Monday, February 7, 2011

How to Buy Running Shoes

I'm surprised by how often people ask "What is the best running shoe?" and "Would this shoe be a good one for me?"

Clearly, there are lots of people who don't know how to figure out which shoe is 'best' for their own feet!

I have a very simple system I rely upon:

Rule #1: The 'best' running shoe is the one that feels best when you run in it.

There is no rule #2.

So go shoe shopping with fresh legs. Try on literally dozens of shoes over several trips. Run 1/4 mile in the most promising of them. Some will be obvious losers in just a few strides. The few that are best for you and your feet will soon be clear.

Then, do a 'mixed' comparison: Try one of one shoe on one foot, and one of another shoe on the other foot. Do a short run. Then switch. After doing this with all the final candidates, the best pair should become clear.

Shoe width is an issue for many of us.  Some shoes come in more than one width, and some run narrow or wide.  Be sure to ask about available widths.  Importantly, don't fear the 'gender line': Women with wide feet can do better in men's shoes, and men with narrow feet can do better in women's shoes. It's just a shoe, not a statement of gender identity. It's about your feet.

Color and style don't matter unless there's a tie. Pretty shoes can make for some ugly running. Then again, when the best shoes for your feet are also the best looking, it can sometimes feel as if destiny has intervened. Me, I tend to find that the shoes that make my feet feel wonderful suddenly become better looking.

Remember Rule #1 above! If they don't feel good when you take a short run in them, they aren't the right shoes for you. The stories about needing to 'break-in' running shoes I believe are actually stories of people who bought the wrong shoe and eventually adapted to it. To me, that's bass-ackwards: Buy running shoes that feel great, then replace them when they wear out or don't feel so good.

Sure, listen to the shoe salespeople and try on what they recommend. Nod politely when they describe the latest technology. Let them do whatever measurements they want. Who knows, you may learn something from all of it. But be sure you listen closest of all to your own two feet, and don't stop shopping until they're happy!

There are some other things to keep in mind when trying shoes:

A. If a shoe feels too tight or too loose, be sure it's not the lacing. Take the time to adjust an 'almost OK' shoe once or twice before rejecting it.

B. Socks are also a factor: The best solution may be this sock with that shoe. So bring a variety of your own socks with you, and be willing to try others in the store. With my narrow, flat feet, some of my shoes need thicker socks, some thinner, depending on the width of the shoe. It's about making your feet happy.

C. Replacing the insole can make a difference, especially when NO shoe feels 'best' to you. Years ago I found one pair of shoes that were 'almost right' until I tried some SuperFeet in them, after which they were 'just right'.  For me, this was yet another way to make a wide shoe fit my narrow foot. If you use orthotics, don't assume an orthotic that's good for walking will be good for running: Try shoes with and without your orthotics.

D. While you can test shoes on a treadmill, the final decision should be made only after running outside. Unless, of course, you are buying shoes only for running on treadmills.

Taking the time to do shoe shopping right has several advantages. Not only will you be sure to get the right shoes, but you will also learn one heck of a lot about your own feet, which will make future shoe expeditions faster and easier.

While the above process has proven itself to work for me, it gets much more complex when you are also trying to change your running gait. I have completely overhauled my gait twice in the past two and a half years, and each major change required different shoes to make the new gait work. For me, my problem was pain almost everywhere: I needed to minimize impact to my heels, knees, hips and also the shock transmitted to my spine. Over the past year, as I developed my current gait (forefoot strike with high cadence, shorter stride length, moderate push, and strong arm swing), I have bought five pairs of running shoes!

It was only at the very end of last year that I finally found my 'best-ever' running shoes. They are so comfortable I call them my "Running Slippers". Together with my new gait, these shoes help the miles melt away pain-free.

The odd thing is, this shoe was not carried by any of the 'very best' running shoe stores I visited, including all the TCSD Sponsor shoe stores! I only found it by accident, while shopping in an outlet mall after Christmas. I've heard stories from other runners who found their ideal shoe in WalMart or Target or Big5. I've also had success at Nordstrom Rack.

My current 'best-ever' running shoes cost only $50, including tax! I love my current shoes so much I went back and bought a second pair, just in case they stop making them before I find something better. For comparison, the shoes I bought two and a half years ago cost over $150, for both the shoes and the SuperFeet needed to make them fit.

Try everything you can get your hands on (well, that you can get your feet into): Your ideal road running shoe could be in a high-end store, a discount store, or somewhere in-between. You'll never know until you try.

My legs will tell you it has been well worth the effort! And I haven't stopped shopping yet.

I wanted to mention one other thing about my stride and shoes: When I transitioned to a forefoot strike, suddenly the structure of the shoe didn't matter at all. So the weight of my running shoe has dropped drastically. My Mizuno Wave Creations with the SuperFeet weighed over 16 oz, that's over one pound, per shoe! My 'best-ever' shoes weigh barely 6 ounces each. And my racing flats are only about 4 ounces each.

With all that weight off my feet, I got faster without trying, since I was doing less work with each step.

Your shoes exist to support your stride: Change your stride, you'll probably need to change your shoes too.

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