Whether you are a hard-core runner or a novice, choosing a good running shoe is essential for preventing injury and helping you enjoy your running. When running, your foot absorbs up to four times your body weight every time your heel hits the ground, and this event is repeated almost 1000 times with every mile you run. To put it in perspective, a 150-pound runner absorbs about 120 tons of force during a one-mile run. Your running shoe is your first line of defense in protecting your body from these tremendous forces.
Unfortunately, running shoe technology has become so advanced that it is difficult for most runners to keep up. In order to choose the best shoe for you, it is necessary to learn some basic facts about shoes, feet and running.
First, you need to know the five basic components of a running shoe: last, upper, outsole, midsole and heel counter.
- Last. The last determines the three dimensional shape of the shoe. There are straight, semi-curved and curved lasts. Last shapes are determined from average foot shapes. In reality, there is no such thing as an average foot. If you trace the outline of the bottom of your foot, you can get a good idea of the right last for you. The shape of the last will determine if there is enough room for your longest toe to push off.
- Uppers. The main portion of the shoe that surrounds your foot is called the upper. Modern shoes have synthetic uppers rather than leather or other natural fibers. Newer materials are lighter, washable, breathe better and are more flexible, requiring little or no break-in. Be sure to choose the upper best suited to your expected usage.
- Midsole. The midsole is located between the outsole and the upper. Many believe the midsole is the most important part of any running shoe. It controls excessive foot motion and provides cushioning and shock absorption. Some synthetic foams are used for the midsole; they are light, but not durable. Polyurethane is also commonly used. Although durable, it is denser, heavier and harder. Many shoes are now cushioned with gel, airbags, silicone or foam capsules. These are all attempts to increase cushioning and durability at the same time.
- Outsole. The outsole is the treaded layer on the bottom of the shoe glued to the midsole. The outsole resists wear, provides traction and absorbs shock. The outsole is usually made of blown rubber, gum rubber, hard carbon rubber or some combination of the three. Blown rubber is the lightest, but least durable. Solid rubber materials are considered the best material for training shoes. Stud or waffle outsoles are good for running on dirt or grass. Today, most shoes have a ridged sole, which is more flexible and best for running on asphalt or cement.
- Heel Counters. The heel counter is the rigid material that surrounds the heel. Its function is to stabilize and support the heel. An additional external counter is usually added between the midsole and the base of the heel for extra support. Sometimes a wedge is used to add height to the heel. This enhances the ability of the shoe to absorb shock and reduce injury.
The second step in learning how to choose the correct running shoe is determining what type of foot and running style you have. As you run, your foot goes through multiple phases known as the gait cycle. When your foot strikes the ground, it turns inward (pronates) and flattens; this makes it more flexible. Then, it begins to roll outward (supinates) and arches so it becomes more rigid as you push off. Many runners either over pronate or over supinate.
A simple method for determining which group you’re in is known as the wet foot test. Step barefoot in water and then leave a footprint in on the ground. The neutral footprint shows the heel outside of the midfoot and the entire forefoot. An excessive pronator shows the entire foot. A supinator shows the heel and forefoot, but little or none of the midfoot. Pronators will have excessive wear on the inside of their soles while supinators will have excessive wear on the outside.
Excessive pronation or supination that is not controlled by your shoes can cause injuries to you knees, hips and lower back. Pronators have flexible flat feet. This may lead to injuries such as runner’s knee (chondromalacia patella), tendonitis or shin splints. A pronator needs a shoe that is broad lasted and rigid. Supinators have rigid high arched feet. They are more prone to stress fractures and plantar fasciitis. Supinators need a shoe that is cushioned and slip lasted or combination lasted.
Many running shoe stores have advanced methods to evaluate your feet and running style. These range from standing on a platform that measures your weight distribution to actually running on a treadmill in the store and having a video analysis of your running style. These are available at a variety of sporting goods stores with large sneaker departments. Take advantage of them if you can. Once a recommendation is made for the right shoe for you, you still have to pick the shoe.
Finally, here are 12 simple guidelines to help you when you hit the running shoe store:
- Try on both shoes and walk and jog around the store. Climb stairs, if possible.
- Try on as many pairs as needed to make a good comparison. Don’t rush.
- Make sure the shoe is padded where your foot needs it.
- Check the quality of the shoes. Lay them on a flat surface and make sure they lay flat at the middle of the shoes. Check the quality of the eyelets stitching, gluing and laces.
- Make sure the shoes flex at the same place your foot flexes.
- Try shoes after a work out and later in the day. This is when your foot is the biggest.
- Try shoes on standing up. Allow a half-inch in front of your longest toe.
- Don’t rely on a break in period. Shoes should feel good on the day you by them.
- The key to finding the best shoe is comfort, not price.
- The heel should fit snugly and shouldn’t rub or slip.
- Try shoes on with the socks you run in.
- Sizes vary among shoe brands and styles. Choose shoes based on comfort, not the size printed inside.
- Ask questions. Make sure the salesperson is knowledgeable. If the salesperson doesn’t know the answers, find someone who does.
Remember, even the longest journey begins with the first step. Not only in running, but true for every sport, your feet are your foundation. Without good shoes, you have no foundation to build the rest of your movement. One of the most important keys to enjoyable and injury-free exercise is a good pair of shoes.
By Dr. Michael Gross