When you have a favorite pair of running shoes, they’re likely to build up a lot of dirt and mud over time. While knowing how to clean running shoes isn’t a requirement, your shoes will have a longer, more useful life if you take the time to remove the dirt periodically. Dirt and mud particles can act like sandpaper on your runners, wearing down the structure of the shoe and even giving you blisters.
As such, if you’re serious about running, it’s a good idea to learn about how to clean running shoes and start building some smart shoe-cleaning habits right away. Your goal isn’t necessarily to keep them looking like they’re brand new; that would be far too much work just for them to get dirty on their next use. However, it’s essential to keep them clean enough to be functional and comfortable. This guide will teach you how to do just that.
Types of Running Shoe
When you’re looking at how to clean running shoes and what maintenance they require, there’s one important distinction to make: the difference between city shoes and off-road shoes. Some people prefer to run on sidewalks and roads, while others primarily like running on trails or through the woods. Some people want to do both!
Depending on your devotion to the activity, you may or may not have a pair of “city shoes” and a pair of “off-road shoes.” However, if you do, you’ll need to keep some separate cleaning strategies in mind for each. Different shoes exist for each activity, after all; off-road running shoes tend to prioritize traction and protection from rocks, while pavement runners tend to utilize comfort, impact mitigation, and weight reduction.
Even if you don’t have a separate shoe for each activity, the way that these activities wear on footwear (and accrue dirt) are very different. While cleaning a running shoe is more or less the same regardless of where it got dirty, the dust will accumulate in different areas with each type of shoe. Just keep two things in mind while reading this guide:
- With trail-running footwear, dirt will mostly accumulate on the outside of the shoe. However, footwear that has been submerged (such as in a puddle) and is waterlogged requires special care. Most of your cleaning efforts will focus on the outside of the shoe.
- For a pavement-running shoe, sweat and smell will be your enemy. Depending on where you live, you may also need to watch for puddles with city shoes. Most of your cleaning will focus on the inside of the shoe.
Cleaning Your Shoes
There is a specific protocol that most runners follow for how to clean running shoes, and you should do the same. While you don’t need to stick to the following steps exactly or in order, make sure to try and clean every part of the shoe regularly. While trail shoes will need an exterior scrub more often than city shoes, for example, both shoes should see a top-to-bottom cleaning periodically to keep them functional, comfortable, and safe.
Allow Your Shoes to Dry
If you’ve just gotten home from a good jog, you’re probably tempted to go after your shoes with some cleaner right away. However, if your footwear is muddy, it’s usually a good idea to let the mud dry first. This makes it easier to clean off, and the dirt is less likely to penetrate and stain your sneakers this way, too.
If your shoes are sweaty or waterlogged, but not muddy, you can get started with them right away. Since you’re going to be wetting them anyway during the cleaning process, there’s no reason to wait!
Disassemble Your Shoes
Your next important step will be to take out any removable parts of your shoes. For most runners, this includes both the insole and the shoelaces. However, if your insole is glued in or otherwise adhered to your footwear, don’t force it out! Only remove the insole if it detaches from the shoe readily (which will be the case for most runners).
You can wash the insoles and shoelaces by hand if you’d like, or you can put them in a pillowcase and run them through your washing machine’s gentle cycle on cold. However, if you’re unsure whether your insoles and shoelaces can handle a trip through the dryer, it’s better to hang onto them and hand-wash them later. If you have aftermarket insoles inside of your shoes, take care to make sure they can handle the washing process before doing so, too.
Clean Off Dirt and Mud
Your next step will be to clean off any exterior mud and dirt from your shoes, if applicable. As long as you’ve let the mud dry, it should scrape or brush off easily. Use tools like:
- A soft-bristled scrub brush
- A toothbrush
- A soft sponge or scrubber
Different brushes and sponges will help you reach mud and dirt in different places. A scrub brush, for example, will be useful for cleaning the whole shoe, while a toothbrush will work best in small crevices that the scrub brush and sponge can’t reach.
Wash Your Outer Shoe
Once you’ve gotten any caked-on mud and dirt off of your shoes, the next step is to wash them! While some sources may tell you that machine-washing your shoes is okay, we don’t advise it. However, if your runners specifically say that they’re machine-washable, then go for it! Just make sure to use your machine’s gentle cycle on cold.
However, for most shoes, it’s best to stay away from machine washing. This is because the tumbling that your shoes experience in the washer can cause layers of fabric to weaken and come apart. You never know how one brand of footwear will react to a machine washing, so unless the brand itself has given you the okay on it, hand-washing is a much safer bet.
To begin, mix a mild soap, like eco-friendly laundry detergent, with water to create a gentle washing solution. Some shoes will do better with a specialized shoe cleaner, such as those with a waterproof or Gore-Tex® outer layer. Don’t submerge or saturate the top part of your shoe, either. The top of your footwear should need spot cleaning only.
For the outer soles of your shoes, feel free to dip them in your soapy water solution, then scrub them liberally with one of your scrubbing tools. For shoes with deep grooves in the soles, a scrub brush or toothbrush will work best, while a sponge should work well for most other shoes. Rinse your footwear carefully with clean water when you finish.
Clean and Deodorize Your Inner Shoes
Cleaning the inside of your shoes is arguably even more important than cleaning the outside. After all, you may not hit a muddy puddle every time you run, but your feet will likely sweat almost every time. If you let that sweat build up in your shoes, it will cause unsanitary conditions and odor. In the worst cases, it could even cause health problems for your feet.
If you’ve chosen not to put your insoles into the wash, now is the time to wash them. You can use the mild soap mixture from the last step for this, but we recommend a balanced mix of baking soda and water. This will create an odor-eliminating paste for your shoes. Alternatively, you can wash the insides of your shoes with the mild soap, then deodorize them by pouring baking soda in the runners once they’re dry.
Once you’ve thoroughly scrubbed your insoles, clean the dirt and soap off with a damp sponge. Try not to saturate or soak them if at all possible.
Dry Your Shoes
The final step to washing your shoes is to let them thoroughly dry. While there are many popular ways to speed up the drying time of shoes, many of them can damage your footwear! The best way to dry your runners is to leave them inside the house in a well-ventilated area. A fan will help them dry faster, but it’s not required.
On the other hand, we do not recommend that you do any of the following:
- Dry your shoes in the dryer
- Dry your runners in the sun
- Dry your footwear over an air vent, radiator, or furnace in your home
It’s a good idea to stuff your shoes gently with paper towels or newspaper to help them dry and hold their shape, too. Leave the newspaper or paper towel in the runners for at least the first 24 hours of drying time.
How to Make Running Shoes Last (Besides Cleaning)
Washing your running shoes is all about helping them to stand the test of time. Running shoes can be expensive regardless of type, so you probably want to get your money’s worth out of them. However, there are a few other strategies here to remember (besides cleaning them safely and cleaning them often) that can help you extend the life of your shoes.
Only Wear Your Running Shoes Running
This is a bit of a no-brainer, but if you want your running shoes to last a long time, it’s best only to wear them when you need to. Resist the urge to wear them to the gym (unless you’ll be running on a track) or out and about, such as when you’re grocery shopping. If you’re not going to be running, don’t wear your running shoes!
Keep an Alternate Pair
This is another no-brainer – it’s a good idea to keep an alternate pair of running shoes, such as an older, worn-in pair, for non-running activities and days with bad weather. After all, if you don’t wear your good running shoes on rainy days in the first place, you won’t need to wash them as much. If you’re a fan of wearing running shoes out and about, this is also something you might want to look into.
If you have an older pair of running shoes that you’re looking to replace, extend their life as much as possible by wearing them around the house, when walking the dogs, or wherever else you might feel tempted to take advantage of them. This will allow you to keep your new, specialized running shoes in tip-top shape for important running events, while at the same time allowing you to wear a pair of your favorite shoes out and about.
Believe it or not, shoes also need recovery days. Giving your shoes a few days to sit between uses gives them time to reform their shape, for example. As such, having an alternate pair of shoes – old and broken-in or otherwise – will pay off by keeping both pairs of shoes nicer in the long run. This is especially important if you compete in running competitions that keep you active for several days or weeks at a time.
Keeping an alternate pair of shoes allows you to specialize a little more, too. To reuse an example from before, you might keep one pair of trail-running shoes and one pair of city shoes. This would allow you to both let the shoes rest between uses and use a shoe that’s more suited to your running area.
If you’re not a trail-lover, you can have a different shoe for different exercise types, instead. For example, a professional runner might have one pair of footwear for faster, more intense workouts, like sprinting, and they might have an entirely different set for endurance competitions like marathons.
Avoid the Elements
Like most things, shoes don’t do particularly well when exposed to temperature extremes out in the elements. While it might be tempting to leave a pair of runners in your car for convenience, they could quickly end up baking in the summer heat or freezing in the winter cold this way. If a washing machine cycle can damage your shoes, what could a day spent in a baking car do to them?
As such, it’s always best to keep your essential shoes in temperature-controlled conditions. Instead of holding them in your car, keep them in a string bag or a duffel that you can grab quickly on your way out the door. Your shoes will thank you for it by giving you a longer life.
Form and Function
The way you run makes a difference in how you wear your shoes, too. If you run in a way that quickly wears out one area of your shoe, such as near the toes, it might be revealing a weakness in your form that you could correct. A runner’s style is as unique as their fingerprints, but a perfect form seldom comes naturally.
Working on your form is a great way to reduce the wear to different parts of your shoe. A runner with good running habits should wear their shoes in relatively evenly, and the wear patterns should be similar from shoe to shoe.
Be careful not to tire yourself out, as well. If you run beyond your means, you’ll end up running more heavily because you’re tired. This will cause more wear on your shoes, and it’ll wear your body down, too.
Buy Local, Buy New
While it may feel much more expensive to buy from local specialty shoe stores, a lot of times, the payoff in the lifetime of your shoe can be worth it. This is because a smaller store will not stockpile as much as a big box store will. When you shop at a big box store, you run the risk of choosing a shoe that’s already been sitting in its stock room for years! Even if a runner’s only been sitting in a box on a shelf, it ages all the same.
Thus, by buying local and buying new, not only do you support a local business, but you may extend the life of your shoe, too. If you get lucky, you may end up recouping what extra you spend with that extra bit of life in your favorite pair of shoes.
The 500 Mile Rule
The consensus is that a pair of running shoes should always be replaced by about 500 miles of use. However, some footwear may require replacement before that (we just so happen to have listed many reasons why above). If you’re a diligent note-taker, it’s helpful to keep track of the mileage that you run in your shoes. However, the next best thing is to record your shoes’ birthday.
Recording your shoe’s birthday isn’t a perfect solution, but it’ll give you a general idea of how much mileage they’ve seen. For example, if you run a mile a day, your shoes will be starting to wear out after a year, and they’ll absolutely need replacing by a year and a half. Many runners choose to write their shoes’ birthday inside the shoe to keep track.
Running shoes are expensive, and they’re not a purchase that should be made lightly. However, by knowing how to clean running shoes and taking good care of them, you can extend their life much longer than an uninformed user would be able to.