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Beginning Runner Tips: Choosing A Running Shoe

Saucony Kinvara 5Tonight I’ll be meeting for the first time with my Spring 2014 5K Yes I Can! running group. This will be the second Spring that I’ve co-coached a beginner running group, and last year I had an absolute blast doing it. There’s nothing quite as rewarding as helping people develop a running routine, and I get a little rush every time I see one of our 2013 alums out on the road these days (I ran into one of them in a park on a frigid day this winter, she was running as well, made my week!).

One of the first questions we got last year, and one that I anticipate getting tonight, is what to do about running shoes?

I make running shoe recommendations almost every day either to clients in the clinic, or via email/Facebook/Twitter to readers of this blog. I can usually come up with some good options for an experienced runner – they’ve got some running footwear history to work off of, and I can ask lots of questions about their injury history and what they do and do not like about their current shoe(s). Making a shoe recommendation is a lot harder for a new runner, so I typically refrain from making specific suggestions, and instead go through some general advice. I thought I’d share some tips here.

10 Tips For Choosing a First Running Shoe

1. Go to a running specialty store. It’s very difficult for anyone to tell you exactly which shoe is best for you if you don’t have a lot of history with running or running footwear. As such, I recommend going to a local running store with experienced and knowledgeable staff who can help you out. And by local running store I mean a running specialty store, not a shoe shop in the mall or a big box sporting goods store. You want to work with people who know runners and who know running shoes.

2. Try a variety of shoes. There are tons of options out there for running shoes, and they span the gamut from shoes with no cushion at all to monstrously cushioned shoes that look like Frankenstein boots. I recommend trying a range of shoes from lighter, more flexible models to more heavily cushioned models. Try shoes from different brands. A good store will let you take shoes for a short run on a treadmill or around the block (better) – take advantage of this! The shoe you want is the one that feels most comfortable when you are running in it, not the one that feels best while you are standing still.

3. Get the right size for your feet. Last year we had a woman in our group whose toes looked like they were going to burst out of the front of her shoes. After a few weeks we took her aside and suggested she get fitted for a pair in a larger size, and it made a world of difference for her level of comfort. Similarly, I recently discovered that for years my wife has been wearing shoes that are too small for her – she has now moved up a half to a full size in all of her running shoes. Don’t be vain about your shoe size, and don’t be afraid to size up in a running shoe if it’s warranted! I generally recommend aiming for about a thumb’s width of space between your longest toe and the tip of the shoe. Let the store you go to fit you, don’t just ask for the size you always wear in your work or casual shoes. Your feet will thank you!

4. Pay attention to shoe width. We all know that shoes come in different lengths, but width matters as well. You can buy some shoes in widths, but be aware also that shoe width can vary from brand to brand, and even among models within a brand. You should aim for a shoe that fits snug but comfortably through the heel and midfoot, and that does not squeeze your foot excessively in the forefoot (forefoot width probably varies the most among shoes). My width test is whether a shoe pushes my big toe excessively inward into the second toe – if it does, then it’s too narrow (or I need a larger size). Another good test is the toe wiggle – if you can comfortable wiggle your toes up and down and spread your big toe out a bit to the side, you should be good to go.

5. Things to think about when you take a shoe for a test drive. As mentioned above, your best bet when looking for a shoe is to take a few models out for short runs. Think about things like how firm the sole is (some people like softer, some like firmer), how flexible the shoe is, if you feel any abrasion/rubbing inside the shoe or at the back of the heel (which could be a trigger for a blister down the road). The ideal shoe is one that you barely notice – if it’s comfortable and it disappears on your feet, then it’s likely a good match for you.

6. Expensive does not necessarily mean better. Shoes are getting more expensive every day, and there are some models out there priced at upwards of $200. Recognize that more expensive does not necessarily mean better, and if you feel like you are being pressured to buy the most expensive shoe on the wall then you may not be in the best store. Most of my favorite shoes are priced at about $110 or lower, and there are some excellent shoes that can be purchased for much less. No need to break the bank on your first running shoe.

7. Arch height and pronation – don’t fall for scare tactics. For a long time arch height and pronation were considered to be among the most important factors in matching a runner to a shoe. Some stores still use this method, and many footwear brand webpages do as well. A store in my town still has one of those fancy machines that scans your arches and spits out shoe recommendations (neutral, stability, motion control) based on the result. The problem with this approach is that there was never any strong scientific evidence to support it, and over the past few years we have learned that it doesn’t work very well. Arch height and pronation can be part of the fitting process, but they should not be the foundation, and if you are told you need a certain shoe to control your pronation, be wary. Pronation is a completely normal movement, and sometimes letting the foot move the way it wants to move is better than trying to control it (there are times when pronation control may be of some benefit, but I generally only consider it if there is an injury that might be linked to excessive pronation). Once again, let comfort be your guide, how a shoe feels on the run is more important than the pronation “category” you are supposedly assigned to.

8. Consider waiting before buying a new shoe. Most of the runners that came to our group last year owned a running shoe already that they used casually. Rather than rushing out to get a new shoe before you start, consider doing a few runs in the shoe you have so you can get a sense of what you do and don’t like about it. This is valuable information for anyone who helps fit you in a new shoe. The more evidence we have to work with, the easier it is to make a shoe recommendation. In fact, tonight I’ll likely suggest this to the group – do a few runs in the shoe you have, let me know what you like/don’t like, then I can make some suggestions and send you to our local running store.

9. Be wary of high-priced insoles. Some stores will try to sell you premium insoles/inserts with your shoes. There may be times when some type of off-the-shelf insole is warranted, but I recommend holding off until you have a good reason to buy an insert, or a medical professional recommends that you get one for a specific pathology. Some stores make good money off selling insoles, but they are not necessarily something that you need in order to be able to run.

10. Recognize that finding the right shoe may be a journey. We had runners last year who went through 2-3 different pairs of shoes before finding a good match. The reality is that it’s hard to know what will be the best match for you until you get some miles under your belt. Sometimes the shoe you like on day one starts to feel off as you get stronger and faster. Your body is going to change a lot as you start to run – you will build muscle, strengthen bones, ligaments, and tendons, and maybe even shed a few pounds. These changes are great, and they are what most people who start running are looking for. But, these changes can make matching the right shoe to you challenging, and you should be prepared to adapt your footwear to your changing body if it’s warranted. As you progress, there may even be some benefit to rotating several pairs of shoes. It may cost a bit of money, but you can have fun with it, and lightly worn shoes can always be sold on Ebay or donated to a good cause (and some stores will take returns of lightly worn shoes for store credit).

If you have any tips you’d add to this list, feel free to leave a comment!

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About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.

Comments

  1. George Lin says:

    I’d also add that if you do go to a running specialty store and opt for a gait analysis or similar process, don’t be afraid of shoes that are not of your recommended type. If you are told you need stability shoes, don’t be afraid to try out a few in the neutral, lightweight or other categories.

  2. If you’re a woman who needs a sports bra, make sure you’re wearing it if you want to test the shoes on the treadmill!

    Seconding the advice to remember that you have a foot size, not a shoe size. The first running store I went to was great with that — they just brought out the shoe and didn’t mention the size until after I had tried it on. Somewhat paternalistic, but there’s a lot of pressure on women to be dainty with tiny feet, and I expect they heard a lot of “but I can’t be a size n+1!”

    Once you have a shoe you like, you can save money by looking for clearance models, either online, or by talking to the running store. My local store has the newest models on display, but will usually have the previous model in the back and they’ll sell it for 40-50% off — if you know enough to ask them to check!

  3. Thank you for this! I will point some of my newer runners to this post!

  4. 1. Read comments on Runbolgger.

  5. Pete,

    Not a new runner myself (quite the opposite), but how would you best describe to someone the difference between trying out something defined as more of a trainer vs neutral/flat? I used to run in Kinvara’s (until gen3), and now I run in mainly 0mm shoes, Virrata’s, GoRun, A5′s, etc… I feel like any of those shoes would be fine for a 13.1, but as I work with a lot of newer runners, I can never really tell them what to look for if they’re going couch to 5K, or 5K to Marathon. For someone who isn’t used to zero drop, would someone be better in shoe with some support, even if it’s not pronation control?

    • Tough call. If I had to be pushed for a rec for a C25K runner I’d probably go with a lightweight trainer of some sort. Kinvara/Mirage, PureProject, NB 8909, Mizuno Rider/Sayonara. I’d aim for middle of the road, then adjust up or down as needed. But, I prefer to just have people go to a LRS and try a few things out and pick what feels best. One thing to keep in mind with beginners is that speed is not as big an issue, and we use a very gradual walk run progression so impact may not be as big a concern. Having a bit less shoe might encourage better form habits going forward.

  6. Good post, Pete. Solid, balanced advice. ACSM should have had you write their shoe recommendations article instead of the one they just put out…more evidence based, and since it avoids absolutes and takes the individual into account, should work for more people.

    • That was what I did not like about the ACSM statement – not strongly evidence based. For a publication by an academic society, they should have been more rigorous.

  7. Nelson Barrios says:

    Does the the “space for a thumb” rule apply to the race day racing flat as well? I’ve heard with trainers you should go a half size up, and for race shoes, you go actual size.

    • I can tolerate a tighter fit in a racing flat for maybe a 5K, but even in such shoes I tend to look for a thumb’s width. Really comes down to preference I think.

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