Find Your Perfect Running Shoe
The most important bit of kit you need to run on the roads are your shoes. If you are new to running it can sometimes feel like there are a bewildering range of brands, designs and ever more expensive and fancy support systems available. Alison Hamlett cuts through the jargon and outlines the key things to look for when choosing shoes.
Running is simple - that's a big part of its appeal. That's not to say you can't stand on the start line of a half marathon looking like you're armed for battle with water bottles and gels strapped all over you, but the only piece of equipment that's truly essential on race day is a pair of running shoes.
You'll take around 21,090 steps when you run a half marathon, and every time your foot strikes the ground, a force two and a half times your body weight travels through your legs. So it's a good idea to have the correct running shoes to carry you across the finish line with a smile on your face.
While running itself is simple, shopping for the right pair of running shoes may seem a little more complicated. If sifting through the hundreds of pairs on offer seems like a daunting prospect, you'll find everything you need to know here. With a little knowledge, you can narrow the choice and ensure you make the right decision.
Judging your foot type
Feet are like fingerprints: every set is unique. Nevertheless, your feet fall into one of three main categories, and these are matched by three main categories of running shoes. The classic method of judging your foot type is the wet footprint test. Next time you step out of the shower, take a look at the outline your wet foot makes.
A flat foot - a solid footprint with no discernible arch - usually means your foot rolls inwards after it hits the ground. This means you're likely to need the added support of a motion-control shoe.
A high-arched foot - the footprint has a narrow band connecting the front of your foot with the heel - generally doesn't roll inwards enough and needs a cushioned shoe, which is also very flexible.
A neutral foot - the footprint has a flare but shows that the heel and forefoot are firmly connected - should be matched with a stability shoe that has an equal blend of cushioning and stabilising features. This is the most common category and applies to about 85 per cent of runners.
Do your homework
The wet footprint test will help you to work out what kind of shoe you need from the following four main types:
Neutral shoes are designed for runners who need maximum midsole cushioning and minimal arch support. These shoes are best for biomechanically efficient runners (who pronate very little) and midfoot or forefoot strikers with normal or high arches.
Motion-control shoes are recommended for runners with low arches who are moderate to severe overpronators and who need maximum stability and support on the medial (arch) side of their shoes. Motion-control shoes are best suited to heavier runners who need plenty of support and durability.
Stability shoes are recommended for runners who are mild to moderate pronators and who generally have low to normal arches. These runners tend to need a shoe that has a combination of good support and midsole cushioning.
Performance running shoes are recommended if you're racing or for biomechanically efficient runners to train in. They have varying degrees of support and cushioning, but they're generally lighter and fit more snugly.
Shopping for shoes
If you're tempted to head to the high street or, worse still, a supermarket to buy running shoes, think again. Shopping at a specialist running retailer will ensure you're far more likely to identify the very best shoes for you.
Specialist running shops are staffed by runners who understand both the shoe market and the particular needs of every standard of runner - whether you're running your first marathon or your fiftieth. They will measure and study your feet and question you about the type of running you intend to do in training. They may also offer gait analysis, which usually involves you walking and running on a treadmill or pressure pad that is hooked up to a video camera. The staff will record your running and identify your style before recommending a selection of shoes for you to try.
Always shop for running shoes in the afternoon when your feet have expanded to their largest size, and expect the process to take between 30 minutes and an hour. Take along your old running shoes, if you have some, and show them to the salesperson - someone with experience will be able to look at how the shoes have worn, which will help to determine what kind of shoes you need. Also take the socks you intend to run in. Try on both left and right shoes and run around the shop or on the treadmill in them for a few minutes. Don't rush or respond to sales pressure: you are the best judge of the right shoes for you.
Fit is key when buying new running shoes, and that sometimes means buying shoes that are half a size bigger than your everyday shoes. A shoe that fits will feel snug but not too tight, both in length and width. If you have one bigger foot (most of us do) make sure the bigger foot is comfortable with at least a thumb-nail's width of room between the end of your toes and the front of the shoe. This will allow your foot to flex and the toes to move forward with each stride. Stand up when you're trying the shoes on and check that there's roughly a cm of additional room. The rear of the shoe should hold your heel firmly in place so that your foot does not move around.
Running uphill or around a corner is a great way to determine whether your shoe truly fits. You should have enough room in the toe box, and your feet should feel anchored rather than slipping around in the shoe. If a shoe is loose when it's new, it will only feel worse as you wear it in.
Since women tend to have narrower heels, it can be a challenge to find shoes that fit snugly. If you buy a shoe that's narrow in the heel, you risk pain in the forefoot due to lack of space in the toe box. There is a solution: buy shoes that fit perfectly around your forefoot, then lace them up as your would usually would, but when you get to the second eyelet from the top, thread each end through the top eyelet on the same side to form a small loop. Thread the lace from the other side through this loop and tie your shoes as normal. This should provide a snugger fit and keep your heel firmly in place.
Gary Malmstrom, who is not only a veteran of many marathons but is also an experienced sports retailer who has sold thousands of pairs of running shoes to people training for the London Marathon, suggests that you forget about fashion when you're buying running shoes: "It's all about the shoe feeling good on your foot," he says. "I can confidently say that the last thing on your mind at mile 20 of a marathon is the colour or brand of your running shoes."
Your running shoes are designed for running - not for football, tennis or aerobics. Although it might be tempting to use them for other sports, don't. Not only will you damage the structural integrity of your precious shoes, but you might also damage yourself.
Keep it clean
You can extend the life of your running shoes by treating them well and cleaning them after every run in damp or muddy conditions. When wet, put some scrunched up newspaper inside and dry them slowly away from a direct heat source. When they become dirty, clean them with a brush and water, avoiding detergents, and never be tempted to chuck them in the washing machine.
There is no set lifespan for a pair of running shoes. The shoes will wear depending on your weight, how your foot strikes the ground, whether you are running on or off road, and also how you look after the shoes. Unlike everyday shoes, the durability of running shoes is often dictated by the life of the midsole foam - and not the outsole rubber or the upper. Midsole wear can be very hard to judge, although heavy creasing of the foam under the heel, the feeling that your foot is sinking into the shoe or permanent flattening of the foam are all indictors that the time has come for some new shoes.
"If the same model is still available, stick with it," says Malstrom. "Then and only then can you contemplate bagging a bargain by purchasing another pair on the internet, but make sure they are exactly the same shoe in exactly the same size." You can reasonably expect your shoes to last between 300 to 500 miles, although some runners regularly manage twice as far in a pair of running shoes. When you buy your new running shoes, write a use-by date on the heel, based on your weekly mileage and approximate life span of 500 miles. When you reach the date, examine the shoes carefully for signs of wear and tear.
Hitting the trail
Stability, cushioned and motion-control shoes are all designed for running and racing on roads and pavements. If you are going to do most of your running off-road, opt for a trail shoe instead, which has a studded rubber outsole and tough, more durable upper to give you better grip on tough terrain.
If you are expecting your new shoes to make you a better and faster runner, you are deluding yourself. The shoes will not run the training miles for you, but they will ensure that you run those miles comfortably, and hopefully injury-free. Shoes that you never think of again until it's time for a new pair are ideal.
Running shoes can cost anywhere from £50 to £150, but the cost is not the best indicator of a shoe's suitability for you. Your perfect shoes are the ones that fit properly, grip and protect your feet on all terrain and cause you no problems over a successful life together. Most runners find that midrange shoes offer the best balance between value and technical performance.
Your new running shoes should feel good the first time you wear them, but you should avoid a long run or important race in new shoes. Instead, break them in by wearing them around the house for a few days so that the inner starts to conform to the shape of your foot. Start with short runs in them so you become used to the new feel before moving up to longer sessions. Always aim to wear new running shoes at least 10 times before race day.
You can run the marathon in your 1985 Live Aid T-shirt and baggy rugby shorts (although don't forget there are photographers out on the course capturing your achievement for posterity) but most people soon find that a few running essentials will make running an easier and altogether more comfortable experience.
After training in a damp cotton T-shirt, your first run in a technical T-shirt will feel like a religious experience. Modern synthetic fibres are designed to wick sweat away from your skin to keep you cool and comfortable no matter how hot race day becomes. Adidas offers an enormous range of London Marathon branded running apparel, from long tights for training through a variety of shorts to T-shirts and vests for race day. Check out the selection online. Investing in synthetic or wool socks will also keep your feet comfortable and hopefully blister-free.
Armed with this information, shopping for shoes should be as simple as running itself.
Alison Hamlett is the author of Need to Know? Running - a Beginner's Guide published by Collins.