Running Shoes – part 1. – what you should know about them

If you decided to start running and to buy your first running shoes, you may step into several traps that are worth to be avoided in order not to harm either your legs or your wallet. To do so, you should get acquainted with running shoes’ anatomy and learn how to fit a shoe to your own foot.

In my view, buying shoes should be done in two stages. First, you should decide, what kind of shoe you really need, taking into consideration its features – and I don’t only mean a broad shoe category proposed by its producer, but also several other details, like upper material, drop or quality and quantity of amortization. Second, you should choose a proper shoe size and make sure that a chosen shoe fits your foot. In this post I will present my views on the first matter, and in the following one I will propose my tested ways of choosing a shoe and its size.

I will start with a short anecdote – few years ago, when I was in one of the best known Warsaw shopping centers, I walked into a sports store of probably the best recognized sport brand in the world. I stood in front of a shelf with running shoes, divided tidily into three categories: “motion control”, “stability” and “neutral” and I started looking at the newest top models. In few seconds a smiled lady approached me and started to passionately ensure me that the shoes of this brand were simply speaking wonderful. I replied, being slightly wicked – I admit, with an innocent question: “and which of them would you recommend for me?” The lady smiled at me widely and pointed at three top models from three different categories saying: “these are great for running, these are also great, and those are very good too.” I admit that from time to time I like to torture sellers asking them about all technical details of equipment I want to buy, but this lady’s response said with one breath without any consideration and her happiness after her performance, got me really emotional and after few seconds that I needed to come to myself after this dosage of information, I requited with a smile and said that in that case I had to sleep over it…

If you feel that today is really your lucky day, and you have a lot of cash in your wallet, maybe, this way, you can find a pair of really good running shoes, but in my opinion some additional information about choosing running shoes may considerably improve your chances for final success in a shop.

THE MOST IMPORTANT FEATURES OF RUNNING SHOES:

AMORTIZATION

springConsidering amortization one should look at two of its aspects: a type of material and its quantity. A type of material has huge influence on runner’s sensations. You can have different sensations using “ordinary” EVA foam, Adidas Boost, Brooks DNA or Nike Air. A choice should be made based on personal preferences, but you should bear in mind that different materials have different amortization characteristics for runners of different weight. This is usually taken into account by shoe companies choosing their target groups. Another thing is that some materials are better in dampening vibration and other in returning energy, which makes a noticeable difference while running. The next important thing, when choosing a shoe is an insole. A thick and soft insole often gives a false impression of good amortization of a shoe, and the other way – a thin insole can make you feel that the shoe lacks amortization. These impressions change when running, because insoles make bigger difference under low loads and when running it is the amortization of a shoe itself that makes greater difference. You also have to remember that an insole wears out much more quickly than a shoe and after several hundred kilometers it is typically squeezed out in places of greatest pressure.

Speaking of quantity and quality of amortization, your choice should be based on your running experience. My general advice for people who are just starting to run is to buy shoes that are targeted for their weight – it is a safe approach and most of shoes are properly cataloged in this regard. If you are a mid-foot runner, you can try a less amortized shoe and if you want to have more comfort at the expense of weight, elasticity and road feel, then you should choose shoes with more amortization. If you have already run in different running shoes, then you know by yourself which are best for you – I choose shoes with the least amount of amortization that gives me an acceptable comfort while I run, taking into consideration the purpose of a given shoe. When I run in shoes with too much amortization I feel like running in deep mud and like “pumping” with every step.

ELASTICITY

nike-free-rollupShoe elasticity is generally dependent on the amount and the kind of material used for amortization, and also on the outsole profile (cross cuts) and possible elements that are designed to stiffen/control the rolling motion of a foot. Some influence on a shoe’s elasticity is also made by the construction and material of its upper.

The more elasticity a shoe has the more a foot works in it – a super elastic (soft) shoe makes a holy grail for natural shoes enthusiasts – a shoe that you can’t even feel on your foot… On the other hand, people who for some reasons (e.g. problems with plantar fascia) prefer to have their feet being aided with some structures or systems. I cannot tell you what is better, because it depends on you and your needs. I love running barefoot on a beach in summer, or on a grassy pitch (after checking for presence of broken glass or other surprises). I also must admit, that I have never felt so comfortable as in my already worn out Asics Gel-Lyte 33 2, although I wanted to drown them after few first runs. If you want to try running in natural shoes, first have your feet accustomed to this new experience. I started out with natural shoes just once a week, and only after some time I started to run more often in them.

Considering springiness of a shoe – that is giving back energy by flexed, (squeezed) shoe,  too much of elasticity will have negative influence on it, so you must distinguish the purpose of a given shoe. Elastic shoe is great for training, because you train also the muscles of your feet, but for competition, a shoe that will support your heavily working feet is a better idea.

DROP

drop2Drop, that is a difference in thickness between the front and back area of the shoe’s sole, is still a rather underestimated element in choosing running shoes, while it can have a considerable influence on running. The most obvious relation is that a big drop (heel noticeably higher) causes a tendency for running from your heel, and the smaller the drop is, the easier it is to run from your mid-foot. Nothing is for free, of course – the smaller the drop is, the greater is a natural amplitude of movement in ankle joint and the more your muscles and tendons are loaded with work. There is addition sole’s elasticity and a style of running that have the greatest influence on the range of motion of an ankle joint. If you have strong and elastic leg muscles, then your “running spring” will be better off with smaller drop, but if you move from high drop shoes to 0-4mm drop shoes to quickly, or with no former conditioning, you have a good chance for Achilles tendon inflammation, or other overuse injury. The picture to the side shows extreme examples and not running ones J The higher is a heel lifestyle shoe stylized for a sport shoe, and the lower is a strength (jumping) training shoe used e.g. in basketball. I used to play basketball in a varsity team in high school in USA, and we actually used such shoes to train our jumps. I have to admit that it worked, but I never had such sore legs again…

WEIGHT

weightsIt is a common knowledge that the lighter the shoe is the easier it is to run in it… That is, of course, a simplification that imposes all other features of a shoe are constant –  and that is rather unreal. In reality there always a price. If you choose very light shoes, it may turn out that the amortization is too low for you, that your feet hurt, that your knees start to get swollen after a period of time or that you start having problems with your hips or spine. My recommendation is that if you are not a professional runner who fights for every gram of weight, don’t take this parameter very seriously, because it is a resultant of other features, that should be much more important for you. Only when you compare similar shoes, then take into consideration which one of them is lighter.

THE CONSTRUCTION OF A SHOE

Under this enigmatic catchphrase you can find all the rest of shoe parameters, as the width of a shoe under the heel and in a toebox, additional construction elements of the sole that aim in reducing pronation, arch of a shoe in midsection that supports a foot, a kind and thickness of insole, stiffness and height of a counter, an upper’s material (breathable or water resistant), or finally a lacing system. Those parameters can have fundamental influence on your happiness with a given shoe. Pinching and chafing edges of insole, counter that hurts your Achilles, or upper material not matching weather conditions are only few of unpleasant experiences that unfitted shoe will provide you with. More on this I will tackle in the second part of this post.

SHOE DESTINATION CATEGORIES:

 Now shortly about categories of shoes, to show general characteristics of given categories. Illustrations present popular models of Brooks in given categories.

glycerin-14glycerin-14-outsole

 

Classic trainers are characterized by good, comfortable amortization. They are stiffer in comparison to racing flats. The Top models have very durable rubber outsole, prepared to withstand hard surfaces (thread is rather flat, without spikes, but universal enough for most circumstances) and a whole bunch of various systems that are supposed to make your running better (every company claims to have best systems, so you have to try what is really best for you). These are usually the most expensive models, that are targeted towards beginner and heavier runners.

launch-3 launch-3-outsole

Trainers/racers or light trainers are characterized by less amortization and lower weight than classic trainers, usually they are more dynamic and springy too. Those shoes have less super systems and are targeted towards runners of low or moderate weight. In this group transition models to natural running or racing can also be found.

st5-racer st5-racer-outsole

Racing flats are something for professionals. These real ones have very little amortization, very low weight, narrow and tight upper, usually anatomical asymmetric lacing system, medium/big drop and sometimes elements that promote springiness. If you are not a professional racer, try to keep away from them, because its great features for pros are in the same time serious flaws for amateurs.

pure-connect-4 pure-connect-4-outsole

Natural running shoes/minimalist shoes, those are actually two separate categories, but one can say that minimalist shoes are extreme version of natural running shoes, and this category has been developed so any runner – well, almost any runner could try running in shoes designed to create a feeling of running without shoes… It is difficult to understand but marketing has its rights. The common feature of those shoes is that they are very elastic, have zero or very low drop and relatively low amount of amortization, however this category is developing towards more amortized shoes and even towards systems controlling the roll of a foot, though it seems to be contrary to the grounds of its origin. The outsole is usually made for road running, but there are also off-road models equipped with more aggressive thread.

cascadia-11 cascadia-outsole

Trail running/off-road shoes is a wide category that can share features of all aforementioned categories, with reservation that it has one characteristics – an aggressive thread, adjusted to running in difficult conditions. Trail shoes are equipped usually in a bit stiffer sole, that reduces the feel of roughness of the terrain, and more robust upper to withstand constant brushing with branches and little rocks. Some models are water resistant or have hydrophobic membrane, and there are also specialized shoes, made for winter use (with Gore-Tex membrane and gaiters) or for running on ice (with spikes).

WHAT KIND OF SHOES DO YOU NEED?

If you want to buy your first pair of running shoes, or you just want to have only one pair of running shoes, and providing that you are not a rare example of extreme mountain runner or an amateur of very difficult forest trails, you should definitely buy a pair of ordinary universal trainers, that is a normal pair of road running shoes. Why? – because this is a shoe that will do good in almost all conditions – you can run in it on a pavement, street, forest or park trails and even in mountain terrain – that is almost everywhere where normal runners run, and regardless of weather conditions or season – YES, even in a winter blizzard. Of course, if you have a running experience, low weight and good predispositions, you can start from a light trainer or with a training/racing shoe – I run most of my mileage in light trainers (my favorites are Brooks Launch – I run in the fourth pair of those now).

Is it worth to have a few pairs of running shoes – the picture at the top of the post reflects my opinion in this matter. Yes – I do have ten pairs of running shoes. Yes – my wife shouts at me that she always trips over them in our hallway and that she does not have room for normal shoes… her shoes. Well – that’s the life of a runner. All right, why do you need more than one pair of running shoes?

  • Shoes get wet while running and sometimes they also get dirty. Having several pairs of shoes will let you bring them back to order without hassle before the next workout. Shoes should not be tumble dried or put on heaters, so you need few days for them to be ready and dry again. Of course you don’t wash your shoes too often, but it need to be done from time to time.
  • It is said that amortization in running shoes “likes” to rest. Consecutive workouts day after day or even twice a day may cause it to get tamped down faster, especially amortization based on various foam materials. A second pair of shoes makes this rest possible and amortization systems are being worn out slower.
  • A running shoe during workouts is wearing out in a natural way, the level of amortization is dropping down and the outsole is getting grated – most often not in an even way (at the picture there are my Brooks Ghost 4 after 1200km). uneven wearAll this makes your feet and the rest of the body being subjected to greater additional forces, causing additional strains and shocks in your musculoskeletal system. If you run in one pair of shoes from day one to the day they are completely worn out, at the end, your feet may not be able to cope with those additional load. An easy remedy for this is running in several pairs of shoes. I try to have my shoes destined for easy running (most of my mileage) to be around 400-600km apart in mileage from each other (I usually do around 1200km in such shoes). In this way in a worst case scenario I run in turns in shoes almost worn out and ones that are half-way worn out. Additionally, I do specialized workouts and competitions in other shoe, which assures me that my feet are not exposed to the same, growing additional forces day after day, workout after workout.
  • Despite what I have written previously, that an universal trainer is good for virtually any workout, and amateur level competition, it is obvious that given workouts and competitions can be done in shoes that are better suited for a given purpose, specialized for that purpose. Another thing is that whether racing flats will make you faster during competition, off-road shoes will make you safer in the forest or in the mountains, or winter shoes will help you with your training in winter conditions, depends on you, your running level, the composition of your body, training plans and running conditions, but in my opinion after several years of running, when you already know that you are addicted to running and you have an idea how your shoes behave on various types of terrain, it is worth to try.

Ok, great… – but who will pay for all of that?

The truth is, that buying several pairs of shoes will not only, in a longer perspective, not make you spend more money, but it will increase your chances to pay less, than if you would buy only one pair and buy the next after the first one is worn out. How it is possible? It’s simple. In one year I run approximately 2500km – this gives at least two worn out pairs of shoes. In a perspective of, let’s say three years – it gives at least six pairs – at least, because racing flats ware out faster. If you plan not to give up running for at least few years, you can with no hesitation buy few pairs of shoes – they will not get wasted for sure. Apart from that, when you buy your shoes before you really need them, you can hunt for bargains and not buy what is at hand in a given moment and in a given price. During the last few years only once I paid for my shoes more than 250zł ($65) – those were winter shoes with Gore-Tex membrane in price reduced from 600zł ($150) to 350zł ($90). I buy shoes on sale and I pay for them 30-50% less than their regular price is – I think it’s a good deal…

Below, in the table you can find my choice of running shoes for particular types of workouts/conditions. The letters stand for types of workouts according to American school of running: (LR – long run, E – easy run, T – tempo run, I – VO2max intervals, R – rhythms). For the two last columns I really meant bad conditions and not a light rain or sprinkling snow.

shoe-table

This is not a fixed division, neither in terms of categories nor shoe models, but for now, that is what I have. Today, for example, I would not buy Gore-Tex membrane shoes. Only after testing this model in real conditions it turned out that it was not what I thought it would be… The Gore-Tex version of a given shoe is heavier than its non-Gore-Tex equivalent. A membrane itself has as many advantages as disadvantages too. I confirm what can be read, that in a Gore-Tex shoe, once water gets in – it stays in and it is hard to get rid of – it rather stays inside a shoe and squelches till the end of a workout. What’s more, a Gore-Tex shoe is so warm, that unless the temperatures drop below 0 degrees Celsius, there is no need for rain to have wet feet. My next bad weather shoe will definitely be something else, lighter and with other type of membrane, or hydrophobic material.

Lastly, few sentences on what most people start from – that is a division between shoes for pronators and supinators/neutral runners. What it’s about? It’s about natural movement of a foot to the inside during the rolling movement from heel to toes – that is about pronation. Runners described as pronators usually have low arched foot that, during running stride, starts contact with a surface already at the inner part of heel, and moves considerably to the inside (strong pronation or over pronation). Neutral runner’s foot touches the surface evenly and pronates moderately. Supinator’s foot starts its contact from the outside part of heel (or mid foot) and pronates in a very restricted range. Most companies that sell running shoes create systems that are meant to limit pronation and to stabilize the rolling movement of a foot. There are mixed opinions about validity of such systems, and the relation between over pronation and running injuries is not clear. The pronation itself is not a malfunction of movement – it is a natural movement that is meant to amortize shocks. Some people, depending on previous workout history, weight and natural predispositions pronates more or less, but in general this movement is natural and should not, apart for extreme over pronation, be prevented for all cost. Take a look at this clip, showing a run of Haille Gebrselassie – in time one of the best long distance runners in the world. This guy almost touches the ground with his ankles (maybe I exaggerate a bit 🙂 ), but anyway – he pronates heavily and, as far as I know, he has not been using any kind of pronation controlling shoes. There were also studies conducted on groups of runners on the influence of different kind of shoes on runners’ injuries. It turned out, that pronators running in shoes without pronation correction did not experience more injuries that those running in shoes controlling their pronation, while all the other runners (neutral/supinators) experienced more injuries while using shoes for pronators. My personal experiences with pronation control shoes are that, depending on a given system, I either had an impression of imbalance under my feet, or throwing my feet to the outside during rolling – I disliked both of them. The usage of the soles of my shoes shows that I am not a pronator, and I have tried pronation control shoes just to get a taste of how it feels to run in them, but my wife does pronate and she owns pronation control shoes. It turned out that, even thou in the shop the shoe seemed to be ok., during actual runs she complained that her feet were moving to the outside of her shoes. When I explained to her that this was the way that the pronation control system was working, she turned back to running in neutral shoes.

That’s it, it was a bit long, but I promise that the next part about buying shoes will be more compact.

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