Much like falling in love, finding the perfect pair of running shoes requires some science, a good fit, compatibility, and yes, a little lust. So before putting on your best high-tech t-shirt and heading to your local running store, where you’ll be overwhelmed with rows of flashy neon flats and gorgeous stability trainers, make sure you know what you’re looking for.
The Wet Test: The wet test is a simple way to determine the shape of your arch, which is a good first step toward running off into the sunset with your perfect pair of shoes.
Pronation: Once you’ve figured out if you have a normal, flat or high arch, the next factor to consider is the way you pronate, or roll your foot. Have someone watch you from behind while you run to see if your pronation is under, normal, or over. Underpronation, or supination, means the foot rolls outward toward the ankle. When the foot pronates normally, it stays in a relatively straight plane while rolling just slightly inward. Overpronation refers to a gait that rolls significantly inward, indicating that the foot and ankle aren’t efficiently stabilizing the body.
Underpronators and normal pronators typically feel best in a neutralcushioning or lightweight running shoe, while overpronators benefit from a motion control or stability shoe, which will provide guidance and additional support to keep the foot moving smoothly through the gait cycle.
Mileage: Consider the amount you’ll be running when looking for a shoe. If there’s more to it – more cushioning, more shock absorption, more support – it will be better suited to high-mileage weeks and longer races. Conversely, lighter shoes will wear out more quickly and might be a better fit for lower-mileage runners.
Minimalist: This is a huge movement in the running world, but there are a few things to consider before kicking your well-cushioned trainers to the curb and replacing them with Vibram FiveFingers (essentially a thin pad of rubber between your feet and the ground). The idea is that thicker shoes have actually made runners more prone to injury by ruining running form, enabling us to crash-land on our heels and send waves of shock through the body. Stripping away layers of cushioning forces our feet to react to the ground, enhancing flexibility, encouraging a midfoot strike and simultaneously strengthening our stabilizing muscles.
But switching from a cushioned shoe to a minimalist model isn’t like swapping out your five-inch shorts for a pair of sassy summer three-inch inseamers. You need to give your feet ample time to get used to running in essentially nothing. Start with just a mile at a time in the barefoot shoes, and very gradually increase the distance you run in them, while weaning yourself out of your traditional trainers.
Surface: If you plan to spend most of your time running on the roads, you should be able to train in almost anything (provided it offers the pronation support and cushioning you require). Trail running, however, with its rocks, roots, steep climbs and aggressive descents, calls for a different breed of shoe. Trail-specific shoes are typically designed with lugged outsoles that really dig into tough terrain, so you don’t faceplant while you’re freewheeling down the side of a slippery mountain. They also usually feature rock plates to keep debris from lodging in the shoe, and some are even waterproof for those runs that turn into knee-deep swims.
Racing vs. Training: Some runners choose to do their training in heavier sneakers and race in lighter “flats,” which are typically featherweight with very little cushioning – sort of like taking practice swings with a weight on your bat and then removing it before stepping up to the plate. Racing flats can be awesome; just make sure to do some speedwork or shorter runs in them before race day, so your feet get used to the difference in thickness and cushioning.
The Bottom Line: They say you’ll know when you’ve found your shoe. Actually, they probably don’t say that, but it’s true. If it feels good when you’re running – if it enhances your run, either with cloud-like cushioning or close-to-the-ground, every-groove-in-the-road contact, if it doesn’t rub or give you blisters, if the laces cinch up just right, if the tongue folds smoothly around the ankle, if you’re excited to put it on, guess what? You’re Cinderella, and this is the proverbial glass slipper.
The great thing is that once you’ve found your shoe, you’re pretty much set. A good rule of thumb is to update your kicks every 300 to 500 miles, but that just means “pick up another pair of the exact same thing.” Unless your style is discontinued, in which case you’ll have to drag yourself out of a deep depression and find another pair that gives you the same flawless fit and feel. Don’t worry: it’s out there.
FADS FOR YOUR FEET
When you think of trends, you probably think of fashion and crash diets – but running shoes tend to follow the same “Totally hot! Now totally not!” trajectory. And much like crop tops and South Beach, not every popular running shoe is right for every runner. You can go Roman gladiator with paper-thin flats, channel Prince with ‘70s style platform soles, or maybe land somewhere in between. But before you jump on any bandwagon, consider the benefits and potential risks of each:
The trend: Barely there. In Chris McDougall’s wildly popular book “Born to Run,” he attempted to unlock the mystery of the Taramuhara natives of Mexico, who can run for 47 days straight without stopping for a break, chasing down deer in their bare feet (the first part is a slight exaggeration; the second is not). Thanks in large part to this incredible exposé, the minimalist movement was born.
The benefits: McDougall’s book and additional research show that running in “foot gloves” or trainers with flat, thin soles encourages a more efficient mid-foot strike and allows the foot to flex naturally while also strengthening the stabilizing muscles of the ankle. This might help prevent injury, which is all runners need to hear.
The risks: But doing too much too fast (the title of every runner’s autobiography) can actually result in injury. Our ancestors might have frolicked barefoot from cave to cave, but we’ve been conditioned to wear shoes with cushioning since we were small. Straight out of the gate – or out of the minimalist shoe box, as it were – the bones and muscles in our feet aren’t ready for the shock of quite literally pounding the pavement. Attempting to run your normal mileage in barefoot-style shoes right away can result in the Godfather of all running injuries: the stress fracture.
The trend: Light and flexible. A possible stepping stone to pure minimalist models, these shoes offer a featherweight fit and feel, plus an extremely flexible outsole, but with a bit more beef to their design. The most famous is the Nike Free; other brands, like Saucony and their Kinvaras, have embraced the trend as well.
The benefits: Both on their own merit and as a way to test the minimalist waters, these classic trainer/barefoot hybrids can be an excellent choice. Runners get the flexibility, enhanced gait efficiency and close-to-the-ground feel of foot gloves, but with the added protection of a little extra padding.
The risks: There’s still an increased chance of injury when switching from a cushioned shoe to a more pared-down model. Ease into it, giving yourself time to adapt to a slightly different stride.
The trend: Old faithful. This is more the status quo than anything en vogue; it’s your classic trainer, whether you wear a neutral cushioning shoe, a stability model or a serious motion control workhorse.
The benefits: If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. There’s really no need to go changing your shoe as long as it’s comfortable and you’re not getting injured.
The risks: If you are getting injured, or if you’ve never been properly fitted for the correct shoe, you may want to take a look at your footwear and see if there’s a reason to try something new.
The trend: Thicky-thick. Like a teenager determined to be contrary, only with potential actual advantages, Hoka One One started the maximalist movement in 2009. Since then, brands like Brooks, New Balance, Altra and others have rolled out their own “pumped-up kicks.”
The benefits: These shoes are backed largely by runners’ testimonies instead of any scientific claims. They are said to provide incredible shock absorption, enhanced stability and less recovery time, especially over longer distances and on the trail. By keeping the lower heel drop of the minimalist shoe but adding the cushioning of a traditional trainer, the thicker-soled models combine the best of both worlds.
The risks: Some runners find the shoes painful and unwieldy, and they can also put extra stress on the ankles, hips and lower back. Just like with minimalist shoes, it will take time to get used to running with these moon boots on your feet.
Here’s the thing: be smart. No running shoe – regardless of how popular – is going to be a panacea for all runners and all running injuries. If you’re interested in something new, try it out with a degree of caution. Your best friend might be able to rock acid-wash skinny jeans, and your brother might lose 20 pounds in a week by replacing bread with steak, but those things may not work for you. The same logic applies here.
PAVEMENT POUNDERS: DIFFERENT TYPES OF RUNNING
Turns out there are quite a few ways to put one foot in front of the other. Consider adding a little variety to your running regimen with these workouts:
Sprints: Most runs probably don’t include sprinting, unless your neighbor’s crazy Chihuahua is on the loose and craving a tasty slice of Achilles pizza. Sprinting implies a 100 percent, full-on, anaerobic, fast-as-you-can effort… which is fun when you’re playing tag and necessary when your bus is pulling away, but maybe doesn’t have much of a place on a typical 5-mile run. Sprinting finds its home in HIIT, or high-intensity interval training, which means working literally as hard as you can for a short amount of time (20 to 30 seconds), backing off completely for a brief rest, and doing it again. HIIT work is the ace card for burning fat, but it takes a hard toll on the body, so make sure to give yourself plenty of easier days in between these efforts.
Fartlek: Go ahead, give your inner teenage boy a chance to LOL. Okay, ready? Fartlek is Swedish for “speed play,” and its utter randomness is what makes it so fun. If you’re running with music, sprint during the chorus and kick back to your cruise pace during the verse. Or choose two street signs and pick up the pace between them, recover, then do it again. Unlike full-on sprinting, these surges fit quite nicely into nearly any run. They teach your legs to turn over quickly even when they’re tired, and they force the heart rate to elevate before gradually slowing back down.
Progression: Simple and straightforward – but not necessarily easy – progression runs start out slow and, well, progress faster. Most runs probably begin as progression runs because we naturally gain speed as our legs warm up. The trick with these runs is not to then fall back into a Tin Man shuffle as you get tired, but rather make your later miles your fastest. Progression runs are perfect for learning to nail the negative split, a fancy-pants racing term for starting conservatively and building speed as you go.
Tempo: Think of the tempo run like a torture sandwich. You’ve got a warm-up and a cool-down on either side of a “comfortably hard” effort – this means a set amount of time or miles at a specific pace, which usually falls somewhere between your 10k and half-marathon race paces. Tempos are tough because, unlike running intervals, you don’t get a break: the point is to dial in and grind it out even if you feel like a dying walrus, which you might. But they’ll make you stronger and improve your running economy. Worth it.
Hill Repeats: This is pretty self-explanatory. Find a hill, run up it, jog back down, and repeat until you can’t stand it anymore. Hills are incredible training tools – they’re often called speedwork in disguise – but they are also horrible monsters ready to devour your energy and confidence and soul.
Just kidding (mostly). Run up some hills.
LSD: Yes, this is a real running thing. LSD, or long, slow distance, is the bread and butter of most marathon training programs. The point is to get used to spending lots of time on your feet – which you will definitely do in a distance race. So head out with the intention of taking it easy, keeping the pace casual and racking up some serious miles. Just try not to trip!
"Remember, the feeling you get from a good run is far better than the feeling you get from sitting around wishing you were running." - Sarah Condor
"Running is a big question mark that’s there each and every day. It asks you: are you going to be a wimp, or are you going to be strong today?" - Peter Maher
"Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion, or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle, or it will starve to death. It doesn't matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle; when the sun comes up, you'd better be running." - Christopher McDougall, "Born to Run"
"Somewhere in the world, someone is training when you are not. When you race him, he will win." - Tom Fleming
"If one could run without getting tired, I don’t think one would often want to do anything else." - C.S. Lewis