Running shoes buying guide: what to look for
Minimalist, motion-controlled, oversized… the choice of trainer for triathletes is now exhaustive. And downright confusing. We shed some light…
One of the thrills of running is its simplicity and purity. Get home from work, slip on a run tee and shorts, lace up your favourite shoes and you can soon be lost on the trails, without the fear of a bike mechanical or pool-lane tyrant to halt your progress. What you wear on your feet, however, has become an increasingly complicated business.
Zero-drop, oversized, minimalist, motion control, trainers for pronators and supinators, conventional or tri-specific shoes are just some of the sub-genres out there to pick from. Scientific research on run shoes for triathlon is also far from definitive, with much of it not catered to endurance athletes logging miles of running each week, often after sitting hours on a bike.
Even the differences between training and racing shoes have become blurred by ambiguous marketing and a multi-billion dollar industry hungrily looking for the next big trend. So just what is the difference? “The aim of a race shoe is to achieve an optimal traction combined with a powerful push-off, which is as direct and fast as possible,” says On Running’s co-founder David Allemann.
“To transfer the power of the runner as directly as possible to the street, a racing shoe needs to be very responsive. This means that many racing shoes aren’t well-cushioned.”
Performance. Pure and simple
Having prepared for race season in your favourite mile-munchers, what should you look for when buying a race shoe?
“Performance. Pure and simple,” says Saucony’s technical representative, Simon Jones. “Shedding those extra grams of weight, lighter and more breathable uppers, higher grade of carbon rubber to gain more traction. Think of a racing shoe as a Formula 1 car compared to your everyday car. It’s about finding those extra seconds which are all-important on race day.”
What works for you in a run shoe is personal, with run biomechanics, weight, experience and injury history all coming into play. Trying before you buy at a specialist run shop is key, as is factoring in what distances you’ll be racing. Finding that perfect run shoe can take time, but when that eureka moment arrives, it’ll leave you itching for race day to come.
So let’s look at the options for triathletes still searching for their run shoe Holy Grail…
Those who land on the outside of their heel then very slightly roll their ankle so it’s in line with the rest of their leg. This provides the most shock- absorption and stability while running.
The outside of the heel makes the initial ground contact before the foot rolls inward, putting pressure on the ankle and foot.
Or under-pronator. After the initial heel strike, the foot moves outwards during the gait cycle, resulting in the small toes and outside of the foot dominating the push-off phase. Often found with people with high arches.
Compared to tri bikes versus road bikes or surf versus triathlon wetsuits, the differences between a triathlon run shoe and a standard run shoe are subtler.
Key features of a tri-specific run shoe are internal liners to aid sockless running, quick-drying properties, and heel and tongue loops/a quick-lace system for a speedier bike-to-run transition.
Tri run shoe credentials don’t come any higher than Hawaii-born/San Diego-based Zoot. It was one of the first brands to make serious inroads in the tri run shoe market, with the Ultra line of triathlon footwear in 2007. The four-strong range included the Ultra TT and the Ultra Race, updated versions of which are still being used today.
Aside from the times savings to be made in transition, Zoot’s shoes purport to have plenty of speed-enhancing elements once on the run leg. “The aim is to help the athlete go faster by creating the best power transfer to the ground,” believes the brand’s global footwear director, Jorge Cabrera.
“To accomplish this, racing shoes are made to have a tighter fit in the upper, with the focus being on locking the foot into the shoe in the midfoot and instep to minimise the amount of foot movement in the shoe when running fast. This gives the foot less travel when striking the ground and sends more of the energy created in the legs directly to the ground.”
Possibly the cheapest time-saver in multisport comes from elastic lace systems. They can be swiftly tightened with one hand on the move, and won’t come undone like traditional laces.
Studies have shown that traditional running shoes can gain an additional 30% of their weight during a race. The drainage and ventilation holes seen here on the Zoot Ultra Tempo 6.0 (below) aim to keep feet vented on the run, while drying any foot dampness left over from the swim or bike legs.
Like the quick-lace system, the tongue loop is included with the aim of a speedier T2, assisting athletes in getting the shoe on quickly.
The demands of a bike leg mean that an athlete’s usual run biomechanics can alter after racing on a bike. “Some of our shoes have a moderate amount of cushioning, which can help to keep the fatigue levels lower for a longer portion of the race to help keep the runner consistent,” says Zoot’s Cabrera.
Given T2 takes place in the midst of the race, triathletes often don’t want to take the time to put socks on. An internal seamless liner should mean athletes can run sock-free and without the worry of blisters.
They’re a world away in terms of aesthetics and feel, yet the Hoka One One Mafate 3 and Merrell Bare Access (pictured below) are both classified as zero-drop trail run shoes.
The Hoka has a tiny 4mm drop, the Merrell 0mm, yet only the latter is minimalist. So, first of all, what are the differences between a zero-drop and a minimalist shoe?
“It’s a question I get asked a lot,” laughs Saucony’s Jones. “A ‘zero drop’ is the difference of height from the forefoot to the heel. For example, the Saucony Kinvara will be 4mm higher in the heel than the forefoot, meaning there’s barely any difference at all. A minimalist shoe is all about the profile of the midsole unit, so you could have a ‘zero-drop’ shoe that’s minimalist or a really high stack height that’s still ‘zero drop’.”
Despite their differences, both zero-drop and minimalist shoes (as well as the revolutionary mid/forefoot strike shoes from Newton) aim to encourage a more natural running gait, hence the ‘barefoot’ tag applied to the minimalist movement.
As Daniel Lieberman’s influential 2004 study on endurance running testifies, runners who land on their forefeet are thought to land with less force and greater efficiency than their heel-striking counterparts, upping efficiency and reducing injuries (by lessening the impact at the Achilles and knee).
The problem with the barefoot trend is the time it takes to adapt from heel to mid/forefoot striking, and the fact that, unlike our barefoot ancestors, modern-day running predominantly takes place on concrete.
In terms of injury prevention, a 2014 study by the Sports Medicine Research Laboratory in Luxembourg reported no difference in injury rates between runners in ‘soft’ (i.e. cushioned) shoes versus those with a harder midsole, even for heavier runners. The runners in the study, however, generally ran twice a week, covering about 10km at a time at 6:13mins/km pace, which pales in comparison to the average Ironman athlete’s training load.
Oversized and over here
If the barefoot running trend that gripped the run world after Chris McDougall’s Born to Run popularised Lieberman’s theories has abated somewhat (how often do you see Vibram on the race course?), the movement has helped shift the boundaries of run shoe conventions, and zero- or low-drop and minimalist shoes are now commonplace.
The antipathy of many towards the barefoot movement also arguably paved the way for the rise of Hoka One One, with its oversized shoes appealing to triathletes aware that they’ll be tired when they begin the run leg.
“The rolling aspect of the shoes is actually key to the whole design,” says Hoka’s co-founder Jean-Luc Diard. “The basis of this is the rocking shape, which has been designed to provide a fluid, energy-efficient stride transition, regardless of gait. This is critical as the vast majority of runners are, and will likely remain, heel strikers.”
More athletes wore Hoka shoes than everyone brand bar Asics at the Ironman Worlds in 2016, with the brand touting their Kona virtues. “If you analyse performance at each stage of the Hawaii run, you’ll see a huge drop in performance around at 28-32km,” says Diard.
“The athletes’ pace drops significantly and this has been shown to affect even elite athletes. The provision of cushioning, in combination with the rolling aspect of our shoes, does help runners to push through this critical stage of the race.”
Related: How to prevent runner’s knee, and four exercises to treat it
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