Buying a pair of running shoes

With grateful thanks to the late Dr. Lindsay Weight, distinguished sports scientist and Comrades Marathon winner.

There are three main things to concern yourself with when purchasing running shoes: Your biomechanics, mileage and training surfaces and your finances.

Biomechanics

This is by far the most important consideration. Understanding your own rhythm and running body dynamic helps your choice of correct shoe. The correct shoe choice boils down to longer, more comfortable and injury free kilometres on the road.

Every time your foot strikes the ground it does so in a characteristic manner, depending on the structure and alignment of your foot and lower leg.  Most runners land on the outward side of the heel and then move into a neutral stance as the foot makes full contact with the ground. An inward rolling motion (pronation) then precedes the outward rotation during toe-off. In some runners the pronation phase is exaggerated, hence the popular term ‘pronator’.

The degree of over- or under-pronation depends largely on the structure of the foot and the alignment of the lower limb. Over-pronators usually have flat feet and no arches, while under-pronators have high arched and rigid feet.

There are two easy ways of assessing your foot type. The first is to make an imprint of your wet foot on a blank flat surface – use a sheet of paper. Check your footprint against those in the figure below.

Secondly, put your worn shoes side by side on a flat surface and look at the shape they are in, again comparing with the diagram.

If you are a Type A, it means you are an over-pronator. You require a rigid shoe; straight or slightly curved in shape with lots of motion control. Most models in a stability range will be a good fit. If you are a Type C, it means you are an under-pronator. You require a curved shoe, lots of cushioning and flexibility. Most models in a neutral range will be suitable.

If you are a Type B you can wear a variety of running shoes. Either neutral or stability will be good for you.

You need to consider your body weight when choosing running shoes. Only small boned, lightweight runners can successfully wear lightweight shoes with little motion control or cushioning. The heavier you are the more stability, control and cushioning you require. Do not be too concerned about the weight of the shoe – the lighter model may take a few seconds off your time, but the heavier shoe with all the technical additions is going to keep you injury-free for longer.

Foot width is another issue: some models of shoe are better suited to those with wide feet and others to the narrow foot.

Mileage and training surfaces

Both your body weight and your mileage influence your shoe options. Obviously the low mileage, low body mass, biomechanically efficient runner can get by in any of the entry-level shoes and those with cushioning but minimal stability. The higher your mileage and the larger you are the more cushioning and durability you require. Within each of the categories listed below there will also be shoes that are best suited to serious high trainers. Some people are very hard on their shoes, regardless of body weight. Their running style is such that they land heavily on their heels or have an exaggerated toe-off, both of which compress the midsole area faster.

Many running shoes today are designed for specific surfaces and types of running: long runs on tar require different shoes to track or trail running. Most runners do the majority of their training and racing on roads, for which you need a shoe with plenty of mid-sole shock absorption and out sole durability. For track and cross country you need a shoe with less cushioning but more motion control, while for the trails the major criteria are all round support and an out-sole that provides extra traction.

Finances

Running shoes are expensive, but they are the only piece of equipment you have to buy to enjoy your sport.  While a good shoe does not entirely rule out the possibility of injury, a poor quality shoe, or one that is incorrect for your needs is a high risk factor for injury. So take care and buy the best you can afford from a reputable footwear store.

Get specialist advice from someone who knows about running and running shoes and is able to assess whether a particular model is appropriate for you. Even the experienced runner who has learnt what type of shoe works best needs to talk to the professionals as running shoe models and specifics change every season.

How long will my shoes last?

This is the most asked question, particularly with the cost of the average pair of shoes over R2000.00. The answer is not so simple though.

How long your shoes last depends on a number of factors, not the least of which is you. The heavier you are, the more running you do on tarmac and the more pronounced your biomechanical abnormalities (particularly if you over-pronate), the faster the shoe will wear out. Also, some shoes are made of more durable materials than other, polyurethane mid-soles and carbon rubber out-soles being the most hard-wearing structural components. However these make shoes heavier and more rigid: the lighter and more cushioned the shoe, the shorter its lifespan”.

At the very least you should get 600 kilometres from a shoe, while those with neutral running form who train on tar and off road could expect up to 1500 kilometres: don’t wash them in the washing machine or put them in the tumble-drier, don’t leave them in direct sunlight or in the boot of the car, allow them to dry thoroughly should they get wet, and don’t use them for other sports.

It’s time to get new shoes when the mid-sole is visibly compressed and feels brittle. Shoes need to be replaced when they tilt precariously in either direction when you place them on a flat surface or when you start getting injured. On the contrary, you might pick up a few twinges when you swap into brand new shoes too – this is natural as the new shoe adapts to the particular stresses you place on it and moulds to your form.

Published by Tom Cottrell

A struggling author, pilgrim and citizen of Planet Earth.

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