Buying Advice: Running Shoes
Investing in high quality running shoes that are specifically designed for your unique foot type and gait pattern will help to increase the overall efficiency of your stride and prevent injuries. There have been significant advances in running shoe technology in recent years, and, while the variety of choices may seem overwhelming, it is surprisingly simple to narrow down your search and determine the best shoe to fit your needs.
What to Know Before You Buy
Ascertain Arch Type and Level of Pronation
First, you want to evaluate your arch type. To determine whether you have low, normal or high arches, wet your foot and place it on a surface where it will leave an imprint. If you have a normal arch, you will see a distinct curve along the inside of the foot and a watermark between the toes and heel that is just under half of the foot's overall width. If it's thinner than that, you have high arches, and, if it's wider, you have low arches or flat feet.
Next, you can evaluate the degree of pronation in your gait by looking at the wear patterns on the bottom of your old sneakers. In the gait cycle, "pronation" is the natural inward roll of the heel and ankle after your heel hits the ground and weight is transitioned to the midfoot. Pronation is particularly important for high-impact activities like running because it provides natural shock absorption and so insufficient pronation increases your risk for injury. Pronation is classified in four levels:
- Neutral Pronation: Foot rolls inward just the right amount
- Moderate Over-Pronation: Foot rolls too far inward
- Severe Over-Pronation: Foot rolls excessively inward
- Under-Pronation/Supination: Foot doesn't roll in at all or even rolls slightly outward
Most runners will have neutral pronation or moderate over-pronation in their gait. An indication of neutral pronation is if your old sneakers show wear that is evenly distributed on the bottom of the shoe and ball of the foot. Sneakers worn by runners who moderately over-pronate will show wear that is along the medial (inner) side of the outsole and then just under the big toe. Runners with normal arches will either have neutral pronation or moderate over-pronation, while runners with low arches will most likely have moderate over-pronation.
A much smaller percentage of runners will have severe over-pronation or under-pronation (supination) in their gait. Severe over-pronation is only likely with runners who have very low arches or flat feet. It will be evident from excessive wear along the medial side of the outsole that extends all the way up to the big toe. Under-pronation is the least common gait type and occurs among runners who have high arches. Under-pronators will show wear on the lateral (outside) edge of their old running shoes.
Types of Running Shoes: Neutral Cushioning, Stability and Motion Control
Neutral Cushioning shoes are perfect for runners who have normal arches and pronate properly, as well as for runners who have high arches and under-pronate. These shoes have a curved last, enhanced cushioning, flexible heel counter and no medial support. The instability actually encourages natural pronation in the foot, which is great for under-pronators. Also, since pronation is essential for shock absorption, under-pronators need supplemental cushioning to help prevent injury.
Stability shoes are also good for runners who have normal arches and pronate properly, as well as for runners who have normal or slightly low arches and moderately over-pronate. Stability shoes have a semi-curved last with some cushioning, a supportive heel counter and medial support (ex. a dual-density midsole). These shoes provide a great balance between stability, cushioning and flexibility for smooth transitions in the gait cycle.
Motion Control shoes will provide the most support and are designed for runners with low arches who over-pronate excessively in the gait cycle. Motion Control shoes have a straight shape, sturdy heel counter and emphasize medial support to slow the rate of over-pronation by incorporating dual density midsoles, roll bars or foot bridges. Shoes in this category will be generally heavier, but they are also extremely durable.
While those are the three main categories of running shoes, other types of running shoes you may see include performance, racing and trail. Performance running shoes are lightweight and feature less cushioning than normal running shoes. They are ideal for faster, more experienced runners that want a light pair of shoes with more cushioning than typical racing shoes. Racing shoes are similar to performance running shoes but are even lighter and feature very little cushioning. Trail running shoes feature increased durability as well as traction to keep you steady no matter where you run.
Men's vs. Women's Running Shoes
Quality running shoes are specifically engineered for men or women and take into account unique characteristics about each gender. For example, women's feet are usually smaller and narrower than men's, so manufacturers will design gender-specific lasts. Also, women's feet are more susceptible to developing bunions and need specially crafted uppers that won't irritate that part of the foot. Men's shoes require more cushioning (shock absorption) than women's shoes because they have heavier frames and land on their heels with greater impact. Women, on the other hand, tend to land midsole and experience less impact. The construction of the heel bevel is also different since women land with their toes pointing straight ahead while men land with the toes facing slightly inwards. Women also tend to over-pronate in their gait more than men, and therefore require stabilizing or motion control shoes that help prevent them from experiencing knee pain and other injuries.
Over the years, manufacturers have continued to improve on traditional running shoes. Uppers now feature new synthetic fibers that are lightweight and durable, while also providing exceptional breathability and, in some cases, added support. Sleeker designs are now available in more color combinations and some are even fully customizable to fit your unique style. Removable insoles allow you to adjust the shoe's level of support or cushioning with various inserts or your own custom orthotic. Midsole cushioning comes in either lightweight EVA or denser polyurethane with some manufacturers adding special plastic, air bags, gels, and other solutions for added comfort. Outsoles feature flexible, yet durable, rubber with grooves to create more natural, efficient running.
Finding the Right Fit
Athletic shoes will generally be at least a half to full size larger than your normal dress shoes and should always be tried on with a good pair of athletic socks. Since your feet will swell when you run, the best time to shop for running shoes is towards the end of the day when your feet are swollen from walking around. You want the fit to feel snug and secure but not tight. You should have enough room in the toe box for your toes to spread naturally during footstrike but not so much room that your heel slips out the back. Enough room in the toe box is essential because any extra friction will cause blisters or black toenails.
Most running shoes will cost around $80 to $150 for new models, and you can usually get better deals on models from previous years. Our advice is to refrain from considering cost until you have found the best fitting shoe for your foot. Ill-fitting shoes can cause injuries, and those cheap sneakers might not seem like such a great deal as you are icing your knees or nursing a blister. If the best shoe ends up being out of your price range, you can always look at previous models of that shoe or wait until it goes on sale. Many manufacturers will offer a 30-day satisfaction guarantee, so you can try the shoes at home risk-free.
There are many considerations to make when buying a pair of running shoes, so don't be scared to try a few out or even consult with a fit professional at a running specialty who can help identify your foot type and proper fit. Also, take care of your running shoes to help them last a little longer. Only wear them for running and make sure to let them dry out completely if they get wet. You should replace your running shoes about every six months or 300 to 500 miles, whichever comes first, to help reduce the risk of injury. Be sure to listen to your body. Small aches and pains could mean it is time to buy a new pair of running shoes.