Q&A: How to Find the Right Pair of Running Shoes
Finding and running in the right running shoe can make or break your training cycle. Shoe wear is a very hot topic, as there are many different brands, types, and fads that come in and out of the running community.
When you’re looking into getting the right running shoes, it’s helpful to understand the gait cycle of running and foot mechanics. Here’s an example of the gait cycle of the right foot:
- Initial contact begins when the right heel makes contact with the ground. At this point, the outside of the right heel strikes the ground and is in a supinated position. A supinated foot position is a more rigid foot.
- As weight is transferred over the foot, the foot will pronate in order to absorb force. Pronation is a normal part of the gait cycle.
- As you go to push off, the foot will re-supinate in order to be a rigid lever to propel you forward. Let’s not forget that the body is made up of a series of joints or links that make up the kinetic chain. Because these links are connected, what happens at the foot can affect what happens higher up in the chain and vice versa.
- In a closed kinetic chain (foot on the ground), supination of the foot results in calcaneal inversion, tibial external rotation and hip external rotation, while foot pronation leads to calcaneal eversion, tibial internal rotation, and hip internal rotation.
Problems and injuries arise when there is a disruption in normal foot mechanics. Some runners have a rigid or supinated foot, and don’t get into pronation during load acceptance.
On the other hand, some runners pronate too soon, too long, or too late. Each of these results in a disruption up the kinetic chain, and can lead to overuse injuries to the muscles and tissues of the foot, lower leg, upper leg, and hip. This is because those muscles are working harder to control the limb in the weight bearing or loaded position.
Types of Running Shoes
The right pair of running shoes can help you adjust and compensate for these issues, so finding the appropriate pair for you and your running mechanics is important.
There are many types of running shoes, including neutral, stability, motion control, and minimalist:
The neutral shoe is for the runner who has a more rigid foot and does not overpronate. This type of shoe is also appropriate for someone who is using orthotics. Since most orthotics are meant to control motion, you want a neutral shoe and not a motion control shoe, as that would create a double correction.
A stability shoe has added stability segments to help control pronation, while a motion control shoe has even more stability segments.
A minimalist shoe is typically not bulky and has a 0mm drop. The drop is the difference between the heel of the shoe and the front of the shoe.
Most shoes have an 8 to 12mm drop. The drop amount can be found in the description of the shoe, or on the inside of the shoe. Be careful when buying a newer model of a shoe that you have been wearing, as shoe manufacturers can change the drop of the shoe without you knowing it. If you have been in a higher drop shoe and transfer to a lower drop, it puts more pressure and added work onto the plantar fascia as well as the Achilles tendon, which is a common cause of injury in runners.
The Anatomy of a Running Shoe
The basic anatomy of running shoes is made up of the upper, midsole, and outsole:
The outsole is the bottom of the shoe, typically composed of some sort of rubber, and often has some hash marks or markings on the bottom. Those markings are important because you can look at the bottom of your shoes and see where the most wear is on the shoe, which will tell you where you are contacting the ground in your stride. It is also important to note if this is different between the right and the left shoe.
The midsole is the middle of the shoe, and is typically made of some sort of rubber or composite materials which are important for shock absorption as well as motion control. The midsole can have cushioning units for shock absorption as well as stabilizing units across the middle of the shoe for stabilization.
The heel counter is the heel or the back of the shoe. A minimalist shoe will not have a stiff heel counter, where a stability or motion control shoe will have a stiffer heel cup. The heel cup is important since your calcaneus or heel bone sits in the heel cup, and in terms of foot mechanics, whatever the rearfoot or calcaneus (heel) does, the rest of the foot will do. So someone who overpronates needs a stiffer heel counter/cup in order to catch and hold the heel, and therefore provide stability and alignment down to the rest of the foot.
The toe box is at the front of the shoe and can be narrow or wide, depending on the shoe. People with claw toes, bunions or other toe deformities will want a shoe with a wide toe box in order to accommodate their forefoot and toes.
Running shoes also come in different shapes. Those shapes are curved, semi-curved and straight. You can determine the shape of your shoe by simply turning it over and looking at the shape of the last:
A curved last is appropriate for someone who has a more rigid foot, which stays in supination, and needs a more flexible shoe.
A semi-curved last is more common, and is typical of a neutral shoe.
A straight last is typical of a motion control shoe and is typically wider due to the motion control elements of the shoe itself.
When to Switch
Shoes also undergo hysteresis, or compression, during running, and often the cushioning components of the shoe will not recover in 24 hours. If you are running the next day or doing double workouts, you should run in a different pair of shoes, since the shoe may not have recovered overnight.
Also, typically, you should change your shoes somewhere around 300 to 500 miles. However, if you notice that you are getting achy or your shoes don't feel as cushioned, then maybe it's time to get new shoes sooner than that. Some runners write the date they started running in the shoes right on the outsole to help them remember how old the shoe is.
Orthotics are important for additional motion control. I recommend getting over-the-counter orthotics before custom ones, as there is a big price difference. Many running shoe stores have a variety of over-the-counter options.
If you do use an orthotic, then you must take out the liner of your shoe, so that there is space to accommodate the orthotic. Typically you might also want to go up a half size, but it is also recommended to go up at least one shoe size compared to your normal shoes, so that your running shoe can accommodate any swelling that you might get while running.
Finding the right running shoe can take time and can be frustrating. You should try multiple brands and types, and certainly don’t purchase your shoe based on purely aesthetics or because your running partner wears them. Some specialty stores allow you to run in the shoes before buying them, which is helpful, since you can’t tell how they’ll feel during a run just by standing still or walking a little in the store. Once you find the shoe you like, buy more than one pair so that you will always have a backup. Happy Running!
About the Author
Julie Khan is a physical therapist with HSS Rehabilitation. She graduated from Columbia University with a masters and doctorate in physical therapy and has her Board Certification in Sports Physical Therapy. Her clinical interests include post-surgical sports-related injuries and running mechanics. An avid runner herself, Julie enjoys rehabilitating runners and helping them get back to their sports safely and even stronger than before. She is a USATF Level 1 Coach as well as a Road Runners Club of America certified coach. She has completed more than 20 half-marathons and eight marathons.