Probably the most important investment a runner needs to make is in their running shoes. Get it right it is bliss; get it wrong then discomfort, pain and possible injury. There are so many brands, types, categories, styles and price ranges to choose from it can be difficult to know where to start. The easy place to start is with the type of shoe, these include road shoes, cross country and trail shoes, racing flats, track shoes (spikes) and minimalist/bare foot shoes. However, before looking for a pair of running shoes it is worthwhile understanding some basic elements of the human gait and what can happen with the foot movement whilst running.
Gait describes how humans walk/run; this can be expanded for running to a 3 phase cycle. The cycle begins when one foot makes contact with the ground sometimes referred to as “strike”. The foot can make first contact with the ground with any part of foot striking the ground first. Some runners strike the ground with their heel first, others strike with the mid or forefoot. Just prior to the foot striking the ground it will roll in (pronate) slightly to enable the foot and leg to take the impact by acting as shock absorbers. The second phase of the cycle occurs when the leg and foot on the ground provide a platform enabling the body weight to pass forward. The foot can continue to roll inwards or outwards. The third phase of the cycle is referred to as toe-off which occurs when the big toe joint flexes and engages the plantar fascia raising the arch of the foot. The cycle begins all over again.
Pronation i.e. the rolling in of the foot is a normal occurrence when running, yes every runner will pronate as this is the natural movement of the foot when striking the ground. However, back in the 1970’s it appears that foot striking got to be defined in three categories: neutral pronation, over pronation or under pronation sometimes referred to as supination.
Shoe manufacturers produced and marketed shoes that fitted into these categories with some suggesting the shoe would help to compensate runners who over pronated or under pronated. Neither over pronation or under pronation (supination) has been scientifically defined hence the description or as some may want you to believe the “condition” is purely subjective.
Gait analysis is provided in certain running shops; whereby some do a visual check of a runner others provide video analysis. It is unlikely either will provide accurate results unless multiple video cameras are used for the analysis.
Road running shoes: most manufacturers basically offer 2 shoe categories: neutral and support. Other terminology used for support shoes e.g. structured, motion control etc. Both neutral and support shoes are available with various levels of cushioning from very soft to firm. This now comes down to personal preference and is an individual choice. The technical difference between neutral and support shoes lies in the construction of the “mid-sole” i.e. the hidden support sandwiched between the sole and he insole of the shoe.
More recently some manufacturers offer shoes with a built in carbon fibre plate. This is designed to make the shoe more responsive by providing optimal energy return. These shoes are very light weight and highly cushioned. This type of shoe is now worn by the majority of elite athletes.
Shoe sizing: it is advisable to go up half or one size bigger than the standard “day – shoe”. The reason for this is to accommodate the expansion and spread of the foot when running. All running shoes are available in the standard width identified with the letter D. Some manufacturers also provide a wider fitting shoe which is identified with 2E.
Racing flat shoes: are light weight shoes with the minimum of cushioning. These are more suited for forefoot runners attempting distances up to half marathon.
Minimalist and bare foot shoes: are becoming more available and may work well for some people. There is insufficient user and scientific research information available on the suitability of these shoes for running.
Cross country and trail shoes: are designed to provide good grip for typically muddy conditions. Although some of these shoes provide minimum cushioning many do not; as it is important for the runner to feel the ground as much as possible to ensure balance and stability when running off-road.
Spikes: whether for the track or cross country are lightweight in construction and aimed at forefoot runners. The soles of the cross country spikes are quite flexible unlike the track spikes which have much firmer soles.
Typically a pair of road running shoes will last for 400-500 miles before they should be replaced. Often the tread on the soles will still look good and not particularly heavily worn. However, it should be noted that the mid-sole will lose its elasticity i.e. cushioning properties after being used for this distance. For people running on a regular basis or training for a specific endurance event e.g. a marathon it is advisable to purchase 2 pairs of shoes at any one time such that they can be used alternately during the training period. This will ensure on race day the shoes used are known to you, comfortable and still have sufficient cushioning.
To keep running shoes in good order it is advisable to keep them clean. A good method of cleaning running shoes is to remove the insoles and lightly scrub the shoes and insoles with warm soapy water. The shoes should then be rinsed, stuffed with newspaper and allowed to dry naturally. The newspaper should be changed a couple of times during the process. Putting the shoes in an airing cupboard can speed up the process. Never put running shoes in a washing machine to clean; this environment is too harsh for them. Also, in the construction of many running shoes, a heat seal process is used to bond different layers together. The temperatures used in many washing machines (even on a cool wash program) can cause the layers that have been bonded together to come apart thus ruining the shoes.
The most important point to consider when buying a running shoe is comfort, i.e. how it feels on you.