[by Sarah Wightman for The Flying Runner and the Running Academy]
Much of what you read about shoes will have been written by shoe companies and their marketing agencies! So here’s an unbiased insight into running shoes, why they matter, and how to tell whether yours are right for you…
Finding what’s right for you
Your shoes should be appropriate for you as an individual, supporting your own biomechanics effectively.
It’s a good idea to go to a specialist running shop with a treadmill so you can get gait analysis from a trained professional. They will look at whether you over-pronate or supinate (have the weight on the inside or outside of your foot) when you land, or land neutrally, as well as how you strike the ground. They will then be able to advise you on the best type of shoes, and good shops will allow you to try running in those shoes too.
It’s very helpful to keep a note of when you started using a new pair of shoes, so you can track how much you’ve run in them.
You will probably find you need to replace them regularly. Typically running shoes last 300-500 miles, which actually isn’t a lot when you get going with focused training. It isn’t always obvious that shoes are worn out just by looking at them, and they can become worn out without you even realising because the inner cushioning will wear down.
Running in shoes which don’t work well for you, or which are worn out, can be a quick route to injury.
If you start to notice a new niggle, particularly if it is unusual for you or is felt in your joints, it could be caused by your shoes becoming worn out. Your shoes are certainly a good place to start with trying to work out what’s going on. Try switching your shoes and see if the problem eases over the next few days.
- It’s usually best to buy running shoes a size-and-a-half bigger than your normal shoe size. Your feet swell when running, particularly over a long distance, so it’s important to have the extra space to reduce the risk of blisters or damage to your toenails (this may still happen, but it would be worse with shoes that are too tight once your feet swell).
- You probably won’t notice that they feel too big, but if you do then there is a simple lacing technique to prevent heel slippage, using that funny “extra” lace hole at the top – as demonstrated in this video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oz3W_bDHXWU
Rotating different pairs
It can be helpful to have two or three different pairs of shoes on the go.
Once you’ve found a make of shoe which is working well for you, it can be cost-effective to buy two or three pairs in one go – particularly if you find them on a sale offer somewhere. This also means that if you feel a pair of shoes is starting to get worn out, you have a new pair already available to you straight away, rather than having to wait a couple of weeks before you get round to going to buy a new pair (and those two weeks of running in worn out shoes could result in injury!).Shoes can be expensive, but if you shop around and buy them when you find them on special offer, you can save quite a bit. It’s not worth cutting corners with trying to buy cheaper shoes – you could easily end up spending more on physio bills as a result of wearing inappropriate shoes that cause injury.
Race day shoes
I like to have a pair of shoes set aside as my race day shoes. It’s usually a newish (but worn in) pair that I find particularly comfortable. I ALWAYS wear them for a couple of long runs and a few steady runs to make sure they don’t cause me any problems, and I’ll also usually wear them for a practice race, or lower priority race too, just to check I’m completely happy and comfortable in them. Then I set them aside and keep them for my races.
Putting these on gives me a psychological boost on race day morning. It’s like putting on my “race head” – it feels different and special, and helps with the mental preparation so I feel raring to go!
What about “barefoot” and minimalist?
You may well have come across the “barefoot” debate in running circles. It was largely triggered by Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run a few years ago, and become a hotly debated and rather controversial topic which created an entire “barefoot” movement.
The idea is that humans evolved to run without shoes, and that shoes can actually do more damage to our bodies by encouraging an unnatural heel-strike. While this isn’t “wrong”, the rather unfortunate consequence of the fad resulting from the book was that masses of runners made a sudden switch to forefoot striking and/or running barefoot or in minimalist shoes, without taking time to adjust their running technique. Making a sudden switch of any kind can cause problems, and with this type of switch the typical problem is that runners are putting much more strain through their calf muscles than before, which can lead to a variety of injuries including (but not limited to) calf strains, Achilles pain, plantar fasciitis, shin splints and stress fractures.
The evolution argument falls a little short when we get practical about the fact that we’re not all running around in the African bush any more. We have grown up wearing shoes our whole lives, and our posture, skeletal and muscular structures and biomechanics have adapted accordingly. We are also often running on hard surfaces, including tarmac or even concrete, which is not the natural environment for which our bodies originally evolved over the millennia.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying barefoot or minimalist running is “bad” or that it inevitably leads to problems. It can work brilliantly for some runners, and it certainly encourages a lightness of ground contact and springier push-off. It’s also fine to experiment with different techniques and find out what works well for you. However, the important thing is to recognise that changing from conventional to minimalist shoes can be a big change and should be approached as a transition, which involves time, patience, and exercises to strengthen your calf muscles.