Running shoes buying guide

How to pick the best pair of running shoes for your foot type
 
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  • Updated:10 Mar 2008
 

01 .Shoe shopping

Running shoe cross section

In brief

  • Knowing your foot type is the first step to getting the right runners.
  • Price only matters to a certain point — the most expensive shoes will simply offer you better durability compared to mid-range shoes.

The running season’s starting and this year you’re seriously considering taking up the sport in an attempt to get fit, lose weight, get more exercise — whatever. To have any hope of keeping up your motivation and seeing the season through, you’ll need a decent pair of running shoes, and you’ve never chosen a pair before. Where do you start?

Choosing the right pair of running shoes can be a frustrating (and expensive) task. When faced with a dizzying array of styles and brand names, CHOICE discovered even professional runners can find the experience overwhelming.

The good news is, with the right advice and a bit of pre-emptive ‘sole’ searching, the key to picking the perfect runners can be a few simple steps away.

Please note: this information was current as of March 2008 but is still a useful guide today.


Foot in the right door

Every time you’re running, your feet will absorb a force between two to three times your body weight. That’s the equivalent of standing on tiptoe while carrying two people your size on your shoulders. As the same force is applied 9500 times during a 10 km run, it pays to get the right footwear for injury prevention. But how do you know what’s right for you?

A good way to ensure you’re buying the right shoes is to visit a specialist running store. Staff at a running shoe store will usually offer to check your foot type (see 'One shape doesn’t fit all') and can provide advice based on your needs and budget.

Professional shoe sellers should measure the length and width of each foot, inquire about the any past or existing foot injuries, and find out the frequency and distances you’re planning to run. All these factors will affect what type of shoes you’ll need.

Plenty of stores offer free in-house analysis, matching customers to the most appropriate footwear. For example, The Athlete’s Foot has a pressure-point device that identifies where you put the most pressure on your foot throughout different phases of your step. Shoes are then recommended based on whether you have a flat, neutral or high-arched foot type — a key factor behind your running style.

But while this style of screening provides some information about loading patterns, it reveals little about the individual's actual foot motion during running.

 
 

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Melinda’s experience

Woman runningTo find out more, CHOICE invited former world sprint champion Melinda Gainsford Taylor to trial a more comprehensive screening method at Sydney’s Running Science. (For similar running stores in your state, look under 'Locations' on coolrunning.com.au.

The process, known as ‘video gait analysis’, involves filming a customer’s running motion on a treadmill and analysing their biomechanics (level of foot stability) through a replay of the footage. You can get an in-depth analysis of your running style at a sports podiatrist, but stores like Running Science provides a simpler version of the service for free.

To begin, Melinda was asked to jog on the store’s treadmill for approximately five minutes, during which her running style was filmed.

From the video footage, store manager Brent Harris determined she has a neutral foot type, but has a slight tendency to overpronate (her foot rolls in slightly too much when running).

Three pairs of running shoes were then selected, based on what’s structurally suitable for her. They were mid-range ‘stability’ models (see 'One shape doesn’t fit all' for more on this) from Asics, Brooks and New Balance, all retailing for between $170 and $200.

If the shoe fits…

To make a final decision, Melinda was asked to jog on the treadmill in each pair and decide which ones felt most comfortable. While she thought all three pairs had a good cushioning system and provided stability when she ran, she had a clear preference when it came to overall comfort and fit.

“The Asics fitted like a glove and were extremely comfortable. They completely moulded my foot,” Melinda said. “The Brooks were a bit firmer, and because New Balance was a wider shoe, there was more movement in the shoe than the other two.”

While Brent thought the Brooks put Melinda’s feet in the most neutral alignment, Melinda preferred the Asics shoes. As all the shoes selected for Melinda were structurally suitable, the decision came down to what felt best for the runner.

“There are things that a third person can’t tell,” said Brent, “For example, the feel of the upper around the foot or the smoothness of the ride.”

He recommends what many people would feel intuitively: when you’re choosing between shoes that are structurally suitable for your feet and have a similar price and features, go with the brand that feels best on your feet.

Expert’s verdict

Associate Professor Dr Aron Murphy from UTS’s School of Leisure, Sport and Tourism examined the three shoes we picked for Melinda and found a very similar level of quality at this mid-price point. The major differences were in some of the features offered by each brand.

For example, the New Balance shoe has the brand’s top-range foam in the heel and forefoot (area between the arch and toes), made with a mix of three different rubbers. There’s also a spongy surface underneath the insert, designed to increase comfort and decrease impact — a feature the other shoes don’t have.

On the other hand, Dr Murphy noted the Asics shoe had an excellent heel-to-toe transition (smoothness of the forward rolling motion of your foot as you run) which he attributed in part to the company’s Impact Guidance System and the forefoot design.

And the standout feature of the Brooks shoe is its full-length midsole (the protective foam layer and cushioning between the outer sole and the upper material) and a ‘Progessive Diagonal Rollbar’, which serves to control excessive inward roll of the foot.

Functions of a shoe

Running shoes are designed to perform two main functions:

  • Cushion the foot
    This function is provided through the midsole of the shoes. Contrary to popular belief, running shoes don’t reduce the force that goes through the body. What they do is increase the time taken for that force to be applied to the body.
    This is important because the longer it takes for the forces to be applied to the body, the more time the body has to adapt to those forces.
  • Support the foot
    The shoes do this by reducing the amount of ‘rolling in’ or rotational movements that occur in the foot during the contact phase of running and walking. One of the most common ways to achieve this is by altering the densities in the shoe.

This is done by adding a medial post (a section inside the middle or arch section of the shoe) to provide more density on the inside, which reduces the amount the foot collapses inwards.

Another way to provide stability is by altering the 'last' or the inside shape of the shoes. A straighter shoe provides extra stability for a flatter foot, while a curved last is more suitable for a higher-arched foot.

What are you paying for?

While there are notable differences between a low-end (under $80) and a mid-range ($150–$200) shoe in the way they perform and age, differences should be slight past the mid-range point.

According to sports podiatrist Caleb Wegener, durability is the most obvious difference as you move towards higher price brackets. An increase in price in most shoes is due to a greater amount of more expensive cushioning material in the midsole of the shoe.

These additional midsole components won’t improve the immediate function of the shoe, but they do improve the durability of the cushioning properties.

For example, shoes under $100 may only have basic EVA midsoles (EVA is foam cells containing air or gas), which tend to wear out fairly rapidly after purchase, while most shoes over $100 will have proprietary cushioning technology (such as Nike Air, Asics Gel or New Balance Abzorb).

Regardless of the technology, in the mid-price range ($150-$200) you can expect good durability with top-range cushioning, performance and overall quality.

A high-end shoe ($200 plus) will keep that ‘new shoe’ feel for longer, whereas some cheaper shoes (under $150) may only feel ‘new’ for a week or two. Other differences include bonus features like UV-protected, seamless uppers and fancy looks.

The bottom line is that paying top whack doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get the right pair of shoes for you.

Anatomy of a shoeUpper

Upper

  • The top layer of material that holds your foot to the sole.
  • The material used and the design of the upper are crucial because it can assist in keeping your foot dry and cool.
  • The upper should also be resilient and not tear during normal use.

Midsole

  • Between the outer sole and the upper material, the midsole is where the protective foam layer and cushioning is located.

Medial post

  • The section built inside the middle or the arch section of the midsole.
  • Most manufacturers make it a contrasting colour to the rest of the sole to indicate that the shoe provides additional support.
  • The bigger and harder it is, the more support it gives against over pronation (your foot rolling in). Shoes that provide the right amount of support for your feet can reduce the chance of injury recurrence by up to 20%.

Foam layer 

  • The ‘soft’ feeling you experience when you try on a pair of shoes depends on the quality of the top layer of foam.
  • Most foam layers are made of EVA, which is hundreds or thousands of foam cells that contain air or gas.

Cushioning

  • Located in the mid-sole under the foam layer, this is the patented technology that provides cushioning and improves the shoe’s durability.
    It could be a liquid gel, grid or wave plate, depending on the brand.

Heel counter

  • The internal ‘cup’ that wraps around your heel. It’s designed to help keep the foot stable and prevent excessive movement within the shoe.

Tongue 

  • Covers the instep of the foot, protecting it from the laces

DIY foot check

As Melinda’s experience shows, the most suitable pair of running shoes has more to do with a person’s foot type than the latest technology or the brand name.

Foot print shapesWhile a running specialist can help identify your running style, it’s also well worth understanding your personal biomechanics, so you can filter through marketing jargon and find the right features yourself.

To do this, you have to find out whether you’re a neutral runner, an overpronator or an underpronator. This will determine what category of shoes you need.

For a bit of DIY foot assessment, you can check your wet footprints to discover your foot type. This image shows, from left to right: neutral foot, flat foot, high arch.

You can also get an idea by looking at the wear pattern on your current pair of running shoes (see descriptions below).

Overpronation

About 75% of the population fits in this category. In running terms, feet that rotate inward too much are said to overpronate. Down the track, this can lead to several running-related overuse injuries, including strain on ankles, knees and hips.

A likely sign of overpronation is excessive wear on the inside edge of the soles of your shoes. Your wet footprints may also tend towards the flat type, showing a print of the whole sole of the foot.

Depending on the degree to which you overpronate, you’ll need either 'stability' or 'motion-control' shoes. Stability shoes are good for mild overpronators. They have a small medial post and generally a curved last.

Motion-control shoes are designed to correct more severe overpronation. They’re typically heavier and have a hard post on the inside rear section of the shoe. This prevents the inner part of the shoe from collapsing in and slows the rate of overpronation.

If you’re an overpronator but wear shoes designed for a neutral runner, excessive wear is likely to be a problem, as well as the risk of injury.

Underpronation

If your feet don’t roll inwards enough, less shock is dispersed on heel strike and it can increase the amount of force through the legs. People who underpronate tend to show excessive wear on the outside edge of the soles of their shoes. Thier wet footprints may also tend towards the high-arched type. They need neutral shoes with ample cushioning, to compensate for reduced shock absorption.

Neutral

If you’ve got a normal footprint, 'neutral' or 'stability' shoes are probably best for you. Avoid motion-control shoes designed to control severe overpronation, as there’s an added risk of injury.
Over or underpronation diagram
Graphic by Cynthia Nge

Generally speaking, a good shoe will last for approximately 900 to 1100km of running, depending on the intensity of your training.

In most cases, the midsole will wear out long before the outer sole, losing its protective cushioning properties. When that happens, you may notice new aches or blistering in your legs and feet, or start to feel the irregularities of the ground under your feet.

One way to check for remaining shoe life is to hold each end of the shoe your hands and twist it in opposite directions. If the shoe twists easily, it might be a sign that it’s lost its stability, and it’s time to replace your favourite runners.

CHOICE verdict

  • Foot type It’s important to understand your foot type in order to pick the right pair of running shoes. You can do this most accurately by visiting a podiatrist or a specialist running store. To locate the closest running store in your area, go to coolrunning.com.au.
  • 'The best' pair of shoes This depends on your foot shape and running style. What works for someone else won’t necessarily work for you.
  • Comfort Shoes should feel immediately comfortable and require no wearing in. There should be at least 1 to 1.5cm at the end of the shoe, and it should feel snug without being too tight.
  • Price Most mid-range running shoes ($150 to $200) will provide you with excellent stability and cushioning properties. The biggest difference you get by investing in a more expensive shoe is extra durability.
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