Finding the right running shoe can be hard enough; add some complicated jargon and you might as well be reading an upside-down Ikea instruction manual. Here’s a little running shoe Rosetta Stone explaining some of the most-used terms and why they matter to you. Let’s start from the top!
Upper: Literally, the upper is the top of the shoe. It covers the foot from toe to heel and is usually made of mesh – for breathability – with some kind of synthetic or leather component to add support. It’s also what the shoe “looks” like, i.e. where you find all the flashy colors and awesome logos (or solid whites if that’s your jam). So when your running partner shows up rocking some rad new kicks, go ahead and tell her you dig her upper. She won’t know what you’re talking about, and you’ll look like a genius.
Midsole: If you guessed that this is the “middle” of the shoe…you are a genius! When you slip your foot into the upper, it lands on the midsole. This is where the magic happens: foams, gels, plastics and even space-age air pockets give the shoe its cushioning, support, motion control and flexibility properties. The midsole varies significantly from shoe to shoe; some flats even combine the midsole and outsole into one unit to reduce bulk and bring the foot closer to the ground.
Outsole: But what’s an outsole, you say? This is the bottom of the shoe (see how we did that? Like a layer cake, only with less buttercream); it provides a barrier between your foot and the ground. The outsole is typically made of rubber or some kind of rubber compound, and it’s designed to provide traction on most surfaces (trail shoes have specific outsoles equipped to deal with dirt, roots and rocks).
Heel Counter: Three guesses as to where this is located! Built either internally or placed on the outside of the shoe, it keeps the heel centered and stable as the foot moves through the gait cycle.
Toe Box: You can probably figure out where to find this, too. It’s a piece of plastic or fiberboard that covers and protects the toes while also helping the shoe maintain its shape. Some runners prefer a roomier toe box, while others like the tighter, more secure feel of a narrower cut.
Sockliner: Often removable to accommodate custom orthotics, the sockliner is a thin layer of fabric and foam that runs the length of the shoe’s interior.
Vamp: No, there’s not a man-eating siren wearing red lipstick and batting her eyelashes anywhere on your shoe. Stop looking. The vamp is simply the portion of the upper that covers the forefoot.
Heel-to-Toe Offset: Ready to do some math? No? We don’t blame you, so here’s the definition in its simplest terms. The heel-to-toe offset is the millimeter difference (or “drop”) between your heel and your forefoot; subtract the shoe’s forefoot height from the heel height to find the offset. Eight millimeters is standard, but the smaller the number, the more “minimalist” the shoe. “Zero drop” indicates an essentially level platform; the entire foot is on the same plane.
Cushioning Compounds: Most brands have one or more signature cushioning technologies that are constantly being updated as research and running shoe trends evolve. A few examples: ASICS uses GEL cushioning, while Brooks’ shoes feature DNA technology, Saucony goes with the Grid and overachieving Nike keeps us guessing with Max Air, Zoom, and Lunarlon.
Now that you’re fluent in running shoe, you’ll be able to amaze your training buddies: “Girl, that is one fiiiiiine upper! Looks like you’re Zoomin’, sweet! But are you dropping 8 millimeters or 4?”
CHOOSING THE RIGHT MARATHON
So you want to run a marathon? Congratulations! Deciding to run a marathon is rock-star and awesome. But before you start logging training miles, it’s a good idea to actually pick your race. Some things to consider:
Timing: When choosing your marathon, make sure to keep the weather in mind. The fall is fantastic because the air is getting cooler, but you won’t freeze to death waiting around for the start; however, you’ll be doing the bulk of your training during the raging hellfires of summer. An early winter marathon lets you train through the cool fall months, and you may get lucky enough not to need a snowsuit… or you might have to run in a blizzard. Actual race day conditions are incredibly unpredictable, so if you can, make your decision based on when you’ll be able to train at your best (because of weather, work schedules, weddings, whatever). If you put in the time and hit the starting line feeling confident, you’ll be better equipped to deal with whatever Mother Nature throws at you.
Location: Destination races have a lot of perks. There’s no better way to see a new city than on foot, plus you get major bragging rights if your “vacation” includes a 26.2-mile run. But don’t underestimate the comfort factor of sleeping in your own bed the night before the biggest race of your life, as well as having access to all the familiar foods you tested during your training. You don’t want to be lost in a brand-new city at 7:30 p.m. on race eve Yelping nearby Italian restaurants and coming up with the one-star Fast Eddie’s House of Spaghetti. If you pick a marathon out of town, plan ahead. Some races partner with hotels to offer complimentary runner breakfasts, shuttles to the start, and late check-outs, as well as discounted overnight rates.
Race profile: One word: Elevation. If you live in a pancake-flat area, it’s going to be tough to train for a race that’s full of hills. Even the treadmill can’t really mimic significant downhills, which can wreak havoc on the quads and leave them trashed by mile 10 (looking at you, Steamtown). Similarly, a runner training consistently on rolling hills might have difficulty with the monotony of flat road followed by more flat road and then some more flat road. Training on hills will definitely make you a stronger runner overall, but if your race has an elevation change of zero feet over 26.2 miles, work in some flat running.
Size: Some runners prefer big races with lots of hoopla, like the Rock ‘N’ Roll series: bands on the course, epic crowd support, wave starts, photographers, and aid stations every mile. This can be great for a first marathon, because all the distractions make it easy to forget that you’re on the pain train. But for some runners, the thought of bobbing and weaving through hordes of people for the first five miles is horrifying. If this sounds like you, there are bare-bones marathons with a starting gun, a finish line, and not much (besides 26.2 miles) in between. Before signing up for a race, consider whether you like running in a big group or prefer to cruise solo-style, and pick your poison accordingly.
Registration: Planning ahead is always a good idea, but especially when it comes to race registration, since the fees tend to increase as the big day gets closer. Pick your race as far ahead of time as possible, and sign up as soon as registration opens. This way you’re guaranteed a spot, and you’ll pay less than you would have if you’d waited.
RACE DAY TIPS
Nothing new on race day. This is the Holy Grail, the race day bible in its entirety. Do. Not. Do. Anything. New. Don’t eat something new that morning or the night before. Don’t try the fancy new energy drink you got at the expo. Don’t pull the tags off a cute new running outfit on race morning. Don’t even wear a new pair of socks.
“But—” No. You don’t want to introduce any variables into your day. That different brand of tomato sauce might start an intestinal storm; peanut butter on a banana might sit like a brick in your stomach; fifteen-hour energy might make you jittery and nauseated; that adorable tank top might chafe under your arms; those awesome capris might slip down while you’re running.
The point is, you never know how something new is going to affect you, so if you’re going to wear it to the race or eat it before/during the race, make sure you test it out during training. That’s what training is for: to prepare, in every way, for your big day.
And this also applies to your running shoes. Even if you’re simply replacing your old kicks with the exact same model, make sure you run in the new ones a few times before the race.
Get everything ready the night before. Even if you’re totally Type Z, this is one time you’ll want to be Type A. Set out your (familiar, oft-worn) running outfit. Get your race bib and pins together. Stuff some socks into your shoes. Charge your iPod and your Garmin. Anything you’re going to want for the morning, have it ready to go. You’ll likely be looking at a rude pre-dawn wake-up call, and the less you have to do in the morning, the better. You don’t want to break your toe scrambling around in the dark because you can’t find your lucky sports bra five minutes before it’s time to leave.
Go to the bathroom. When you arrive at the race, get in line for the bathroom right away. You might not think you have to go, but you probably do, and the lines are only going to get longer while the roll of toilet paper gets shorter.
Warm up. For races shorter than a marathon, it helps to jog a little before the start. Your legs might feel alarmingly like two slabs of concrete, but that’s the point: to loosen them up so they’re ready to move when the gun goes off. Know the course. Surprises are great when they involve birthdays or baby showers; not so much when you turn the corner in a race to find 2000 feet of elevation you weren’t expecting. Check out a course map and do a little research – ideally during your training, so you can work out on similar terrain, but at the very least, learn a bit about your race before the morning of the event.
Be honest about your pace and line up at the start accordingly. Pace groups make this super simple, but they’re usually reserved for bigger races. If you’re gunning for an aggressive PR, get closer to the front and stay off to the sides so you can (mostly) avoid being boxed in during the inevitable first mile chaos. If your pace goals are more casual, though, hang back a little bit. You don’t want Ryan Hall running up your backside because you decided to line up in front of him.
Bring a change of clothes. If your race has a bag check, or if it starts and finishes in the same place, bring something to change into when you’re finished. It’s a lot more fun hanging out and celebrating if you’re dry and don’t smell.
Remember that you are awesome. Most of us aren’t running to make money, and paying our bills doesn’t depend on crossing the finish line first. So even if you’re not feeling your best, keep in mind that what you’re doing is amazing. It’s good for you, it’s (for the most part) fun, and no one is going to love you any less if you finish slower than expected. You’re not running for a paycheck, you’re running for you.
"If I am still standing at the end of the race, hit me with a board and knock me down, because that means I didn’t run hard enough." - Steve Jones
"To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift." - Steve "Pre" Prefontaine
"Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that's the essence of running and a metaphor for life." - Haruki Murakami, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”
"Running is all about having the desire to train and persevere until every fiber in your legs, mind, and heart is turned to steel. And when you've finally forged hard enough, you will have become the best runner you can be. And that's all that you can ask for." - Paul Maurer, "The Gift - A Runner's Story"