How to choose the perfect running shoes

Get a comfortable pair of sneakers and stay injury free
How to choose the perfect running shoe

It’s worth taking the time to get it right when you’re looking to buy a new set of running shoes. After all, this shoe is probably going to be your trusty companion for at least 800km (500 miles) of running, so any small problems you have with it from the off are only going to become more irritating over time.

What makes finding the perfect shoe for you difficult is the vast range of options out there, along with the fact that many of those options are launched to a fanfare of hype proclaiming them to be the best running shoes ever made.

To cut through the puffery, you need to know exactly what you’re looking for, and where you should be looking for it. Use this guide to buying running shoes to ensure your next 800km fly by.

The anatomy of a running shoe

How to buy running shoes

There’s a lot of jargon to wade through when running shoe shopping, most of which you can ignore, but it’s useful to know the main parts of a shoe.

The upper is, obviously enough, the upper part of the shoe, which should secure your mid-foot in place without feeling uncomfortable. Make sure you have enough room at the front to wiggle your toes and that there are no hotspots where your foot is rubbing against the upper, which can cause blisters. It may seem fine for a couple of minutes in the shops, but after a few miles on the road that slight rubbing will feel like sandpaper.

The midsole is the layer between the inner and outer soles, and it’s where a lot of the magic happens when it comes to running shoes. Most brands use proprietary foams and you’ll see some amazing claims about what these midsoles can do in terms of energy return. While it’s best to take these claims with a pinch of salt, if you like how particular shoe feels the midsole will have a lot to do with that.

The outsole is the layer of rubber on the bottom of the shoe. You want plenty of grip and a thicker layer will generally last longer, though this can add a lot of weight to the shoe, which isn’t ideal for racing.

The offset of a shoe is the difference in height between the heel and the toe. Traditionally running shoes have been 10-12mm higher at the heel than the toe, though shoes with a drop of 4-5mm are now also common. The barefoot running community take that to the next level and favour zero-drop shoes. Picking between these is mostly a matter of personal preference, but if you’re used to one type of shoe don’t suddenly switch to another for all your running, because the change can risk injury.

The cushioning of shoe is the stack of foam on the bottom. More foam generally means more comfort and protection from the impact of running, but also greater weight, which means the shoe might not be ideal for fast training and racing.

How much should you pay?

How to buy running shoes

Before you start your search it’s wise to have a budget in mind to narrow down your options, because running shoes can cost anywhere from £15 to £225. Flagship shoes from the biggest brands are usually around £150 new, but there’s a range of excellent options at the £100 mark, while budget shoes can be found for below £50.

However, if you are on a tight budget, it’s generally better to hunt out a deal on a premium shoe rather than going for a cheap option. There are always sales available and most popular shoes are updated every year, so checking the price of last year’s edition will often yield a bargain.

The differences between it and the latest version might only be cosmetic but the older shoe will be a lot cheaper. Budget shoes are a solid option for beginners logging a couple of short runs each week, but will generally fall apart faster than pricier options, so can prove a false economy.

How long do running shoes last?

Most brands say 800km (500 miles) is the distance you can expect from of a pair of running shoes, but in reality this varies from runner to runner. If you’re taking the shoes out on rougher trails and rarely cut your toenails, you might go through a shoe faster, but most runners will probably find they can eke out 900-1200km (560-750 miles) from a pair of shoes.

However, it’s important not to push this too far, because if a shoe is past its best it can raise your risk of injury. Check for wear on the outsole and upper, and squeeze the midsole to check it still has some spring – if it’s starting to feel a lot firmer than when you first bought the shoe, it might have lost its shock-absorbing properties.

Finally, some shoes just aren’t as durable – budget and racing shoes in particular will probably only last 400-500km (250-310 miles).

Is gait analysis worth doing?

How to buy running shoes

You might be sceptical about whether such a short stint on a treadmill really reveals enough about your running technique to pick a shoe, but gait analysis is backed by experts and it’s a free service that’s certainly worth taking advantage of if you’re new to running in particular.

“Getting a gait or running analysis can be very helpful,” says Emily B Beyer, instructor in physical therapy, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine. “It can give you feedback on your walking or running mechanics including arch mobility, foot mechanics and foot strike patterning which can guide footwear choices.

“Research has shown that footwear that is comfortable for you is the best way for you to determine your shoe wear, but gait analysis can provide guidance for you if the person evaluating you is appropriately trained.”

That last part is vital, because the benefits of gait analysis can only be unlocked by the right beholder.

“Technology can’t lie, it only measures things,” says biomechanics coach Anthony Fletcher. “The problem comes when we – the humans – get involved. Unfortunately like everything, gait analysis is subject to a difference of opinion and an abundance of human error.

“Dysfunction is in the eye of the beholder and there are some good eyes and bad eyes out there. I recommend that you get screened by the most experienced person in the shop if you are going to base a shoe purchase on their advice.”

More in-depth gait analysis is also available that looks at the whole body, which is important as running injuries can arise from a weak core or even the way you swing your arms as well as your foot strike. You’ll need to go to a specialist for this, and it won’t be free.

“A running analysis is best performed by a physical therapist or sports medicine professional familiar with running biomechanics and can be helpful in identifying flaws in running mechanics which could contribute to injury,” says Professor Edward R. Laskowski (MD), co-director, Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine.

“For example, weak hip muscles and poor control of the knee can lead to problems with the iliotibial band and pain around the kneecap.”

Comfort is key

How to buy running shoes

Even if you don’t buy into the benefits of running store gait analysis, it’s worth going to try out some different shoes on the treadmill, because whatever physical traits gait analysis might reveals, comfort is still the most important factor when it comes to making your pick.

“There are so many factors that could influence the contact with the floor – foot shape, arch height, speed of pronation, ability to supinate, difference in leg length, pelvic function, neural dynamics – and that’s just the lower body,” says Fletcher. “All the evidence seems to suggest that comfort is the biggest indicator to a good fit. If the shoes feel comfortable then more than likely they’ll work for you. If you can spend some time on the treadmill using them and see how they feel after five to 10 minutes. The body will soon tell you if you’ve made the wrong choice.”

“Despite the hype, there is no definitive scientific study that shows that a specific type of running shoe is best for a specific foot type,” says Laskowski. “Comfort is the most important criteria in choosing a shoe.”

The different types of running shoe

Once you’ve had your gait checked and had a good think about the kind of running you’re doing, you’ll be able to match yourself up to the type of running shoe you’re after. It’s possible to divide and subdivide shoes up into hundreds of different categories, but broadly-speaking, here are the main types.

Cushioned

Neutral cushioned running shoes make up the bulk of the market. They’re the best option for runners who don’t overpronate and picking between them mostly comes down to personal preference. The amount and type of cushioning on the shoe can vary massively, so find one that you like the feel of while running – don’t just go on looks.

Stability

If you over-pronate you’ll be recommended a stability shoe to guide your foot into a neutral position while running, or even a motion control shoe which offers even more support if you’re a heavier runner who over-pronates severely. Comfort is still king, remember, so if you prefer a neutral shoe despite gait analysis saying you over-pronate, go with your gut.

Racing

When it comes to setting PBs you want a lightweight speedster with less cushioning than a daily trainer. It might not be the most comfortable or durable shoe, however, so you might need to also pick up a cushioned option for your easy runs.

Where to buy running shoes

How to buy running shoes

If you’re an experienced runner and know pretty much exactly what you want, shopping online is generally going to yield the best deals. However, beginners and any runner looking for some advice should head to a specialist running shop. The staff will be able to guide you through the range of shoes available and most running shops also provide free gait analysis.

This involves running on a treadmill so the staff can check your technique and ascertain whether you over-pronate – excessively roll the foot inward upon landing – in which case you might need a stability or motion control shoe to correct this roll while you run, because over-pronation can risk injury. The process of gait analysis goes well beyond this check, however.

“Gait analysis at Runners Need takes into consideration a range of different things,” says Runners Need expert Jamie Fountain. “Firstly, our in-store experts spend time understanding the customers needs. For example, asking what their weekly mileage is, their history of injuries, current goals as well as what terrain they run on. All this information is crucial to finding the right shoe.

"Then the customer will be fitted in a neutral shoe and asked to run for 20-30 seconds on a treadmill. The store staff will stand behind the treadmill to observe their running. From there multiple pairs of shoes will be brought out for the customer to run on the treadmill in.”

Tags:   Running
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