Finding the right shoe to suit your running style involves negotiating a labyrinth of technology. Thankfully, Julian Goater’s here to get you into your stride
We all know that shoes are the most important piece of running equipment we have. They can literally make, or break, your runs. Sure, your shoes won’t actually make you go faster, but wearing the wrong shoes can certainly slow you down. Worse still, badly fitting shoes can cause blisters and injuries and make running a misery.
Buying running shoes can be a confusing and frustrating business. The shoes that fitted in the shop may, after just a couple of miles running, feel uncomfortable, and the wrong shoes can bring on Achilles tendonitis, calf strains or knee, hip and back pains.
The choice of shoes is enormous, and it’s easy to be blinded by sales hype and gimmicky features thinly disguised as hi-tech science. That said, the technology and materials incorporated in modern running shoes is better than ever, ?and there are many excellent models on the market. However, given the huge variety available it’s important to know what sort of shoes, and what features, you’re looking for before you hit the shops.
If your feet and shoes are working properly they provide control, power, balance and stability. But there are so many foot types, shapes and sizes to cater for. Feet can be wide or narrow, flat or high-arched, rigid or flexible. Even one person’s feet can be markedly different to each other in terms of shape, size, strength and rigidity. Some people’s middle toes are longer than their big toe; others have bent toes and bunions. So it’s not that easy being a shoe manufacturer either, trying to cater for all these different foot shapes.
Your running gait
And then there’s the question of how you actually use your feet when you run – your running gait. Running shops will classify runners as ‘heel strikers’ or ‘forefoot strikers’. Do you tend to land on your heels or on the balls of your feet as you run? You can tell this fairly accurately by just looking at the wear pattern on the soles of your shoes.
They’ll also classify you as ‘pronators’, ‘neutral runners’ or ‘supinators’, depending on whether your feet roll inwards or outwards as they strike the ground. Nearly everybody pronates to some extent, and that’s how feet are designed to work, with the foot rolling slightly inwards as your bodyweight is taken on the ball of the foot. Less than 10% of us are supinators – where the foot rolls out and the weight is taken on the outside of the foot as opposed to the ball of the foot – and the choice of shoes available to these runners is considerably more limited. In which case an orthotic device (basically a bespoke insole) inserted into a neutral shoe might be the answer.
A mild pronator will probably find a neutral shoe ideal, providing a good arch support but no additional stability devices. But if you over-pronate – your foot and ankle don’t just roll, but actually collapse inwards as your weight goes over the foot – you may need some extra support from the shoe or from an orthotic device.
There’s a large selection of anti-pronation shoes designed to compensate for this weakness but beware: too much correction will transfer your weight to the outsides of your feet. And although this will limit (and may even prevent) your pronation, it may cause problems higher up your legs, to your knees, hips or lower back.
Whatever solution you choose, don’t insert an orthotic device into a motion-control shoe. Either go for an orthotic in a neutral shoe or for a stability shoe without the orthotic.
That’s all very well, but how do you know whether you’re a mild or severe pronator? Many specialist running shops now offer some form of gait analysis to help you choose the most suitable type of shoe, in terms of support and cushioning. However, running across a pressure mat and trying to get one foot to land on the mat doesn’t always give the most representative pressure pattern. Running on a treadmill gives an observer a better chance of accurately analysing your running gait. But also don’t discount the value of simply examining the wear pattern on the sole and heel cup of your old shoes. Alternatively, you could get a friend to video you running from the front and behind.
Protecting your feet
Let’s get back to your feet. They take a lot of punishment, especially if you’re running fast or for long distances. You look to your shoes to provide cushioning, support and protection. They can also give you extra grip and stability. But you should never rely on them to replace the function of your feet; in other words, they should never prevent your feet from working properly. They should always allow or encourage your feet to work properly inside the shoe.
It’s an oft-quoted fact that, when running, each foot takes on a force up to three times your body weight. But this is too simplistic. Running faster, landing on harder surfaces and running downhill creates greater stresses on the foot than running slowly, running on soft surfaces and running uphill. The harder the impact, the more stress your body is under – and, therefore, the more vital it is that your joints act in harmony to absorb this stress.
Once the stress of impact has gone above the ankle, there are only the knees and the hips to absorb the shock before the backbone becomes jarred. But below the ankle there are 33 joints and the four arches of the foot, supported by muscles and ligaments, which are designed to take the majority of the stress. Clearly, the cushioning in your shoes can help reduce this stress enormously.
But again, more is not necessarily best. Heel cushioning is an important function of a shoe but, as with stability devices, you can have too much of a good thing. You lose the ‘feel’ of the ground if your feet are too cushioned. The higher your feet are off the ground (or the thicker the heel wedge), the more unstable your foot becomes, and the more susceptible you are to turning your ankles. Some shoes have such thick heel cushioning that it’s virtually impossible to avoid running on your heels – unless you’re going uphill – and, although this might feel comfortable, it’s in fact preventing your feet from working properly, and, in the process, making them weaker. Instead of excessive heel cushioning, go for more forefoot cushioning, which will provide a better balanced shoe and encourage you to run correctly rather than just on your heels.
Fits like a glove
Your running shoes should fit snugly, but not tightly, both round the toe box and across the top of your foot. A good guide as to whether a training shoe fits your foot is to ensure you have a thumbnail’s width between your big toe and the front of the shoe, and to ensure that the lace eyelets tighten in parallel rows. A ‘V’ shaped row of eyelets means your foot is too big for the shoe, whereas a very narrow strip of lacing means the shoe is too roomy for you. You may find your racing shoes need to be a half-size smaller than your everyday trainers to provide a really snug fit, especially if you race without socks.
The heel counter needs to be rigid enough to hold your heel bone and the rear of your foot sufficiently firmly to prevent over-pronation, not just while the shoe is new but for several hundred miles.
Finally, the peak of the shoe, which fits underneath your ankle bone, should be low enough and soft enough not to cause any bruising or inflammation, either to the undersides of the ankle bone or to the Achilles tendon itself.
Choosing your shoes
Now you know the basic features to look for, you can make a more informed choice of shoe. It’s not just a question of size and fit. Numerous factors need to be considered – weight, stability, flexibility, grip and width, to name but a few. Does it offer a good arch support? Has it got forefoot as well as heel cushioning? Does it incorporate mild or extreme motion-control devices? You’ll soon start to know the features you want and, equally importantly, those that you want to avoid.
The best practical advice is to buy a new pair of shoes before the old pair has worn out. Then you can alternate both pairs and gradually get used to the new pair, instead of having to wear the new pair constantly. Have a selection of shoes on the go at any one time – perhaps one road shoe, one off-road pair and a lightweight trainer/racer. Doing so allows you to choose the most suitable pair for each session and, again, help you phase in replacement shoes gradually.
This needs to be rigid enough to hold your heel bone and the rear of your foot sufficiently to prevent over-pronation.
Peak of the shoe
Should be low enough and soft enough not to cause any bruising or inflammation.
Ensure that your eyelets run parallel. A ‘V’ shaped or narrow strip of eyelets means an ill-fitting shoe.
The last thing you need on an hour’s run is a ‘boil in the bag’ effect between your toes. Make sure the material will wick ?sweat from your feet.