The first time I ran, my running shoes were a crappy pair of sneakers that I regularly used to mow the yard.
I didn’t start running to become a great runner – I started in the hopes that it would help me to quit smoking.
It wasn’t too many miles later, however, that I realized I would need to buy shoes that softened the impact of my foot.
Being new to running, though, I was overwhelmed by all the information out there telling me how to choose running shoes.
As I researched running shoes, I found the same basic advice for beginning runners echoed on nearly every online running site: go to a running store and get a “gait analysis” and get fit for the right shoe.
I’ve since come to find out that the right shoe is one that you find over time, not one that you automatically right into.
That said, it’s a great idea to talk to the folks at your running store when trying to figure out how to choose running shoes. In fact, talk to everyone you can and learn how they choose their next pair of running shoes.
If you are in Little Rock, Arkansas, check out these 3 local running shops. You’ll a varied selection and brands of shoes, not to mention really helpful staff members who are also a part of local running community.
Go! Running. This store in the Heights has a decent selection and a really helpful staff. They are extremely supportive of the Little Rock running community, hosting the annual Turkey Trot and a 1 mile race in June, a regular in the Arkansas RRCA Grand Prix series.
Fleet Feet. I’m a little less familiar with this store because it’s further from me, and I only go to West Little Rock if it’s a life or death situation. But there are some great folks that work at this shop and they have a pretty decent selection of shoes and other running paraphernalia. They also host my favorite run of the year: the 4th of July Firecracker Classic 5k.
As for the “gait analysis,” though, my jury is still deliberating on that one.
My “gait analysis” was jogging in place for 30 seconds while some old dude looked at me from behind.
He diagnosed me as a “pronator,” and handed me a pair of shoes that would be “just right” to counter that.
They were expensive, marginally comfortable, and far too heavy for me. But I trusted the professional until I learned a better way to choose a running shoe.
Here’s three reasons why, in hindsight, that information was meaningless.
First, there is nothing inherently bad about pronation or supination. Our bodies are all unique, and they move in unique ways.
Now, I’m not a doctor or a scientist – this is all just “Attig science” – it works for me but may or may not work for you.
Take this information only for what it’s intended to teach: as you run more and more miles, time spent getting to know how your body works as it runs may make the difference between a short visit to a physical therapist to strengthen a hip or a calf, or a chronic injury that sidelines you half of every year and sucks the fun out of running.
Where pronation becomes a problem for me is when it is excessive or unnatural.
For example, during a recent injury, I realized that due to a weakness in my hip, I was pronating more than usual to help hold my weight as I ran. That put a lot of strain on the tendons in my foot.
One of those tendons was not subtle in letting me know it was having problems bearing that much weight. It forced me to stop running for a few weeks while I worked on strengthening my hips.
Second, you don’t want to fit a shoe to the running form you bring to the table in week 1 of your running career.
If you get serious about running, you are going to start thinking about form.
You’ll start to realize you have a lot of control of how your foot strikes the ground, and that you can change a lot with a simple lean forward, or shortening or lengthening your pace.
Your form will change, as will the shoes you want to wear.
Third, a runner’s relationship with his shoes is as important as his relationship with his partner: they are with us all the time, supporting us through thousands of miles a year, bearing hundreds of pounds with each step, day in and day out, mile after mile.
It’s going to take you time to find the right match.
Below are the things I consider when picking out running shoes.
Do some research, talk to other folks, and see what factors other runners find important.
Then test to observe what is most important for you. Some stores will allow you to take shoes on test run, usually on a treadmill in the store. If that option is available, take advantage of it.
The most important factor in purchasing a shoe is unique to the individual: pick a pair that feels comfortable to you. How the shoe fits, and how comfortable it is, are the most critical factors for footwear that you will be wearing for hundreds or thousands of miles.
One caveat – I am a “road runner.” I don’t run trails.
So my factors and tips may or may not be relevant or helpful to trail runners. These are just the factors that I find most critical for choosing a pair of road running shoes, and I can’t speak to whether they are important in selecting trail shoes
These are just the factors that I find most critical for choosing a pair of road running shoes, and I can’t speak to whether they are important in selecting trail shoes,
Factor #1: Stack Height
A shoe’s “stack height” is the thickness of the material separating you from the ground. It’s measured in millimeters.
You will feel the shoe more than you feel the road as your stack height increases.
Generally, the higher the stack height, the more the shoe absorbs the impact of the footfall.
Because a higher stack height means more material on the shoe, these shoes tend to be heavier. They are generally are suited better for long and slow runs.
The lower the stack height, the more the foot absorbs the impact of the footfall. Because there is less material, you can generally move a little faster in these shoes, but your feet might get a little sore on longer distances.
I try to keep a good rotation of shoes with different stack heights.
For runs in the 5- 15 mile range, I like a pair of Altra Escalantes – an unbelievably comfortable shoe even with a taller 25 mm stack height.
For half marathons and marathons, I wear a pair of Altra Torin 3.0 with a 28 mm stack.
The chart below shoes three general ranges of stack heights:
Low and Fast (Minimal): 1 – 13 mm
Middle of the Road: 14 – 18 mm
High and Slow: 19 – 30+ mm
Factor #2: Drop.
A shoe’s “drop” is the difference between the stack height at the heel and the stack height at the toe. It, too, is expressed in millimeters.
The idea is that the the lower the drop, the more you engage the arch of your foot. The lower the drop, therefore, the greater the need to increase flexibility and strength in your calves. The higher the drop, the more your knee will absorb the impact.
Shoes with the same stack height at the heel and the toe are called “zero drops.”
When it comes to zero drops, Altra is the leading brand, in my opinion. Every pair of Altra shoes has two distinct features – a zero drop and a foot-shaped toe box (to reduce blisters). If you decide to try zero-drops, don’t make the change overnight. If you make the transition too quick, you risk injury.
Instead, implement zero drops into your running gradually. Altra publishes a great transition guide – I followed it, and it really makes a difference.
A lot of folks say that a shoe with a higher drop is better if you are experiencing pain in your feet and ankles, a lower drop better if you have pain in your knees.
I’m not giving that advice.
First, I’m not a doctor or a physical therapist, so I don’t know that it’s true.
Second, my preference is to avoid using gear to do what my body needs to be strong enough to do on its own.
That said, I’m going to admit my bias straight up.I’m a big fan of zero drops.
I like to be able to feel my foot’s natural motion through the stride, and the steeper the shoe’s drop, the less I’m able to feel that natural motion, and the more I’m letting the shoe do work that my muscles need to learn to do.
Other folks swear by steeper drops to address over-pronation. Again, our bodies are all unique.
Take your time, make small changes in heel to toe drop, and see how it feels and affects your runs.
Factor #3: Weight.
For me, the weight of the shoe is something I pay attention to, but can’t do much about.
So as long as my shoe weight is between 8 – 10 oz, give or take a little in either direction, I won’t worry about it.
To lighten shoe weight, there must be less material on the stack or the upper (the part of the shoe covering the top of your foot). The less material on those parts of the shoe, the more work your foot has to do, with less support or stability. Your ankles have to work more as your shoe weight is reduced.
But even a half an ounce makes a difference.
Considering a marathon takes about 55,000 steps, every ounce in weight you lose dramatically lightens the punishment running a long race puts on your body.
As you run in shoes, and compare them, you will start to find what weight feels most natural to you.
Tip #1: Run with more than one pair of shoes. As you learn what you like and what shoe types works for you, add a little variety by running with more than 1 pair. Pay close attention to your feet while running. Feel if they slip in the heel, or if your toes are constricted. See if you can sense whether a particular shoe changes how or where your foot strikes the ground, or if it causes pain somewhere in your foot or leg. I keep a running journal and will note things that I really like and don’t like about a particular shoe on a particular run.
Tip #2: The general rule of thumb is that shoes last between 400 and 500 miles. This is a rule of thumb. I have a pair of shoes that is approaching 600 miles, and still has more left to give. As I put miles on a shoe, I keep an eye on its condition in a couple of places.
First, the tread on the sole of the shoe. I’m looking for uneven – or complete – wearing of the tread. You’ll also learn a lot about your footstrike by seeing what parts of the sole of the shoe wear down first:
Second, look at the collar – the portion of the shoe right behind the heel. See if there is excessive wear or tears in the material. As this part of the shoe goes, so does its ability to stay in place on your foot, which tends to cause blisters for me on the bottom of my heel and between my toes.
Third, look at the inside cushion – the more wear there is, the more blisters you will develop, and the less comfortable your run will be.
Tip #3: I like to have 3 – 4 pairs of shoes in rotation at any given time. I typically buy a new pair every 100-150 miles or so, and rotate the shoes that I wear. This helps to reduce wear on a particular shoe, and stretches their life a little bit. But running shoes can get expensive, so my ability to do this depends on whether or not I have extra cash to buy another pair. To keep the cost down, I buy models that are a couple years old, since I can usually find them for 40-50% of the price. I use RunRepeat.com to research the shoes and read reviews, but I ultimately buy on Amazon or at a local running store, the two places I typically find the best prices.
Tip #4: If your shoes get wet – from rain or sweat – don’t put them in the dryer. Put newspaper in the shoes and let the newspaper suck out the moisture. The dryer will destroy the shoes form and support in the upper and the collar.
That’s a lot about running shoes, but I hope it helped you narrow your focus on features to consider when researching what running shoes work for you.
Over time, you will continuously narrow the funnel and shoe shopping will become easier and easier.
Let me know in the comments below if you have any questions or if you have any shoe selection or maintenance tips.