By: Jeremy Neisser
Running shoes have gone through a range of design changes over the decades, and this includes how companies approach the differences between men’s and women’s shoes.
As it stands, are there really any design differences between men’s and women’s running shoes?
Women's running shoes are designed to be lighter than men's shoes and feature a softer midsole. This is because women generally experience lower impact forces while running.
Additionally, there is a distinction between men's and women's running shoes in terms of heel design. Women's running shoes feature narrower heels to accommodate their smaller foot size.
Even though there are differences, many women can, and even prefer wearing men’s shoes if they have a wide feet.
In this article, we will discuss the anatomy of the human foot for men and women, look at the design differences between current shoe models, and then when it might be appropriate for men and women to wear the other gender’s shoes.
The Differences of Men’s and Women’s Running Shoes - Explained
How Men & Women's Shoes Differ
Men's and women's shoes differ in certain ways. One of the most obvious differences is the size—women's shoes are typically smaller than men's, though some companies do offer sizes that fit both genders.
Another major difference is styling—most women's shoes have a more feminine look to them with more decorative elements such as straps, bows, or embellishments. Additionally, women's shoes often feature a higher heel and a more pointed toe than men's shoes.
Material can also be different between the two genders—women's shoes are often made from softer materials such as leather or suede, while men's shoes may utilize tougher materials like canvas or rubber.
Women's shoes usually come in more colors and prints than men's shoes, with a wider variety of choices choose from.
Differences in Foot Shape:
Women's shoes are designed with a wider toe area and a narrower heel area, making it easy to distinguish them from men's shoes. On the other hand, men's shoes are generally wider in size compared to women's shoes.
The tapered shape in the heel area of women's shoes provides support for pronation over time and helps to minimize wear and tear. This design consideration not only enhances comfort but also contributes to the durability of the shoes.
Differences in Foot Shapes: Men’s and Women’s Feet
Because running shoes are often based on the foot of a man, and then slightly altered to work for women, we shall base our research on the women’s foot and how those differences should apply to shoe design.
For the record, R&D departments have begun designing shoe models based on the anatomical variations in the arch, heel, and forefoot in women’s feet. It took them long enough.
In a study conducted by RE Wunderlich and PR Cavanagh, it was concluded that “female feet and legs are not simply scaled-down versions of male feet but rather differ in a number of shape characteristics, particularly at the arch, the lateral side of the foot, the first toe, and the ball of the foot.
These differences should be taken into account in the design and manufacture of women's sport shoes” (1).
When we look at a male’s foot shape, we see a wider forefoot, longer toes, longer arches, and thicker heels.
So, we now understand that a woman's foot is in fact anatomically different from a man's in a number of ways including arch, toes, and forefoot, so how would this affect the design of a pair of running shoes?
Design Differences Between Men’s and Women’ Running Shoes
Well, if we are still considering the anatomy of a woman’s foot, we will see that the shoes will usually be built narrower to accommodate for a narrower forefoot.
This will generally be referred to as a B-width by most shoe companies, which is the standard width for women.
That being said, it is now far more common to see women with wider feet that need some extra room to accommodate for that needed space.
This is why shoe companies make different widths available. A woman with a wider foot will enjoy a D-width shoe, and sometimes an E-width shoe (wide) in very specific circumstances.
Fun Fact: D-width is the standard width for men’s shoes, and in many cases, men will need a 2E-width shoe (double-wide) to accommodate their feet.
Women will also generally have a higher arch than men, which also affects the need for a slightly more comfortable cushion on the lateral (outside) of most running shoes to protect the minimal points of contact of a woman’s foot.
Furthermore, it is perfectly common for women to have falter arches as well, and this is often accompanied by a wider foot in general, so this should be accounted for when selecting the correct running shoe (more on that later).
A woman’s foot will often have a shorter and narrower ankle, which means that the shoe should be made tiger in the heel counter and ankle wrap than seen in men’s shoe models.
Sizing between men’s and women’s sizes in the United States is generally a size and a half down (-1.5) when looking to go from a men’s shoe to a women's shoe.
For example, a US women’s size 10, will be virtually the same length as a US men’s 8.5, but it will probably be wider.
This is a great way for women who have wider feet to feel more comfortable in their shoes.
On the other side of the coin, men with narrow feet could enjoy the fit of a woman's shoe because it would hold their foot better than the width of a traditional men’s shoe. Let’s talk more about that.
Could a Woman Ever Wear a Men’s Shoe?
Even though a woman’s foot will generally differ from the make of a men’s running shoe it is still completely possible for a woman to wear a men’s shoe in specific cases, and this is more common than you might think.
As someone who’s worked in a specialty running short for over four years, I have noticed that it's becoming increasingly popular for women to opt for men’s shoes because they are wider, thus providing a roomier toe box for their feet to breathe.
I have also noticed that women with larger feet are perfectly happy to wear a men’s shoe because it is much easier to find the right size for them, and usually a longer foot means a wider foot anyway, so the extra width is most welcome.
Men's shoes technically have larger sizes than women.
Could a Man Ever Wear a Women’s Shoe?
It is also entirely possible for a man to wear a woman’s shoe with success in specific, but slightly less common cases.
Believe it or not, men with smaller and narrower feet often have issues finding a men’s shoe that fits them correctly, so it's perfectly common to see a man fitting better in a women’s size.
This does seem to be slightly less common, but it still feels fairly regular.
There are design differences between men’s and women’s running shoes for most brands and models. These design differences are based on the anatomical makeup of a men’s and woman’s foot.
The differences will generally be in the shoe width, arch support, cushioning levels, and heel depth/width. On average, running shoes for women have more cushion than males and have a thinner heel.
However, even though men’s and women’s running shoes are created differently, it is still entirely possible for a woman to wear a man’s shoe and vice versa to fit individual and specific circumstances.
A general rule of thumb is that you will look a size and a half (-1.5) down when looking at a shoe size difference between men’s and women’s shoe sizes.
That is, if a lady is a US women’s size 10 (W10), then a US men’s size 8.5 (M8.5) will be very close to the same length, but will probably be wider.
Hi, Jeremy Here,
I am the the guy behind Train for a 5K. On this site, I share everything that learned along my running journey. The content I create is the running training I wish I had before we started this journey. About Jeremy.
I have run over 250 races including the California International Marathon, Clarksburg Country Run, and various other 5K & 10K races throughout the United States. I am a former Athletics department employee at University of the Pacific and Shoe Consultant with Dicks Sporting Goods