Choosing Running Shoes - A New Approach Based On Comfort

For years the approach when assisting people choosing running shoes has focused on gait analysis, but there is growing evidence to suggest that this method is flawed and that ‘comfort’ should be the priority.

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Gait analysis has largely been concerned with identifying the degree to which a runner’s foot foot rolls inwards (pronates) or otherwise, and then recommending a running shoe with a level of support to correct this. Yet, even when runners have gone through this process there are many who still suffer niggles and injuries, which in part could be due to the actual shoes they are running in.  

So, if not basing the choice of shoe on the degree of pronation then how should runners make a shoe choice? The answer lies in finding out how comfortable a shoe is and whether they are suitable for a runner and the type of running they intend doing. By ‘comfort’ we are meaning an absence of pressure points in the shoe that would cause any irritation of the foot.

By asking key questions a running store should be able to identify the right shoe for you. Typically some of the things to consider are the following:

When in the specialist running store

With the assistance of the store assistant you should try out multiple pairs of shoes (around 3-5), and make use of the in-store treadmill to ascertain the degree of comfort in the shoes. The general advice would be go up one size from your normal shoe size, except for shoes with minimal cushioning which can be the same size or half a size up.

  • What is your primary purpose for the running shoes? -  Shoes for the gym, walking, running, and different types of running are all going to be different. Fashion, while important to some, should not be a main factor when choosing shoes.
  • Are you a new or experienced runner? - Beginner runners should steer clear of extremes of running shoe, so minimal cushioning or maximum stability should be avoided unless recommended after consultation with a podiatrist. More experienced runners should consider whether the brand or shoe they have been loyal to for years are actually right for them.

  • What is your history of injuries? - If you have a poor record with injuries, then it may be better to seek specialist advice before visiting a store. It may be that unsuitable shoes have been contributing to your injuries for some time.

  • What is your running shoe budget? - If you are limited budget-wise then it may be worth considering a shoe from last season’s range, which will likely be better than a lower specification current season shoe.

When in the specialist running store

With the assistance of the store assistant you should try out multiple pairs of shoes (around 3-5), and make use of the in-store treadmill to ascertain the degree of comfort in the shoes. The general advice would be go up one size from your normal shoe size, except for shoes with minimal cushioning which can be the same size or half a size up.

Neutral shoes are suited to the majority of runners

Research suggests that around 70 percent of runners are best suited to a neutral shoe with average levels of cushioning. Most runners don’t need heavy shoes designed to support those with gait issues like severe over pronation, unless they have been told by a professional that they need lots of shoe support. While pronation control can assist those with specific injuries, for the large majority choosing a shoe that feels comfortable is a better guide on how suitable a shoe is.

Running shoes and injury

Naturally a running shoe doesn’t guarantee injury-free running, as there are lot other factors at play. For some injured runners, a shoe recommendation can lead to the injury clearing up, while others could be given the same advice and yet their injury continues. Equally a training shoe that is suitable for short distances may not work as well for longer distances or over different terrains.

The key when using a new pair of running shoes is not to run too far too soon. Particularly if you go for a different type of shoe, then it is vital to give your body time to adjust to a new style of running shoes. Even switching between your new and old trainers can be useful as this exposes the body to slightly different forces, potentially reducing the chances of repetitive injuries.

Still not convinced that the ‘comfort’ approach to buying running shoes is preferable to the gait analysis approach? Here are some reasons we think that gait analysis is flawed:  

  • Treadmill running might not reflect how you actually run - During a traditional gait analysis, you are usually filmed while running on a treadmill. But what this approach doesn’t take into account is the fact that you may never have run on a treadmill before, and the way you are running could be hindered by this. Some people also feel a little awkward running when under observation, which again could affect your running style and ultimately lead to the wrong shoe being recommended.    
  • Running for a short stint doesn’t accurately replicate your run - Running on a treadmill for just a few minutes will not give an accurate representation of your running form. Your running technique at the start of your run will be very different in comparison to your form 10km into your run when fatigue starts to set in, so the shoe that was advised at the beginning of an assessment may no longer be the right option.  
  • Gait analysis tends to focus on the knees down - A gait analysis that only records you from the knees down is not assessing the full story. Running is a whole body movement and therefore any video analysis that is taken of you running should incorporate your complete body, especially the hips and trunk.  
  • Lack of consistency between stores - Lack of consistency between treadmill and software gait analysis programmes that are used may differ from store to store. This means that advice and recommendation you receive from one store could differ widely from another.  
  • What you wear on the treadmill will make a difference - The shoes you wear during a treadmill test can impact on the results. They will not tell you how you run, but only how you run in those specific shoes. Some retailers may ask you to run barefoot on the treadmill, but if you have never done this before, it can also impact on your foot strike.  
  • How well trained is the gait assessor? - If the person is relatively new to the gait analysis process, have they got the know-how and experience to give you the right recommendation? Equally, there’s nothing to say that they won’t try to sway you towards their own personal preference for a particular shoe or brand.  
  • No agreed standard for ‘over’ or ‘under pronation’ - It is known that severe pronation or supination (under pronation when the foot rolls outwards) could potentially cause pain and injury, but what isn’t clear is what degree of over (or under) pronation makes your case ‘severe’. As there isn’t a pre-agreed standard, you could end up being recommended a shoe that is not suitable.  
  • Over or under pronation doesn’t necessarily need correcting - Over or under pronation can be natural, and trying to fix it by buying the recommended shoes can actually have a negative impact on other muscles used during the normal gait cycle. It is worth noting that many people overpronate and have no injury problems, yet others who only overpronate a small amount can have a lot of problems.  
  • The recommended shoe may not feel comfortable - A recommended shoe may not actually feel comfortable, despite what the gait analysis method is telling you. Comfort in the shoes, notably the absence of pressure points in the shoe is what is important, but no gait analysis can tell you this.  
  • Injury risk is the same - If your running gait is constantly causing you injuries, it needs to be corrected by working on your technique - there is no research to suggest that a particular style of shoe is suitable for a particular gait. In fact injury rates among runners are as high now as they were years ago.