With the exception of the highly-coveted, mythic 1972 ‘moon shoes’ by Nike, it’s virtually impossible to pinpoint the ‘best running shoe’ on offer. Sure, the web is full of thumbs-up, thumbs-down reviews and star ratings, but, as shoe editor at Runner’s World and running veteran Jonathan Beverly says, “unfortunately, it just isn’t that simple.”
“Running shoes are designed for different types of people, strides, feet, and types of running”, he explains. “Finding the right shoes for you is a personal and ongoing challenge. You need to experiment to find what works, and as your fitness and running characteristics change, your shoes can and should change as well.”
So how should you go about finding what works for you?
Experts agree that the three Fs – fit, feel and function – should form the basis of your opinion. So, leave style and colour out of it and start thinking mechanically:
1. Get the size right
Shoes that are too small can cause all manner of nasty foot conditions, including ingrown toenails, bunions and hammer toes amongst others. Too big a shoe, on the other hand, won’t provide enough support which can lead to muscular imbalances and leave you open to hip, knee and foot injuries.
One of the most common mistakes runners make when buying trainers in the same size as their day-to-day shoe. The reason? When you run, the load applied to your foot causes it to spread by up to half an inch in length – 1/5 larger than the typical shoe allows.
To make sure your shoes aren’t doing more harm than good, it’s best to buy trainers in-store where you can try them on. Most sports shops also offer a foot measuring service, which pinpoints length, width, arch-height and flex. If you can, test them out on a treadmill before your commit to buying, too.
2. What type of runner are you?
Whether you’re a dedicated weekly parkrunner, hit the treadmill every other day or are in training for a marathon, it’s important to choose the right shoe. Though they might all look the same, there are in fact three types of trainers to choose from – training, running and racing.
The main differences between trainers are sole flexibility and heel drop. The sole flexibility found in running and racing trainers will be sturdier than training shoes. The reason? While they allow for heel-to-toe movement, they’re designed to protect the foot from impact load and keep which can cause discomfort, lower performance and cause injury. Heel drop – aka how flat your shoe is - measures the distance between heel and toe height. The higher the drop, the more support and cushioning. Put simply:
Training shoes are the best choice for the more casual runner. If you clock a maximum of 5k per week and/or partake in strength, resistance or agility training then opting for a flexible shoe will help you achieve the results you’re after.
If you’re clocking up more than 5k per week however, you should be training in running shoes. According to Asics, ‘running shoes protect your feet when pounding the pavement over and over again, help with forward movement and provide more cushioning and support.’
Finally, unless you’re all about speed and sprinting it’s best to avoid racing trainers, which tend to offer around 20 per cent less cushioning than training shoes, and more so than runners. Their real selling point is that they’re light, with research revealing you can shave about one second per mile off your run time for every ounce of weight you drop from your shoes.
3. Are they comfortable?
Just because the length of your shoe is right for your foot, doesn’t mean the fit will be. Not all shoes are equal, with different variables such as width and flex. And, contrary to popular belief, ¬if your shoe is even a little bit uncomfortable from the start, it’s only going to get worse once you hit the treadmill.
The first thing to bear in mind when trying trainers on is the time of day. Your feet continually swell throughout the day until around 4PM, making then onwards the best time of day to purchase. Other than that, it’s all about trial and error to see what feels best for you, making sure you consider the following areas:
- Heel – should feel sturdy and secure, but not tight. You should be able to slide your foot out with the laces intact (not tied).
- Instep – should be snug, but too much pressure is an indication of needing more space. Try loosening the laces before abandoning a shoe altogether.
- Width – “Your foot should be able to move side-to-side in the shoe’s forefoot without crossing over the edge of the insole, advises Matt Allyn at Runner’s World.
- Flex – “The shoe should bend and crease along the same line your foot flexes”, explains expert Carl Brandt. “An improperly aligned flex point can lead to arch pain or plantar fasciitis, while a lack of flexibility leads to Achilles-tendon or calf strain.”
- Arch – your shoes should complement your foot’s movements by contouring to the shape and height of your arch and supporting your stride. If you feel your arch cramping, opt for a design with less support and more flexibility.