Long Runs: Brooks Ghost 14
- Best For Recovery Runs: Brooks Aurora-BL
- Best For Racing: Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 38
- Smoothest Ride: Asics Gel-Cumulus 22
- Soft And Plush: New Balance Fresh Foam 1080 v11
- Best Value: Reebok Forever Floatride Energy 2
- Best For Trails: Hoka Zinal
- Bouncy And Resilient: Adidas UltraBoost 21
Pick Your Plush
Shoe companies have developed signature foams that not only enhance softness but also put a little more spring into your step. For instance, Brooks’s DNA Loft—the plushest iteration of the brand’s foam—uses microscopic air pockets to both adapt to your stride and absorb shock. Asics’s lightweight FlyteFoam provides a firm bounce and energy return to complement its protective Gel cushioning. Saucony’s Pwrrun+ stream-fuses TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) beads into the midsole and outsole to deliver a slightly heavier but remarkably responsive ride. Hoka combines its marshmallow-soft Profly foam with a rocker-style sole, designed to keep turnover quick and nimble with no loss of comfort.
Just One Factor
Our lab tests measure separately how soft or firm a shoe is in the forefoot and heel—measurements that should be considered by forefoot and heel strikers when choosing a cushioned trainer. We use a machine called an “impact tester.” It repeatedly applies weight calibrated to 18.7 pounds—the average weight of the lower leg—onto the shoe’s heel and forefoot using a mechanical arm to simulate footstrikes. Our lab then records the force of impact and how much the midsole compresses to determine scores for softness. A more-cushioned shoe is usually a preferred choice for runners who are prone to injury or want extra protection and support. Of course, if you’re new to that “running-on-clouds” sensation, increase your pace and mileage gradually as you become more familiar with the shoe.
How We Test
Runner’s World has the most comprehensive shoe testing process in the industry. We work with more than 350 local runners of all abilities, ages, and sizes for real-world wear-testing on paved roads, dirt paths, and rocky singletrack. After a month of running more than 100 miles, our testers report back their findings on features like fit, comfort, performance, and ride. While our testers are putting miles on the shoes, the same models undergo a battery of mechanical tests in our Shoe Lab so we can objectively measure cushioning, flexibility, sole thickness, and weight. We’ve combined that lab data and wear-test feedback with our own experience running in these shoes to determine the best of the most cushioned.
—BEST FOR UPTEMPOS—
Hoka Mach 4
The Mach 4 is incredibly lightweight and has knocked the cushy, race-ready Rincon off its mantel. “It’s the best Mach yet, and perhaps the best current Hoka,” said Runner-in-Chief Jeff Dengate. The updated design is modeled after the brand’s fastest shoes, the Carbon X and Rocket X. Profly foam promotes high rebound, while the early-stage Meta-Rocker (a slightly curved sole) presses you on to catapult forward. The upgraded upper hugs your foot more securely so you won’t run out of these explosive Machs.
—BEST FOR STABILITY—
Altra Paradigm 6
You could reserve Altra’s cushiest trainer for easy runs and recovery days. Or use the Paradigm 6 as an everyday shoe like Altra-sponsored athlete Kara Goucher, who says she wears it for 70 percent of her workouts. The 6 features Altra’s Ego Max midsole, which provides more energy return from the thick slab of firm cushioning. The Paradigm’s high stack (33mm) and guide-rail system lend support, making it an ideal choice for runners who want to try a zero-drop shoe but want some extra comfort.
—BEST FOR LONG RUNS—
Brooks Ghost 14
Brooks removed the BioMoGo DNA portion of the midsole, so the Ghost 14 has only DNA Loft foam, just like its plusher counterpart, the Glycerin. Our testers found this adjustment doesn’t change the Ghost’s ride noticeably. “It had a nice balance of cushioning and firmness during turnover,” said a tester, adding that the Ghost felt more responsive than the Glycerin and Adrenaline GTS. The Ghost 14 is also the brand’s first carbon neutral running shoe. The Ghost’s release kicked off Brooks’s announcement of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2040, using recycled materials and carbon offsets.
—BEST FOR RECOVERY RUNS—
Race shoes that match the Aurora’s price are usually set aside for competition and typically last 250 miles. For all those other days when you’re training and recovering, that’s where the Aurora comes in. What separates it from your average max-cushioned shoe is that it mimics the same turnover as a speedster. The midsole is sculpted to promote a gliding transition, while a decoupled heel and forefoot encourage flexibility and, according to Brooks, your foot’s natural movement. The nitrogen-injected DNA Loft v3 midsole is lighter, softer, more responsive, and more durable than traditional EVA foam or the brand’s original DNA Loft. “Initially, I was afraid it was going to be too soft, like I was running on quicksand, but it was not like that at all,” said a tester. “The cushioning allows for higher mileage and harder efforts without beating up your feet.”
—BEST FOR RACING—
Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 38
Last year, the Peg’s midsole switched from older Cushlon foam to more-responsive React, and Nike added two more millimeters of it underfoot. Still not as light and bouncy as ZoomX, React feels medium soft, and moderately flexible. The outsole got a facelift, too, with more flex grooves and a rectangular tread pattern that slightly improves grip for short stints off-road. Those tweaks remain on the 38, but the upper sees a bunch of problem-solving fixes. The previously cramped toe box is roomier, and a deeper heel cup helps eliminate the slippage we felt in the 37.
Asics Gel-Cumulus 22
Past models of the Gel-Cumulus were abundant with cushioning but had a clunky ride. The designers improved the Cumulus by carving away foam and rubber underfoot, making the flex grooves deeper, and lengthening the guidance line that runs the length of the shoe. Said a tester, “[The ride is] smoother than a fresh jar of Skippy.” The midsole is softer too, with updated Flyte Foam. The Gel cushioning is left intact in the heel and forefoot to absorb shock.
—SOFT AND PLUSH—
New Balance Fresh Foam 1080 v11
New Balance cranked up the Fresh Foam for the 1080v9, adding a millimeter of softness underfoot to make the shoe more forgiving. In the 10th iteration, NB upgraded the midsole to Fresh Foam X, which felt soft (but not marshmallowy); laser-engraving shaved off about half an ounce from the previous version, making the shoe look sportier and more lightweight. Fortunately, not much has changed with the v11. Consistent with the v10, that thick slab of Fresh Foam X provides high energy return—and comfort. Shoe designers tweaked the upper, making it stretchier in the forefoot for wider-foot runners.
Reebok Forever Floatride Energy 2
We loved the low-cost, high-performance combo when we first tested the original Forever Floatride Energy last year, and we like this updated version just as much. With it, Reebok addressed a few fit issues. A new engineered mesh sits closer to your foot and feels more premium, plus the heel fit has been improved by adding high-density foam to cradle your foot and lock it in place. (Our testers noted that the satiny, padded lining feels more luxurious than the shoe’s price tag would suggest.) Underfoot, it feels lighter, bouncier, and more lively than most similarly priced shoes—which typically use less-energetic EVA—and still proves durable for high mileage. Tests at the RW Shoe Lab showed the shoe delivers better than average energy return, especially from the very soft forefoot, yet doesn’t feel mushy when you pick up the pace.
—BEST FOR TRAILS—
Hoka launched this lightweight, no-fuss trainer meant for speed and agility. Its 4mm lugs are grippy on uneven surfaces but unobtrusive over stretches of pavement you may hit on the way to a trailhead or when linking up sections of trail. Dare we call this shoe a hybrid? “On some of the downhill slopes, I was impressed with my stopping ability, considering the tread pattern is not overly aggressive,” said one tester. The shoe isn’t totally free of trail-specific features. The upper has a toe bumper as well as a gusseted tongue, which is designed to block out debris on loose ground. The shoe has the same Profly midsole as the Mach features on this list. The responsive midsole paired with the early-stage Meta-Rocker encourages quicker heel-to-toe transitions.
—BOUNCY AND RESILIENT—
Adidas UltraBoost 21
This 2021 version of the UltraBoost has 20 percent more Boost than the original and 5 percent more than the 19th iteration. It’s also a shoe with a conscience: the Prime Blue upper is made of 92 percent recycled ocean plastic. When it comes to a plush ride that doesn’t lose its bounce below freezing or in the final miles of a long run, the iconic UltraBoost delivers.