How To Choose The Right Running Shoes For You

New to running and need some running shoes? Here's a guide, including the basics about pronation, supination and gait, to help you choose the right running shoes for your needs.

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Your feet are totally unique in their shape, with length, width and height of your instep or arch, being peculiar to you and no-one else. Flat feet, neutral feet or feet with high arches, will all have a bearing on what kind of shoe you need. When other unique factors, such as the way you run, your body size and biomechanics, not to mention your event specialty are thrown into the mix, then it is clear that finding the right shoe for you is no easy matter. In short, your feet are precious, so take the time to select the right shoes for them!

Running and pronation

Whilst running is a simple sport, when you run, your body goes through a complex series of movements that we tend to take for granted. Again, the way you move is unique, but the vast majority of us are ‘heel-toe’ runners, meaning that, on landing, the outside of the heel hits the ground first.

As your bodyweight moves forward over the supporting foot, the foot that has landed is subjected to massive forces and will roll forwards and inwards at the same time to absorb the strain. Your instep or arch, acts as a spring, absorbing much of the weight of your body and it is designed to partially collapse.

Even though most of the transference of weight in your foot is from front to back, this collapsing of the arch, called pronation, is hard to control, and the vast majority of us have arches that collapse a bit too much, making us ‘overpronators’ to some extent.

When your weight is transferred more to the front of the foot, your arch springs back into shape projecting you up and onto your toes. However, excessive collapsing of the arch during this process can cause injuries, so shoe-designers have come up with what are called ‘anti-pronatory’ shoes, or shoes with anti-pronatory devices built into them. They really do work, but some are pretty extreme and can cause discomfort or even injury if worn by runners who don't really need them, particularly if worn by runners who under-pronate for example.

Running and supination

This is when the arch does not roll in sufficiently and in fact the foot may roll outwards. The shock absorbing qualities of the foot structure are reduced and this can lead to injury.

None of the above

If this is you, you are lucky. You pronate normally and are less liable to get injuries of the foot, lower leg, or knee. Self-examination of your feet will tell you whether you are about right, or seek professional advice at a good running retailer.

The ‘normal’ foot has a normal-sized arch and a broad band connecting the forefoot and heel. The normal foot lands on the outside of the heel and rolls inwards to absorb shock and therefore doesn’t require a motion control shoe. If you have a ‘normal’ foot you should look for stable shoes with moderate control features.

The flat footed runner

This type of foot has a low arch and usually overpronates, which means the foot strikes the surface on the outside of the heel and rolls inwards excessively. After a while this can cause several types of injuries, such as knee, ankle, shin and achilles tendon problems, so you should choose a shoe with motion control or stability shoes with firm mid-soles and control features that reduce the degree of pronation. Try and avoid highly cushioned, highly curved shoes, with little stability features. Sometimes the flat-footed runner will also need to invest in some orthotics, which are specially made inserts, customised for your feet, to help to correct over-pronation.

The high-arch foot

Has a narrow band (or no band) between the forefoot and the heel. A high-arched foot tends to underpronate (supinate) which means that it tends to be a less effective shock absorber and this can add additional stress to the workload of the leg muscles, especially the shins, knees and thighs. You should look for cushioned shoes with flexibility to enable foot motion

Runners with this issue can appear bow-legged, as they place the weight on the outside of their feet. If you fall into this category, you will need a shoe that has maximum midsole cushioning, to support the landing area and the arch. Look for shoes that have cushioning and flexibility as their key attributes and avoid motion control or stability shoes, which restrict foot mobility.

In short, if you have high arched feet you could well underpronate, if you have flat feet you probably overpronate and if the arches of your feet are neither high nor flat then the chances are that your pronation is just about right.  Now that you've discovered the type of feet you have here's a quick guide to shoes designed for your type of feet.

Neutral runner

If you’re not flat-footed or high-arched, then you are deemed to have neutral or normal feet and won’t need a correctional running shoe. The neutral runner's gait is said to be the perfect running motion for avoiding injuries over long distances. This gait sees the neutral runner supinate and pronate at the right levels, with the runner's feet perfectly balanced when he or she is running. The neutral runner should benefit from a wide choice of shoes, but avoid stability or cushioned shoes, as you probably won’t need them.

Running shoes options

A good pair of running shoes should provide flexibility, durability, motion control and shock absorption. However, a runner’s foot size, shape and movement combined with their biomechanics and specialty means that different people may have different requirements from their running shoes. Running shoes tend to sit within five main groups; motion control, cushioned, stability, lightweight and trail.

Motion control

These shoes are for feet that roll inward too much, or overpronate. They are built to reduce or control the excess rolling action of the foot and act as shock absorbers too. They’re the most rigid of shoes and are designed to slow overpronation. They also tend to be fairly heavy but durable and features include a polyurethane mid-sole and carbon rubber out-sole for durability. Most offer stability and a maximum medial support (also good for flat footed people).

Cushioned running shoes

Cushioning is very important for runners whose feet do not roll inward or outwards, as it is this rolling movement that helps absorb the shock that would otherwise be sent through the joints to the spine. The cushioning is designed to reduce the shock when the foot hits the ground. If you have rigid and immobile feet and tend to under-pronate then cushioned shoes have little medial support and soft mid-soles. They enable foot motion and are also ideal for high arch runners.

Stability in running shoes

These types of shoes provide a cushioning, medial support and durability and offer a compromise between motion control and cushioned shoes. They tend to prevent excess motion and are ideal for runners who have normal arches and who prefer some medial support and good durability.

Lightweight running shoes

These shoes are lighter and more responsive than standard trainers and may have varying degrees of cushioning and/or stability, but they are too lightweight to be classed as motion control shoes. These are ideal for fast-paced training or racing.

Trail shoes

These shoes have special a kind of feature to help you run on all kinds of rugged terrain, including Gore-Tex liners, midfoot wraps and lugged outer soles.

Buying your running shoes

When buying your shoes, visit a specialist running store that has a facility to enable them to analyse the way in which you run and therefore recommend a shoe that's right for you. They will often do this by asking you to run on a treadmill and recording you run, in order to analyse your running gait.

Training shoes are renowned for being smaller than everyday shoes, so you may need to buy a half to full size larger than your usual size, but the sales assistant should know this. In any case, it’s worth having your feet measured. Take a pair of running socks with you as their thickness will affect the fit of the shoe.

The right fit for your running shoes

The length and the width of the shoe are critical when choosing running shoes. Bear in mind that your feet will expand when you run, so you will need a little space at the end of the shoe for your feet to move into. Test for room at the front of the shoe by pressing your thumb into the top of the shoe just above your longest toe. Your thumb should fit between the end of your toe and the end of the shoe. Blisters, bloodied toes and toenails that disappear, will result if your shoes are too small.

In terms of width, again you need a little space for your foot to move into when it expands. Your feet may be wider or smaller than most, but don’t despair. You can get shoes with a wider or narrower fit. Again, if you choose shoes where the friction between the side of your foot and the shoe is too great, blisters will be the inevitable and painful result. The overall fit should feel comfortable and snug, but not too tight. Remember that any discomfort you feel in the store will be amplified by a factor of about a thousand once you hit the road.

Avoid final mistakes when buying running shoes

Having identified with the help of the shop assistant some running shoes that may be suitable for you, what could possibly go wrong now? Sadly plenty. It is awfully easy to have your eye taken by an attractive pair of shoes that look fantastic on the shelf. That may well be the case, but don’t be fooled. Just because they look great doesn’t mean they will be great for you.  

Remember, take your time when buying your shoes, try out lots of different brands, styles and models until you find the shoe that’s right for you. If these shoes are right, they should carry you 400-500 miles (approx. 640-800km) in training, so it’s a major investment. Please bear in mind that the major manufacturers all size slightly differently. If you can, go shopping later in the day, as feet tend to expand and swell as the hours go by. And don’t forget to ask for a discount, especially if you decide to buy two pairs. This is a great idea if you are planning to run a lot and if you can afford it, because it means you can then alternate your shoes.

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