You have trained consistently for months, achieved your season’s goals and now your sights are set on winter training and next season. By this point, your running shoes (a loyal training buddy throughout the summer) should be looking fairly well-worn. They are super comfortable, they fit beautifully, but they just don’t provide the levels of cushioning and support they did fresh out of the box. It’s time for a change!
Choosing the best running shoes can be a tricky task though, even for the most experienced of athletes. Most likely, the manufacturers of your current shoes will have brought out a new version of your current model, possibly with vastly different characteristics. So, while it is not quite straight back to square one for the task of choosing a new pair, it is important to be discerning when choosing your winter pair.
In this article we will attempt to set out, in simple terms, the key factors to consider when choosing your new pair of shoes. If you choose the right pair, your shoes will help you to stay injury free over winter and lay the foundations for a successful season next year. However, if you make the wrong choice, you may suffer rubbing, black toenails or, worse still, long-term injury which will allay any hopes of a successful season next year.
FACTOR 1: COMFORT
A running shoe should feel comfortable the moment you try it on…..the running shoe should feel ‘right’. If the shoes feel uncomfortable, you should reject them. It doesn’t matter whether the particular brand/shoe is endorsed by Chrissie Wellington, Paula Radcliffe or Alistair Brownlee, they will not ‘wear-in’ and feel better.
FACTOR 2: CUSHIONING
A training shoe (as opposed to a racing shoe) should feel like it provides sufficient ‘shock absorption’ (a.k.a. cushioning) to protect your joints and muscles from the constant pounding they will endure during the next few months of run training. Different manufacturers use different cushioning systems but usually there will be an ‘EVA’ foam mid-sole, supplemented by one or more of air, gel or soft neoprene-like rubber. There have been no unbiased scientific studies to show that one cushioning system is better than another so the key is to try them all and then decide which feels the most natural and comfortable.
Much of the ‘feel’ of a running shoe will come from the cushioning and this is therefore a very personal choice that only you can make.
FACTOR 3: SUPPORT
The question of support in running shoes polarises the opinions and advice of running shoe manufacturers and bio-mechanists worldwide.
What is support?
In very simple terms, the word ‘support’ in relation to running shoes, refers to the structural assistance provided by a shoe, to help an athlete’s foot strike the ground and push off through the toes with minimal lateral movement – rolling or collapsing of the ankle and the arch of the foot.
Support comes in many forms but, typically, there will be a more dense section of foam (referred to as a ‘medial post’) under the arch of the foot to provide resistance and reduce lateral movement. There are numerous supplemental methods of support and it is important to enquire and find out what these are while trying on different shoes.
Levels of support
Running shoe manufacturers say that each of their models of running shoe will fall broadly within one of four levels of support – Neutral, Mild-Support, Moderate-Support and Motion Control.
In reality, there are as many different levels of support as there are different models of running shoe and subtle differences in the structure of different models will mean that they are more or less supportive than others.
What level of support do I need?
This is a very complex question….
For a quick analysis (often referred to as a ‘gait-analysis’), pop into to your local running shoe shop, where they should be able to assess the broad category of support you need. For a more thorough analysis, contact a sports podiatrist or a University with a specialist Sports Science/Bio-mechanics department.
In respect of the more specialist analyses, you will usually be advised to purchase a specially moulded orthotic inner-sole, which will include specific support to assist your own unique foot-strike. Orthotics can cost hundreds of pounds, though unless you have a very unusual foot-strike, have unusual physical characteristics (e.g. one leg longer than the other) or you have suffered from prolonged injuries, these will usually be unnecessary. Ask the podiatrist/expert to recommend some specific supportive running shoes or, if they consider orthotics to be necessary, ask them to outline in detail the specific problem the orthotics will solve and the reasons why a supportive running shoe will not solve it.
FACTOR 4: FIT
The fit of running shoes produced by different manufacturers, and even different models produced by the same manufacturer, can differ substantially in terms of the length, width, depth and general shape. This is why it is crucial to try on a shoe before you commit to buying it.
The shapes of your feet are unique but fortunately, due to the number of different brands on the market, there should be a shoe which is a good match for the shape of your feet.
Broadly speaking, the shoes should have space around the toes, ‘wiggle-room’ for the toes to breath and prevent chaffing, and should be snug around the sides of the feet to ensure that the shoes are not slipping and sliding around. Often athletes, women especially, are used to their feet being ‘held’ by their day-to-day shoes. This is not the correct fit for a running shoe and will only lead to black-toenails and blisters. Comfortable ‘snugness’ and space around the toes are crucial.
In choosing the best running shoes there are many factors to consider and the numerous technologies employed by the major running shoe manufacturers on the market may seem overwhelming to even the most experienced of athletes. Stay calm though as there are several factors in your favour.
Retailers Return Period
Several major running shoe retailers now run schemes whereby you have the opportunity to buy a pair of shoes and return them (to swap for a different pair) within a month of purchase if you are not getting on with them. Take advantage of these schemes – but do give them a thorough test before returning shoes.
You are your own expert
Only you know what feels comfortable on your feet and what feels uncomfortable.
You have experience
You have run in running shoes previously and know what has worked. Look for similarities when trying on new ones.
You have a plethora of free advice available
Advice is available online, in magazines (though these are not strictly ‘free’), from running friends and in retail outlets. Seek as much information as possible so that you can make an informed choice.
Good luck in choosing your next pair of training shoes. The right pair and a great winter of training will lay the foundations for some superb performances next season!!