As a runner, you already know there are so many running shoes to choose from! And, of course, the more shoes you own, the better... But every runner is different, so a great shoe for me may not be the best for you. And as with all things that start off seeming relatively simple, you soon discover that finding the right running shoe is more complicated than picking the best colour to match your running outfit.
Whilst finding the right running shoe is a challenge, and despite my flippancy, it is also very important. A shoe that suits you and your specific biomechanics can help reduce injury and allow you to get more pleasure out of your running.
The accepted wisdom is to go to a running store that offers a free gait analysis, as this will help to establish whether you’re a neutral runner, an over pronator or under pronator. Or, at least it should - assuming the shop assistant actually knows what they are looking at and can suggest what you actually need, rather than defaulting to shoes that they have in stock! It’s quite difficult to analyse your own gait (unless you are videoed), which means that finding a recommended and expert local shop is probably the way to go. Get recommendations, don't just opt for the one with easiest parking.
What are the common gait traits that should shape my choice of shoe?
Over Pronation happens when your foot rolls inward too much as you move towards toe off. Bear in mind we are talking about OVER and TOO MUCH, everyone pronates to some extent, as this is the normal way that humans move.
Under Pronation, sometimes referred to as supinators, occurs when the foot doesn’t roll inwards enough so there’s too much weight going through the outside of the foot.
Understanding how your foot lands and moves can get help with choosing a shoe that’s designed for your particular foot strike. If you’re an over pronator, for example, you might benefit from motion control features such as a dual density midsole.
If you can't find any way to have your gait analysed, a less effective but still useful approach can be to look at the soles of your old trainers and see where the wear patterns are. This isn’t perfect, as you don't see yourself in motion, but better than nothing and choosing your shoe based on colour!
Adequate cushioning is important, especially for under pronators, as people with this running gait have less natural shock-absorption in their feet. However, cushioning shouldn’t feel excessively soft as this could allow excessive movement and put strain on the ankles, hips and knees. Running shoes need to feel supportive, but also flexible, so that they feel smooth when your foot rolls into toe off. If the shoe is too stiff, it can strain the soft tissues in the foot and lower leg.
The toe box of a shoe should be wide enough for your toes to spread out. There also needs to be enough of a gap between the longest toe and the end of the shoe so that your foot doesn’t contact the front of the shoe when you’re running. A good guide is a thumb’s width between your longest toe and the end of the shoe. Other features to look out for are: a heel tab that doesn’t rub your Achilles’ tendon, and a lacing system that feels comfortable and prevents your foot from slipping. Whilst running, your foot changes shape; partly as it gets warmer and partly from the impact of running. Bear this in mind when you’re "trying on" shoes in a shop.
Heel to toe offset ('drop') has become a popular topic of club wisdom over the past few years. It refers to the height difference between the heel and forefoot of the shoe. As we’re all different, the argument over what is best is fundamentally flawed. An invalid premise for a question! A lower offset of around 4mm is thought to encourage a more natural foot motion that’s similar to barefoot running. Whereas, a higher offset of 8-12 mm is thought to be good for heel strikers and may reduce stress on the calf and Achilles. However, a higher heel could cause more of a forward lean and greater stress to the hips and knees. This is a trivialised list of the considerations around required drop. Scientifically working out the 'ideal drop' for a particular runner is realistically beyond the abilities of most of us: think how the shoe feels and base your choice on personal preference and the posture that feels comfortable when you run. You will know after not too many short / mid distance runs if you have made a bad choice.
When choosing a shoe, also consider where you’ll be running. For muddy trails, you’ll want a deeper tread and for road running, you’ll want to have enough cushioning. These are simpler points to consider and solve for. As you would imagine, most brands offer a cross-over shoe that excels at neither on or off road, but is adequate at both.
There is a lot of hype about carbon plate running shoes at present. They cost a lot of money and frankly are not necessary to consider for most runners. Other than athletes who have refined all other aspects of run form, corrected (through training) gait 'errors' and maximised their fitness, you won't be getting good value from a carbon running shoe. You really need to be looking for marginal gains. The mechanics of a carbon plate act like a lever so can improve forward momentum. They feel very different (and are very different) to other running shoes, and will take some getting used to.
Running shoes are an important investment, and worth trying to get as 'right as possible'. There are more considerations than the colour of the shoe, but it is also possible to over-think this. Generally, I suggest that you accept that there will be some trial and error until you find the right brand and model that just feels right for you. Then stick with it; most of us hardly ever experiment with buying randomly different shoes.
The right shoe (in the right colour), is the one that makes you feel good in every sense of wearing it and will help you run more consistently and avoid injury. Enjoy your new running shoes!