Three running shoe experts on the challenges of finding the right trainers for you.
If you were to set out on a 500-mile trek tomorrow, how carefully would you consider the pair of shoes you’d wear for that venture? Very carefully, we’d assume, because a shoe that doesn’t feel quite right at mile one is going to leave your feet and lower body in all kinds of trouble by mile 487.
You can expect to get at least 500 miles of use out of a pair of running shoes, often far more, which means you should put a good deal of thought into which ones you buy. Running is exceptionally good for you but does put the body under stress, and if you don’t have a comfortable pair of shoes that work well with your running style, it can really take the joy out of the sport – not to mention putting you at risk of injury.
If you’re new to running, the differences between shoes are probably far greater than you might imagine – price, cushioning, style of support, weight and much more – and spotting those differences is not easy for the untrained eye. And the fact that pretty much every shoe on the market is released with a great deal of fanfare proclaiming it to be the best ever made doesn’t make it any easier to choose between them.
To help you select your next pair of running shoes, whether they’re your first or your 50th, we spoke to men who wear them, compare them and spend thousands of hours testing them. George Anderson is a coach and founder of runningbygeorge.com, Chris Brisley is an ultra-distance runner and founder of takeachallenge.org.uk, Simon Callaway is European technical manager at Saucony, and Harrison Foster is product executive at sportsshoes.co.uk. Between them, they know a few things about buying trainers.
What’s the most common mistake people make when they’re buying running shoes?
Harrison Foster Among new runners, the most common mistake is not getting past the look of a shoe. A person may find the perfect shoe that matches their requirements, but if it doesn’t go with their kit they will look for a compromise.
George Anderson Believing that price is an indication of quality. Instinct tells us to believe this, but a top-of-the-range motion-control shoe could be a fast track to injury if you actually need something more cushioned. It’s also often a mistake to buy the same model as you are replacing on the basis that “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. This strategy often will work in your favour – but brands have been known to tweak their models as they launch new versions, and the new version might not fit you as you expect. Check the reviews to see if there have been any major updates since you last bought a pair.
Simon Callaway Getting them from a generic sports shop. A running shoe is very specifically designed for running and different products suit different runners. Go to a specialist store, where you’ll be watched in motion to assess the best shoes for you. Other mistakes are buying the wrong size. A running shoe has to allow for the foot to expand when exercising as the blood flow increases and the foot increases in size. Finally, many runners listen to their friends too much. Just because a brand or shoe suit their foot it does not mean that it will suit yours.
Chris Brisley Much of the decision-making process in choosing a shoe hasn’t changed in the past 20 years – retail staff will usually use a series of questions, like how experienced you are, what your expected weekly mileage is, what kind of terrain you’ll be covering and so on. The main difference is that specialist outlets now offer the sort of “gait analysis” in the stores that was previously only available to elite athletes, involving bio-mechanical analysis.
What’s the most important thing to look for?
CB It depends on your budget. If you’ve got plenty of cash lying around, find a running lab that provides a proactive service, one you can return to and tweak your running, really learn how to run safely and enjoyably. But if not, visit your local running shop, speak to the sales rep about buying a comfortable pair of neutral running shoes you can afford and take it easy. Build gently, listen to your body and treat it with respect. If you don’t already know how to run forefoot [striking the ground with the front part of the foot first], don’t dive into minimalist shoes, running is about progression and enjoying the process.
SC The most important thing in a running shoe is the fit and feel. Each brand will fit slightly differently and even within a brand, each shoe will fit slightly differently. The best shoe is the shoe that fits so well you cannot feel it. When buying a running shoe it’s also important to have cushioning, not just in the heel but the forefoot too if you are increasing your distance.
GA It’s the fit. It’s always best to play safe and try them on before you buy.
HF Finding a shoe that matches your requirements. Make a list of what you are looking for, along the lines of “I am running on road, I overpronate [rolling the foot inwards as it strikes the ground], I am doing 50+ kilometres a week”. In that instance you would need a well-cushioned support shoe. Once you have found a shoe/brand you like, it’s best to stick to that brand as they suit your foot and you are familiar with the fit.
How important is a good salesperson?
CB It’s only important if you don’t know anything about running. I recommend a neutral shoe from the outset, which should make it a much simpler process. But a passionate and knowledgeable salesperson is always going to make the process of making the right choice more enjoyable.
GA It really is worth speaking to a knowledgeable salesperson when buying your trainers. If you’re just upgrading you can get away with doing just the basic checks and trying on the new version, but if you’ve had an injury or a change in running technique then advice is golden. It’s not a perfect system, because nobody is going to know exactly what the best shoe for you is going to be – but an experienced runner working with trainers every day, keeping on top of latest models and their pros and cons, and with even a modicum of biomechanics and gait analysis training, is going to give you a much more refined starting point. The opportunity to have an experienced set of eyes look at the way you run and cross-reference that with their database of available trainers is priceless.
HF It certainly helps, but if you just haven’t got access to a qualified salesperson there are many tools at your disposal to help. Try the “wet footprint” test – put your foot in a bowl of water, then stand on a dark piece of paper or a manila envelope. The more you pronate, the more of your foot you’ll be able to see in the outline.
When do you need to think about replacing your shoes?
SC A pair of running shoes will last on average 350-500 miles [560-800km]. This depends on the runner’s gait, weight, technique and surface they run on – treadmill, grass, road and so on. A small runner will manage more miles than a 120kg rugby player, for example.
HF A typical running shoe will tend to last between 500-600 miles [800-965km], so a very rough guide to work by is if you are running 20-25 miles per week they will last around six months. The best way to increase longevity of footwear is to cycle a couple of pairs.
CB The manufacturers will usually quote from 300-500 miles, but I’ve run up to 1,000 miles [1,600km] in a shoe, it was a great-quality shoe and it served me well. Of course, if you don’t cut your toenails enough or don’t lace and unlace the shoes correctly you might see holes in them after a few hundred miles.
GA Brands like us to believe that we should change our trainers every 500 miles or a minimum of once a year. In reality, although the materials will degrade with miles and months, they’re still likely to be serviceable long after these milestones have passed.
Are there obvious indicators that your current pair’s on the way out?
CB There will be many factors to indicate it’s time to part with a faithful pair of running shoes. The upper of the shoe is no longer supportive around the heel. Ask yourself: how supportive is the cushioned sole? If it no longer feels firm but squishy when you press it, it’s time to say goodbye. Do you still have grip on the shoes? If that’s gone, it’s time to retire them.
GA Check for wear on the soles and uppers regularly, and monitor how you feel. The onset of a niggle doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time for a trip to your local running store, but old trainers are definitely on the list of suspects.
HF One common mistake people make is waiting for their shoes to literally fall off their feet. The first thing that deteriorates in running footwear is the cushioning around the midsole – the outsole and upper may look in fairly decent condition, but it’s in the midsole where the the greatest depreciation occurs. The shoes will feel harder underneath your feet as the shock-absorbing properties of the shoe will have diminished, and this can lead to injuries such as shin splints and knee pain.
SC I’d agree with Harrison – there are often creases in the foam around the midsole when the shoe is nearing the end of its life. If you can’t feel the difference, try on a new pair – the difference will let you feel how much cushioning is left in your old shoes.
It seems like whenever I find a model of shoe I like, the manufacturers discontinue them. What’s going on?
CB It’s competition from other brands which creates forced obsolescence – but you don’t need to follow the trends. Stick to neutral shoes and you’ll be fine.
HF Brands are constantly trying to one-up each other so the quest for the next best thing is constant. If one brand decides to leave a shoe how it is – no matter how popular – they run the risk of falling by the wayside. In the footwear industry innovation rules over consistency.
GA Even when manufacturers produce a great trainer, there’s always going to be something they can tweak. New materials, bonding methods and energy transfer technology can all offer better quality and results. But a shoe boffin getting over excited about new trainer tech can result in unnecessary changes and a completely different feel. Sadly, not all change is going to be good for you as a runner.
SC As an innovative brand we release a new version of the shoe once every year. It’s about constantly pushing the technology forward.
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