Minimalism and arch analysis are out — here's the best way to buy running shoes now.
Choosing the right running shoe has never been easy. There are so many shoe companies and so many models, each touting various high-tech features. How is a buyer supposed to make the smartest choice?
Fortunately — almost amazingly — many experts believe shoe-buying is getting simpler. You don’t need a computer algorithm. You’ll probably fare best by trusting your sense of feel.
A few years ago, “minimalist shoes,” designed to mimic barefoot running, were all the rage. The theory might have been good, but the results weren’t. “To borrow from Winston Churchill, never has so much damage been done to so many by such little shoes,” Washington podiatrist Stephen Pribut says.
In particular, many runners suffered forefoot pains and sometimes stress fractures because of the lack of cushioning. Others complained of calf strains and Achilles tendinitis.
A backlash followed quickly, and so did a new approach among shoe companies. As they brought back thick cushioning, they also abandoned bulky devices intended to increase motion control. “As a sort of minimalist legacy, many manufacturers stripped unnecessary extra bits out of their shoes, making them lighter and simpler,” says Jeff Dengate, shoe expert and runner-in-chief at Runner’s World magazine.
Of course, cushioning can’t eliminate all running injuries. Nor, it turns out, can buying shoes based on the height of your arches. If you have flat feet, your feet are assumed to “overpronate,” or roll inward, and, in the past, you were supposed to buy rigid shoes. If you have high arches, you were supposed to buy a shoe with extra cushioning and support.
But when Marine Corps medical staff conducted a randomized, controlled trial of this theory, they concluded that it “had little influence on injuries.”
“The foot is going to move the way it prefers to move, regardless of the shoe,” says Clearwater, Florida, running podiatrist Brian Fullem, author of “The Runner’s Guide to Healthy Feet and Ankles.”
This means runners who are used to buying shoes based on the height of their arches or pronation tendency need a new strategy.
Instead, do this
That new strategy? Try on lots of shoes, including brands and models you might not have considered in the past. Veteran Canadian biomechanics researcher Benno Nigg says that the best running shoes are the ones that feel best when you lace them up and give them a spin.
“Comfort is hard to quantify,” he says, “but everyone knows it when they feel it. And comfort is associated with performance, injuries, muscle activity and other biomechanical, physiological and/or psychological factors.”
Although some factors have changed, many essential shoe-selection tips remain the same. The following list comes from the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine and the experts interviewed for this article. Regard the tips as tried-and-true essentials.
1. Buy at a store. You might save $10 to $20 online, but the in-store fitting process is so central to a running-shoe purchase that you can’t put a price on it.
2. Try on shoes in the late afternoon or early evening, because your feet swell during the day (and when you run).
3. Wear the same wicking socks you wear while running. Also wear any regularly used shoe inserts or orthotics.
4. Pay careful attention to both feet: They’re slightly different sizes, move differently and receive different amounts of force.
5. Avoid shoes that are too short. Select a pair with a finger’s width of space between your toes and the front of the shoes.
6. Jog around in the store or on a nearby sidewalk. You can’t judge running shoes by walking.
7. Buy the simplest, least gimmicky shoe that feels good and works well. That doesn’t mean the lightest or most minimal, but it does mean avoiding excessive weight and unnecessary doodads. Also, there’s no evidence that expensive shoes are better for you.
“With the right shoes,” says Jonathan Beverly, the head shoe tester at Running Times magazine, “you land where you’re supposed to land, the shoes bend where they’re supposed to bend, the cushioning feels good without slowing your stride, the support is neither too much nor too little, and you push off smoothly and strongly.”
You likely won’t find this shoe quickly. “If you try on several different pairs of shoes you might be surprised to discover a new shoe that you’ll love,” Dengate says.
Once you’ve fallen in love, break in your purchase gradually; even if the shoes feel great at the store, you should never race in a new pair. Finally, keep track of your miles run in the shoes. When you reach 300 to 500 miles, start searching for your next pair. It’s better to buy sooner than to risk injury, time off and potentially expensive medical visits.
Burfoot is a member of the Running Hall of Fame. His most recent book is “Run Forever: Your Complete Guide to Healthy Lifetime Running.”