Product Reviews for Runners: What's the Point?
In our ever more connected world, everyone is doing product reviews. YouTube channels are full of them, you can find them in speciality magazines, in blogs, on personal websites, and of course, on websites dedicated only to reviewing the latest kit! But, can you trust them and what are they useful for?
While we find ever more product review sources for runners online and beyond, which sources can you trust and should you even rely on product reviews to purchase your running gear?
In this article, I'll combine my freelance writer knowledge and runner experience to cover:
What running product reviews are and the various types you'll find;
How important these product reviews are for your purchasing decisions;
Which product review sources you can trust.
What are product reviews for running?
Let's start with the basics. I am not referring to the day-to-day "real" user reviews on online shopping websites such as Amazon.com or - depending on where you're based - sports specific e-commerce platforms like wiggle.com or i-run.fr. And the reason for this is that I find that, while well intentioned, most buyers will write up a quick "review" as soon as they've received the item they shopped for. In the case of a pair of running shoes or a waterproof jacket, this just doesn't work (unless something is glaringly obvious, like the sizing runs small for the usual size charts, or it doesn't look anything like in the picture).
When searching for reliable product reviews for your next running gear shopping haul, you would not find these to really help that much. Runners will be more interested in finding out how durable and reliable the kit really is, how it copes with various weather variations, or what the fit and comfort levels are like for each item reviewed.
Complete product reviews in the running world, fall into three main categories:
Overview and comparison of one type of product - e.g. round-up of the latest trail running shoes, or best running jackets of 2022 etc. These are great if they are kept up to date (if online) and if they include a wide enough range of running kit manufacturers and models to give you a good understanding of what's available. They also typically include a buyer's guide or some tips on how to pick your kit, which can be extremely helpful knowledge.
In-depth brand review - this is often a paid advertisement in running magazines or sponsored content. There's nothing wrong with that! Often, the writer will have been invited to visit the brand's HQ, becoming familiar with how items are made and with the history of the brand. This gives them more of an insight into the gear. They would normally be offered a few items to try and those are the ones they write about. These types of reviews are great for discovering a new brand or product or for learning a bit more about a brand you might know loosely.
Topical guides or round-ups - less of a review and more of a guide for specific endeavours, such as "what to wear when running in the cold" or "clothes for running in humid climates." These are very good if - you've guessed it! - you're preparing for exactly that scenario. Some of the products may have been used by the author, some may just be mentioned as part of their research. If done by a good writer or an athlete you trust, then these are brilliant starting points to prepare your own adventure.
One last area I haven't covered is the so-called "front of book" snippet that you often see in specialty magazines. These appear as part of product launches and will have been sent to the magazine as a PR release, sometimes by the brand or their PR agency, and without anyone having necessarily had the chance to review the item. So, take those as more of an "announcement" than a review. However, there are exceptions... such as this short paragraph I recently contributed to Trail Running Magazine after having tested the jacket on a press trip with Raidlight.
Are product reviews important for runners?
You might think that product reviews are nothing more than a PR exercise or an opportunity for bloggers to make money from affiliate links. You might even go so far as to think that all you need to do to find the best kit, is try it yourself. There is some truth in that...
However, consider how much time, effort and money that would require. To get an accurate view of the best running shoes that fit you for a road marathon, the choice is just mind boggling these days. And what if you want to then head to the trails for some short weekend runs? Again, hundreds of shoes await. Let's go even further and imagine you've now got a taste for trail running and sign up for a mountain race which requires you to bring lots of mandatory kit. Your shopping list gets longer, but would you really be able to try out 7-8 waterproof trail running jackets to the point that you're confident you've made the best choice when it's pouring on a remote mountain trail?
Hopefully, this gives you an idea of why you should even bother reading reviews for your running kit. Nothing truly beats experience of these items and reviewers will usually have the luxury of having tested lots of different pieces of running clothing before they write about it. And yes, there is the other side of the coin: too much choice can be an issue! Product reviews help you remove some items from the comparison list right away, but you need also not get too caught up in reading about kit endlessly.
Which product review sources can you trust?
Now that I've convinced you to use them to plan your buying and prepare for races or adventures, the question is which product reviews are reliable, and when you should use each source.
Who writes product reviews for runners?
Reviews of the latest running kit don't only appear in magazines and on specialty websites. Lots of bloggers, YouTube channels, and Instagram influencers do their own. Like we covered above, these can range from overviews of the latest of one type of item, to useful guides about gear fit for certain weather conditions or even for specific races (in their opinion, remember!).
Generally, reviewers fall into the categories below.
Magazine writers / Journalists
In the case of staff writers at magazines like Trail Running in the UK, these are specialists in all things trail running and usually have years of running experience, too. Magazines get sent a lot of kit to review, which means they often have access to a wide array of brands. If they've been gifted the items, or own them on their own, they will sometimes be able to write up long-term tests which are very helpful for those of us who want to make the most out of our kit, for the longest time possible.
Journalists need to disclose whether their writing is paid by through advertising. This is why you'll see some double-page features on brands in these magazines, marked as adverts in the corner of the page. This is not a bad thing! Brands will have sent information that the writers can sift through, analyse and then filter through their own views and experience. And, like I've already said, they will often have either invited the writers on a press trip or sent them the items they're writing about. If this is a magazine or a writer you've been following for a while and whose opinion you trust, then it's no question that you can trust their review!
Athletes / Influencers / Sports personalities
Just like being a high-achieving athlete doesn't necessarily make one a great coach, it doesn't make them an all-knowing source of kit knowledge. However, many athletes write their own blogs with very useful information on what running clothing, shoes, and other equipment they use themselves.
These reviews can be very good if you are planning a similar outing to one of your sporting heroes, or if you know you trust their views and experience. It helps if they're good writers and will put together well thought-out guides like this one.
However, be aware that most professional athletes are sponsored by apparel manufacturers, which influences what type of products they will choose to review and how. The same goes for influencers who are sent running kit to use and review: some are very transparent and you can see how long they've used the items, in what circumstances etc. Simply, be aware of any ulterior motives they, too, might have.
Bloggers / Speciality websites
There are a growing number of websites dedicated to producing running kit reviews, either as overall round-ups or individually. While many of them feature affiliate links, meaning that they will receive a small fee if you buy the product by following their link, they can be tested for trustworthiness using a few simple questions:
What is the author's background and expertise? It helps if the website features a bio section for them and/or a link to their personal / professional website (assuming they whole website isn't theirs).
Have the products been tested by the author or are the reviews only based on research? Both styles of reviews are valuable, but you will gain different types of information from each.
Is this a trusted website? Are there reviews of it or does it appear in other round-ups of good sources of information? How much more can you find out about the authors?
If it's a running shop's website, check what sponsors they have or if they're distributing predominantly one specific brand, as they might have a bias towards featuring them.
Running product reviews: Making the most of resources
Ultimately, product reviews can be very helpful in finding event or terrain-specific equipment, discovering the best brands for particular types of product, and exploring the ever expanding market of running and trail running products.
However, it's important to make informed decisions and to always trust your own body, running style and experience, and fitness levels. Products that serve elite athletes who move a lot quicker or have a lighter running style than that of a beginner runner will be less useful to the latter. In the same way, some manufacturers might use materials or a cut that doesn't work for you, despite the technical merits of the items that catch your eye.
There is no beating trial and error when it comes to finding the best running products - especially apparel and shoes. Use product reviews to inform yourself of trends and new appearances, to study similarities and differences between brands and products, and to curate your own race or adventure kit list. But remember to weigh this information against your own experience and real-world conditions.