FINDING YOUR SOLE MATE
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 neutral cushioning 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.