One of the most difficult parts of distance running…
Unless you live in the Copper Canyons or grew up running the dirt paths of Iten, chances are you’re going to need shoes to be a distance runner. Luckily, it’s super easy to find shoes! There are dozens of running shoe brands and truckloads of different technologies, fits and performance features. So, the process of finding the right shoes should be simple, right? Just grab an inexpensive pair that looks cool and fits alright and start running. Easy. Except that it’s really not. Every shoe company seems to have about a billion different models with as many different kinds of support, features and technologies. It’s really easy to get overwhelmed, or miss out on the shoe you should be running in because it’s hard to find amidst the boat loads of other, similar shoes out there. In this article, I’m going to give you some guidelines on how to weed through the forest of shoes and select a great running shoe that works, specifically for you.
Try. Them. On.
This is non-negotiable. Unless you’re ordering another pair of the same shoes you’re already sure you like, you absolutely must try on your running shoes before buying them. Several shoe companies have “shoe-finder” options on their websites that will ask a series of pretty generic questions until, ta-da, your future sole-mate is revealed (sorry couldn’t resist). Sounds great, right? yeah… they don’t work. They mean well, and I respect them for trying, but there is simply no substituting the feeling of having the actual shoe on your foot before you buy it. Additionally, you’ve got to run in them for a bit.
This is where specialty running shops come in and why they’ll continue to be the best place to get running shoes. Not only will many of these stores have a treadmill in on the premises, they’ll allow you to take them for a 100 meter jog down the sidewalk outside. Some stores will even let you run a few miles in them and take them back for store credit if they don’t work out. I’ve done this quite a few times with the folks at Marathon Sports stores in Massachusetts; it’s the best way to figure out if you and a new shoe can reach a long-running agreement.
Forget about Price
This is kind of callus of me and I know it. Not everyone wants to spend a truck load of money on running shoes and not everyone actually can. However, if you want to take running seriously, you’ve got to get yourself the right pair of shoes, regardless of price. Sometimes the right ones are very reasonably priced, like the Saucony Kinvara, while others like the ASICS Gel Kinsei are definitely not. More expensive definitely doesn’t always mean better, but, sometimes it does. The point is that you should come prepared to get the shoe that fits and feels the best, whether it’s $80 or $130. Your feet will thank you later. I promise.
Forget about Looks
This should be a no-brainer, but if I’m being honest I’ve probably chosen some shoes over others simply because of looks. This is really not a good idea. Unless they are absolutely repulsive (I’m talkin’ pink camo and pea soup kind of stuff), looks are a meaningless feature of running shoes; they have absolutely no impact on your performance or the health of your legs and feet. It can be really tempting to get that sweet pair of kicks you’ve had your eyes on for a while, but if they don’t actually work for you, you shouldn’t buy them. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather qualify for Boston than look like I can qualify for Boston.
Find your Weight to Cushion Ratio
Most running blogs and websites surprisingly don’t pay much attention to weight. I find this a more than a little strange; it’s an extremely important part of choosing the right shoe. Unfortunately, just like all features and technologies, there’s a big weight range for modern running shoes. We’re talking roughly 6 to 13 ounces. You may be thinking, “how on earth could that matter… it’s only a difference of 7 ounces. If I can run in them, who cares about weight?” Well, the answer is that it’s harder than you think to run in heavier shoes. According to a frequently cited study by running coach Jack Daniels, a runner expends 1 percent more aerobic energy for every 100 grams of weight on a shoe. In a sport where you’re trying to squeeze the most out of your aerobic ability, this is a huge deal. 100 grams is a little over 4 ounces, so you can save yourself 2% of the work (don’t forget, you’re wearing two of them), just by switching to 8 rather than 12 ounce shoes. I don’t know about you, but I’d take that trade any day of the week.
Of course, as with most things, there’s a balance, a weight to cushion ratio. It’s important to reduce weight, sure, but there are diminishing returns and a point where the lack of cushioning actually begins to hurt you. To find your balance point, you’ll have to find a great feeling shoe and test it out over long miles and different kinds of workouts. if you have a great feeling, 6-ounce shoe, but the lack of cushioning leaves your legs feeling hammered, it’s a sign that you need to ad a little more cushioning, which generally comes in the form of more weight. After a couple years of paying attention to it, I aim for anything from 6 to 9 ounces, but I also weigh about 155 pounds, so my relatively lightweight frame can handle that. A 200 pound runner will most likely need a heavier, more cushioned shoe because he will be contending with much larger impact forces.
It’s also worth noting that I rotate between 2 pairs of shoes; One is close to 6 ounces and the other closer to 9. I do this for a lot of reasons, which I’ll explain in a different article, but the main one is that the lighter ones help me get the most out of speedy workouts while the heavier ones save my muscles from being routinely beaten to a pulp when I’m building mileage and general fitness.
Focus on Feel
The single best shoe advice I’ve ever received is “you should choose the shoe that seems to disappear on your foot. If you’re thinking about your shoes while you’re running, you’ve got the wrong ones.” I don’t remember who told me that, but it’s stuck with me for years now and it’s exactly what you should be aiming for. The reason this is so important is because even the slightest discomfort will turn into a much bigger problem when you’re deep into a run. Does the shoe you’re trying on have a place where your pinky toe rubs against the side of the shoe? Does it chafe your achilles tendon or scrunch your toes together? I can almost guarantee you’ll have blisters in any and all of those places when the mileage hits double digits.
Blisters suck, but you can actually do even worse damage. Shoes that fit you poorly can actually change your running form, as they affect how your feet hit the ground. This happened to me during one of my recent races. I was wearing racing flats for a marathon in Utah that was very downhill. The racing flats didn’t fit me as well as they should have and I started to get blisters about 8 miles into the race. Basically, the balls of my feet continually slid forward on foot strike causing blisters on essentially every centimeter of them. I could only stand the pain until about mile 16 or so, and then I switched to more of a heel strike to compensate. This, in turn, ended up really hurting my right hamstring, and I had to walk to the finish line from mile 21. It was a horrible experience, but one that could have been avoided, had I heeded my own advice and worn shoes that felt right, rather than flashy racing shoes that were ill-suited for running that kind of race.
To sum this section up, some shoes will just “feel” right for you. Maybe it’s the shape of the toe box, maybe it’s the way the shoe cups your heel or secures your forefoot with a great lacing system. Just remember to think about the first paragraph. If the shoe seems to disappear on your foot, you know you’ve got the right ones.