Picking a shoe used to be simple — if you pronate you needed a supportive shoe, if you were neutral you needed a neutral shoe, and if you didn’t pronate you needed a cushioned pair. Unfortunately, in practise things aren’t that simple, and studies have shown that picking a shoe based on foot type doesn’t have any effect on injuries compared with choosing a shoe at random. So, how do we go about picking the right shoe?
Type of Terrain
The first consideration is the type of terrain you are going to be spending most of your time on: Are you going to be running on very slippery rocks, or loose sandy trails? Are you planning on running through mud or trails strewn with rocks? Are you running in very hot conditions, or very cold temperatures? Each of these different types of terrains will favour a different shoe: Within rocky conditions you may want a rock plate; on wet and slippery trails a rubber base will grip better; in hot conditions you want something that breathes; in cold conditions you may want something with a Gore-Tex covering; if you’re tackling lose, sandy trails, you’ll do better with enough lugs and depth to allow you to get some grip; and, trekking through muddy conditions, you want to make sure mud will clear from the base of the shoe so you don’t end up carrying the extra weight of a lump of mud with you. Unsurprisingly, many trail runners will have a number of shoes that they can pick from, depending on the conditions.
So, think about what surface and conditions you will spend the majority of your time on and choose accordingly.
Next priority is a shoe that fits. Both in length and width. Length-wise, you want space at the end of the toes to allow for the foot to swell and still have sufficient room — at least a finger’s width, and if doing ultras more like a thumb’s width.
The drop is the difference between the height under the heel and height under the forefoot. Barefoot is at zero drop, traditional running shoes have 10-13mm of drop, and there is a large range in between. Trail shoes tend to have lower numbers, as the lower the drop, the more stable you are. But if you are used to running with a 12mm drop, then choosing a shoe with a 4mm drop is asking for an injury. Work your way down gradually. For most people, the sweet spot is between 4-8mm.
Weight and Cushioning
The shorter the races and runs you do, the lighter the shoe can be. The longer the race, the more you will appreciate some extra cushioning later in the race, which of course comes at a cost of carrying extra weight.
This is where things get somewhat complicated. Does someone with a flatfoot condition need more support? And conversely, does a high arch need more cushioning? The foot is far too complicated to be simply classified as a pronator, supinator, or neutral. Some high-arched feet pronate late in the stance phase, some don’t pronate at all, and, furthermore, some pronated feet can still pronate and supinate effectively and as such don’t need any support. For many people what happens at the foot level is controlled by what happens at the hip level, not the shoe. Even using slow-motion video from behind to assess your gait isn’t a reliable method for deciding what kind of shoes you should be wearing.
The #1 criteria is comfort. What feels good on your foot will serve you better than what a salesperson tells you is best for you.
How to Pick a Shoe
Ask the shoe salesperson to pick out three different brands based on the types of trails and distances you actually run. If you are happy with your current shoe, then that’s a good starting point, but companies change models all the time so chances are that next season’s model may be slightly different. Try all three on and go for a short run in them. If none of them feel great, ask to try more on until you find something you are happy with.
If one shoe looks better on a treadmill but another feels more comfortable — always go with the one that feels more comfortable.
Don’t be swayed by marketing or well-meaning friends — just because Kílian Jornet runs in Salomons doesn’t mean Salomon shoes will suit you. Just because your friend loves Hokas doesn’t mean you will.
Each of us has different feet, and every one has different running styles, so one’s shoe choice is a very individual thing. Do your research, try lots of different pairs fit for your specific purposes, and choose what’s most comfortable.
Author: Andy DuBois
Andy is an award-winning personal trainer and elite endurance athlete specializing in ultra running. You can find more useful info on his ultra running coach website: mile27.com.au.
Article originally publised in Asia Trail magazine in November 2015