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As a runner, what should you know about shoes?

By Aaron Jackson, Podiatrist

How do you pick the best shoe?

Over the years researchers have spent a lot of time trying to figure this out. A major problem with this question is that the ‘best’ shoe is a subjective title. Ultimately, it comes down to your individual foot type and objectives. However, there are key things that you might like to keep in mind. There are four primary paradigms that have been applied to choosing the right shoe, each of which we can learn from. These are:

  1. Pronation control: Stemming from the ’70s, this idea was that if we can stop your foot pronating, we can improve the alignment of your leg, and reduce injuries. The problem is that shoes are not able to stop pronation as effectively as we once thought. Additionally, we now recognise that pronation isn’t always a problem. Unfortunately, there is also a common misconception that ‘flat feet’ require pronation control. Arch height is not a good indicator of your need for a motion control shoe. The primary benefit of pronation control footwear is in its ability to manage your foot when fatigued. So, if you are the type of runner that has niggles and issues arising towards the end of your long runs, suspect that your injuries are fatigue-related, or excessively wear down the medial aspect of your shoes… this feature may be beneficial to you. 
  2. Impact management: The second idea of how to prescribe footwear relates to the management of forces involved with running. When we run our body is exposed to a significant amount of forces from hitting the ground repetitively, mile after mile, for an extended period of time. The idea associated with this school of thought is particularly focused on how quickly load is applied to our bodies and attempting to slow this down. Listening to yourself is one way to gauge if this may be helpful for you. If you are someone that hits the ground loudly when running, you may want to consider shoes that will help to manage this. There are more technical ways to assess this but when you’re out running on your own, have a listen and you may get some clues. 
  3. Comfort: Whilst this sounds obvious, comfort has only been discussed in scientific literature since about 2015. If a shoe is not comfortable it will increase the monotony of how you are moving. Considering that most running injuries are already related to it being a monotonous sport, we hardly want to exaggerate that. So, make sure you try on shoes, if possible, do a little bit of running at the shoe store and see what feels good on your foot.
  4. Performance: Shoes which aim to improve performance are generally lighter weight and/or stiffer in the ball of the foot. This forefoot stiffness aims to increase leverage and allow you to maximise power when pushing off. The catch with these characteristics is that lightweight shoes can increase your risk of certain injuries, and stiffness is only useful if your calf is strong enough to get the benefit from it. The takeaway here is that if you are looking at stiff shoes, find a shoe that is suitable for you, this will depend on your pace. If you are going for something really lightweight, mix it up and use this on your faster runs. On other days you may want to stick to your ‘normal’ shoe.

So, how do you pick the ‘best’ shoe…

Firstly, I would say that finding the right shoe is much easier when you go to a store that has a good understanding of the shoes they stock and is able to assess your individual needs. Beyond that, find a shoe that is comfortable, only you can tell this and you simply need to try them on. Within the scope of what is comfortable, look for something that is a little softer if you are a loud runner, or perhaps has some medial support (pronation control) if you have fatigue-related concerns. If you are looking for a shoe to run fast in, consider having multiple pairs, a performance option, as well as a more typical option.

Some people say that you need multiple shoes, is this true and what is the point?

I would argue, yes. The reason for this is variation. Running-related injuries are (in most cases) caused due to the repetitive loading that comes from doing the same thing (running) for so many kilometres. Mixing things up is an excellent way to help minimise your risk of injury. Alternating your training runs, your surfaces (road, trail, etc) AND your footwear, are all good ideas. 

If you have always run in the same shoe and it seems to be working, why change?

Keep an open mind when you go to the shoe store. Technology has moved a long way in the world of footwear, and it continues to shift rapidly. If you generally buy shoes online and just get a repeat of the same model every time, you may be missing some new and even better options that have been developed. Go into a technical shoe retailer next time you are in need of a pair and find out what the options are. You may be surprised.

What is the deal with carbon-plated “super shoes”?

As discussed above, the idea of a carbon-plated shoe is to make the forefoot stiff and maximise power at push-off whilst reducing the workload of your toes. We are all probably familiar with Nike’s offering in this space. Watching Eliud Kipchoge break 2 hours for the marathon was incredible and has really given this technology a boost. 

These shoes are excellent if applied correctly. The thing that you need to watch out for is that not all carbon-plated shoes are created equally. Some are stiffer than others, this is good as it allows you a greater choice to get something that works for you. Basically, the stiffer the shoe, the faster you need to be running to get the benefit from it. Performance should not be reserved for the elite and there are plenty of options for stiff-plated shoes even if you’re not attempting to run world records. If you are more of a mid-pack runner and want to look into this, perhaps consider a shoe that is not quite as stiff as this will allow you to move through it with enough momentum and will maximise the performance effects that you get out.

When should you replace your shoes?

The industry standard answer to this question is around 800-1,000km. To break this down, if you run 20km per week, this is a year. 40km per week is 6 months, and so on. If you run between multiple shoes this is a little more complicated to track. If you run with a GPS watch and use Garmin Connect, Strava, or anything similar, you will be able to record shoe mileage on there. This is a very useful tool as you can upload your shoe details and then when you complete a run, tag the appropriate shoe, and this will keep track of mileage.

For a more general way to tell if your shoes are worn out look at the following things:

  1. The rubber on the bottom – although if you can see through this (down to the white bit), unfortunately, the shoes were probably due for replacement a while ago!
  2. Creases in the foam – have a look at the midsole (the big foamy bit) and particularly on the big toe side of the shoe. If you see creases running horizontally, this may indicate excessive compression in the shoe that is no longer bouncing back.
  3. The flex of the ball of the foot – This one is hard to tell unless you have a new shoe to compare it to, but if you can press your thumb easily into the ball of the foot, it may be worn out. 

So, what does this all mean? Shoes can make a big difference to our running (performance as well as the likelihood of injury), this can be positive or negative. The best shoe is going to be an individual choice, not necessarily the same as your mate who recently bought X shoe. Spend some time finding out what is best for you and what you are trying to achieve. Go to a shoe store that is able to help, and if you are having difficulty finding the right shoe or if injuries are persisting, consider seeing a Podiatrist.

If you have been suffering from injuries and want to speak to Aaron about your footwear then book in at Auckland Physiotherapy now. Call 093664480 or email [email protected].

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