Recently, the arrival of the ‘barefoot running’ movement added another complication to making a decision about running footwear. Those who support this minimalist approach can be quite enthusiastic about converting runners who usually wear shoes. Heated debate has taken place in the scientific and athletic communities. The result? Consumers are even more confused about what to wear on their feet when running.
Just as location, location, location is the maxim of the real estate industry, fit, fit, fit could be the mantra of the shoe consumer. More than any other factor, fit is the number one quality to look for in a shoe. When selecting footwear, ensure that your shoe store has the appropriate apparatus to test each style of shoe.
First, have your foot measured by a fitting specialist to give a baseline. Try the shoe on and get an initial impression of the fit. Not quite right? Go up or down by half sizes until the length is appropriate. If the shoe does not feel comfortable even though
the length is right, move on to the next one.
Now it’s time to test drive! If you will be primarily running, hop on a treadmill and see how they feel. If the shoe is for hiking or trail running, find a slope for testing. If your heel slips when going up, or your toes bang coming down, the shoe does not fit properly. If your main sport is on a court, try cutting and pivoting maneuvers on a hard floor. Again, if your heel slips or toes jam, try another shoe.
When selecting footwear, sometimes it is best to start from the beginning to get a fresh perspective. Think about why we wear footwear in the first place. In general, running footwear serves three purposes:
To protect the foot during road running, nearly every shoe on the market has a durable rubber outsole. This outsole eliminates puncture wounds from sharp objects, or pain from hard concrete and small rocks on the road. When you venture off-road, roots and rocks can be rough on toes. For adequate protection, the shoe should have a sturdy toe box and an outsole that wraps up around the toes. Most shoes in the trail running category have these features. If you mainly run off-road, narrow down your choice by selecting from this category.
The other consideration in foot protection is ankle stability. If you are prone to rolling your ankle or the running terrain is likely to be treacherous, consider a mid- or high-cut shoe for extra support.
Typical injuries associated with running include stress fractures of the tibia (shin bone), or metatarsals (foot bones), and patellofemoral (knee cap) pain. Another running injury is Achilles tendinopathy, which causes pain, stiffness, swelling, and weakness of the Achilles tendon. (This tendon joins the heel bone to the calf muscles.) Plantar fasciitis causes pain in the heel and in the thick band of tissue connecting the heel bone to the toes.
Since the start of the running boom in the 1970s, years of technological advances have been made in the footwear arena. In spite of this, the injury rates in recreational runners have not improved. As this knowledge came to light in the 1990s, researchers shifted their thinking about running shoe categories.
In books like Born to Run, a more natural form of running is described. The theory is that traditional cushioned running shoes can alter the way we run and so cause more injuries than they prevent. Proof for this argument has mainly focused on low injury rates in barefoot runners from regions of Mexico and Central Africa.
However, carefully conducted scientific research failed to confirm these claims when it comes to beginner runners in North America. Instead, certain injuries (stress fractures of the foot bones, Achilles tendinopathy, and plantar fasciitis) are more associated with barefoot running because greater load is placed on these structures with the midfoot and forefoot running style. Other running injuries (stress fractures of the shin bone, and knee cap pain) are more associated with cushioned running because these shoes promote a heel-strike running style. Injury is even easier to predict when you consider how quickly training increases. The faster you ramp up your amount of running, the more likely you are to suffer an injury.
What about other potential causes of injury? We no longer believe that people who over-pronate (roll the foot inward when running) or have flat feet require stability control shoes. We also doubt that running on the pavement is any worse than running on grass or a trail. However, fatigue matters. If your body isn’t prepared for the amount of time you are running, fatigue sets in. At this point, even slight changes in the way you run will increase your chances of injury.
So, what is a shoe buyer to do with all this information and controversy? The jury is still out on whether more or less cushioning is better, but it appears each individual has a certain running style that is best. So, if you have not been injured with your current shoe style, continue with it. On the other hand, if you have been plagued by chronic running injuries, consider changing running styles by changing the style of shoe you wear. Remember that fatigue is the number one cause of injury. As you change shoe type, you will use different muscles as you run, which means that you tire sooner! Go slow as you adapt your running style to your new shoes. Consult a sport medicine doctor or running coach to help with a training plan.
If you are thinking about making a big jump from cushioned shoe to barefoot, consider going to an intermediate shoe instead. An intermediate shoe has a four to eight millimetre heel drop (the difference between the height of the sole at the heel and at the toe). In comparison, a traditional cushioned shoe has an eight to 12 millimetre heel drop. More minimalist shoes have zero to four millimetre heel drop.
Despite all the claims made by shoemakers, cushioning in the shoe has little to do with making you faster or allowing you to run farther. However, weight of the shoe makes a difference. On long runs, even a few ounces can affect your fatigue level towards the end of your run. If performance is key to your decision when choosing a shoe, look for shoes that are less than 300 grams. In general, lighter shoes have less cushioning. If you are transitioning from a highly cushioned shoe, remember to go slow to avoid injury.
What activity you will be doing in the shoes? These days, there are nearly as many genres of exercise as there are types of music. There’s running, trail running, fitness training, Crossfit, spinning, court sports like basketball and badminton, Zumba, grass sports like soccer, and Boot Camp, just to name a few. With so many sports and multiple shoes on the market, how do you choose an appropriate shoe?
Luckily, most manufacturers design shoes for a particular use. Just tell your salesperson what your main sport is and they will lead you in the right direction. In general, look for a shoe with good ankle support if you will be doing a lot of cutting and pivoting on the court. For fitness training, a lightweight, flexible shoe is best as it improves proprioception (balance and stability). Finally, if there is a lot of jumping involved, choose a more cushioned shoe.
Once you have selected a few shoes that have potential, head to your local running shoe specialty shop to try them on. Your choice may be good on paper, but the fit is key! Go to a shop with a treadmill so that you can experience what the shoe will really feel like.
Finally, remember the three main purposes for footwear – protection, prevention of injury and performance. In fact, there is a fourth purpose that nobody wants to admit – to look good! It is true that the better you feel about your new shoes, the more you will want to use them. So find the fastest looking shoes you can and go show them off to your running buddies!