If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you probably realize that I have a bit of a running shoe problem. Not only do I own a lot of running shoes (part of my collection can be seen in the picture to the left), but I actually manage to run in most of them regularly, and I’ve developed a strong interest in footwear design from performance and injury prevention standpoints (mainly due to my professional interests in anatomy and biomechanics). I’m still far from being an expert on shoes, but I’ve learned a lot over the past year, and have found reading and writing about shoe design to be a lot of fun. However, it hasn’t always been this way.
My suspicion is that many recreational runners out there are a lot like I used to be when it comes to choosing a running shoe. Before I started running seriously I didn’t know a whole lot about shoes. Most of the time, I chose a pair based on a combination of aesthetics and price – if they looked good and were priced low, I’d put them on my feet and wear them until they died. I never reserved a pair solely for running (my shoes were always multi-purpose), I had no idea that there were such things as motion control, stability, and neutral shoes, and I wasn’t aware that things like racing flats even existed.
When I started running more seriously about 3 years ago, I followed the advice of a friend and stopped by a local running shop to get fitted for a “proper” pair of running shoes. The clerk at the store who helped me out politely asked me if I had been running solely in the shoes that I was wearing on that day (I had), and pointed out that they were trail shoes and weren’t meant to be used on roads (oops, but they looked cool!). She had me take off my shoes and run back and forth across the store, and promptly “diagnosed” me as a mild overpronator who should be wearing stability shoes. I left the store with a nice pair of Nike Air Structure Triax stability shoes, and just like that – two or three 20 foot jogs inside a running store (not even filmed!) resulted in me almost exclusively wearing stability shoes for the next two years. To be quite honest, after my “diagnosis” I was afraid that deviating from a stability shoe would result in an injury, so I was reluctant to try anything else. I suspect that this experience also is not unique.
Things began to change for me when my race times started to drop in late 2008, and I began reading that a lighter shoe could help shave of a few additional seconds from my times by making my running more efficient (less weight at the end of the leg = less energy expended). I decided to buy a pair Saucony Fastwitch 2’s, a lightweight training shoe that offered some stability (of course – didn’t want to go too crazy!), and logged PR’s in both the 5K and half-marathon in them. Regardless of whether the shoes or my improved training and conditioning deserved credit for the PR’s, I was happy with my transition into lighter-weight footwear, and haven’t turned back to traditional trainers since.
My running shoe obsession exploded early last year when I read Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall (I posted my review of Born to Run almost exactly one year ago). Reading McDougall’s book didn’t so much have the effect of making me want to throw away my shoes – rather, what Born to Run did for me was to make me think about my footwear and question why exactly I was wearing the shoes that I put on my feet. As an anatomist and evolutionary biologist who did his dissertation in an animal locomotion lab (though I studied tadpole skulls and feeding mechanics of all things!), I was familiar with many of the scientists McDougall referred to in Born to Run, and his discussion of biomechanics and the evolution of running was right up my alley.
Perhaps the most important outcome of reading Born to Run for me was that it stimulated me to begin doing my own literature research on footwear and running, to begin thinking out loud on this blog, and to begin experimenting on myself with different kinds of footwear and different running gaits. I learned a lot in a short period of time (and am still learning every day), and among the things I realized were that there is little researching showing that pronation control in a shoe accomplishes much of anything, and that there is woefully little conclusive research linking anything that we put (or don’t put) on our feet to running injuries (read this great blog post by Amby Burfoot for more on this). I bought Nike Free 3.0’s and Vibram Fivefingers KSO’s, and to my surprise was able to run in them without horrific injury. I tried running barefoot a few times, and although I’ve found that it’s not for me, I can see why some runner’s enjoy it.
Most importantly though, I’ve now realized that I can run in just about anything as long as I’m careful to take things slowly and listen to my body. Problems arise for me when I attempt to do too much too soon in a new pair of shoes. As an example, I’ve been testing out a pair of Brooks Mach 11 XC racing flats for a review I’m working on, and found that after running about 25 consecutive miles in them on mixed terrain my left forefoot and heel were getting sore. I shelved the shoes for a week, ran in my more cushioned Brooks Launch for a bit, and came back to the Mach 11’s this past week with no problem whatsoever. I had the same experience with my Vibram Fivefingers – foot pain after my first run (did too much), shelved them for a week or so then came back slowly and have had no troubles.
I’ve now come to believe that rotating shoes is the best approach for me. I tend to think that the more variation in force application that I expose my legs and feet to (via differently designed shoes), the stronger they will become, and the less likely they will be to succumb to a repetitive use injury that might result from continual exposure to the same impact forces over and over again. I think of varying footwear like going to the gym and using the weight machines to work your upper body – you don’t just use one machine every time, over and over again. Rather, you hit your body with different machines which require that different muscles (or parts of a single muscle) be activated, thus making the whole unit stronger. I still haven’t gone back to heavily cushioned, thick heeled trainers, nor do I anticipate that I ever will, but I don’t view shoes as the evil devices that some people make them out to be, and mixing it up a bit seems to be working just fine for me at this point.
So after all of this, what exactly are the things that I now look for in a shoe? I’ll finish by listing a few of the things that matter most to me:
1. Weight. First and foremost, I like a shoe to be as light as possible. I generally look for shoes that weigh less than 10oz each, with lower being better. I have several pairs that weigh in under 7oz each, and I’d have to say that this is ideal.
2. Heel-Toe Drop/Offset. My preference is for a shoe that does not have a large, cushioned heel. Heel-Toe drop/offset/differential is essentially the difference in thickness between midsole + outsole of the heel vs. the forefoot – a drop of zero would mean that when seated in the shoe, the heel and forefoot would be at exactly the same height off of the ground (check out this post on heel-toe drop for more). Most running shoes have an HT drop of around 12mm, meaning that the heel sits about 12mm higher off of the ground than the forefoot. The upshot of the HT drop value is that the lower it is, the easier it will be to land on your midfoot or forefoot while running (to see my personal experiment with heel height and footstrike, check out this post in which I filmed myself and a student of mine in slow motion while treadmill running in shoes and barefoot). I prefer shoes with as low a drop as possible, but I do like some variability so that my calves get worked in different ways in different shoes (e.g., my Brooks Launch have an HT offset of 9.5mm, my Brooks Mach 11 spikeless have an offset of 6.7mm, and my Vibram Fivefingers are pretty close to 0). If you’re curious about heel-toe offset values for a shoe, Running Warehouse publishes it for many shoes as a standard part of its shoe data (which is one of the reasons I like to support them).
3. Comfort. A shoe needs to be comfortable form me to want to run in it, so fit is very important. As an example, my Nike Lunaracers are lightweight and feel very fast, but they are a bit on the narrow side, which created problems for me while running the Hartford Marathon. On the other end, the Brooks Launch is one of the heavier shoes that I run in, and has a higher offset than most. However, it may be my most comfortable shoe, so I run in it often, particularly on longer runs.
4. Aesthetics. Yes, this still is important to me! I realize it’s one of the worst things upon which to base a shoe choice, but sometimes you simply can’t escape aesthetics. It may be mental, but I like a pair of shoes to look fast, and generally speaking, the flashier the better. If I find a shoe to be unappealing, I won’t buy it.
5. Price. I hate to say it, but price is also still important. I can’t justify spending over $100 on a pair of shoes, particularly if it it is touted to be “minimalist.” Some may disagree, but one would think that a minimalist shoe stripped of all the high-tech “features” would be cheaper, not more expensive, right? I’d put forth the Terra Plana EVO as an example of a shoe that fails both of the previous two tests for me – it’s lightweight and has a flat sole, but it’s doesn’t appeal to me aesthetically, and it is way too expensive in my opinion for a shoe that is supposedly stripped down to appeal to the minimalist market. I won’t be buying the EVO.
6. Other Factors. There are other things that figure into whether I like a shoe or not, and these include breathability, flexibility, upper construction, etc. For example, I prefer a shoe that has a breathable, minimalistic upper and a flexible sole (all three of these are exemplified by the Nike Free 3.0), though none of these factors are deal-breakers for me.
So there you have it, the evolution of my perspective on running shoes. I’d love to hear if you experience has mirrored mine!