Which Running Shoes Should I Buy?
As a physiotherapist who focusses on assisting runners with their rehabilitation from running injuries one of the most commonly asked questions I field is ‘what running shoes should I buy?’.
I’ve put together my answer below.
Running Shoe Confusion
Given the enormous range of running shoes now available, choosing the best shoe for the modern-day runner is not an easy task. The running shoe market is loaded with options and an ever-increasing variety.
In fact over two-hundred running shoe brands are now available for consumers. Shoe categories have also expanded, and now include options such as minimalist, trail, maximum absorption, racing, high-mileage, moderate stability, mild stability, firm neutral, race trainers, and flexible neutral shoes. Such shoes are in addition to the every-day motion control shoe.
In addition to the confusion created by this extensive range of shoes and shoe categories, shoe companies produce an endless array of marketing. Such marketing typically states that the company’s new shoe ‘technology’ is the very thing that runners have been waiting for-suggesting that the runner can go further faster with fewer injuries.
The end result is that the running shoe consumer is left feeling confused. I observe this confusion on an almost daily basis. With so many options, all promising so much, running shoe consumers are left to wonder which shoe is best for them.
To the injured and non-injured runner, getting a health professional’s shoe recommendation is welcomed advice. However, not all runners will have access to a trusted source such as a health professional. The runner is normally at best reliant on the knowledge of the shoe salesperson. Any information and education about how to best navigate the footwear maze will assist in better running shoe selection.
As such I hope this blog will provide you with the information required to better navigate the footwear maze and make an appropriate running shoe selection.
Key Running Shoe Concepts
Most injured runners that I consult ask me which running shoe I believe they should be running in. My response normally centres around several key concepts, which are:
- Ensuring that the runner’s body is ‘run ready’ before tackling the crowded and often very confusing shoe market. By ‘run ready’ I mean that there are no weakness, stiffnesses, or tightness patterns in the runner’s body that are negatively affecting their ability to run fast and injury free.
- That there is not necessarily just one pair of shoes that is ‘right’ or the runner. Rather there will be several shoes (of differing brands) within the many running shoe ‘categories’ that will likely suit the runner. For example there may be 3 or 4 different shoes within the ‘neutral shoe’ category that would serve a runner well.
- What the runner’s body doing is every bit an equal if not greater importance in seeing the runner enjoy injury free and fast running, as is their shoe selection. I often remind running clients of mine that ‘form (running form or technique) must precede their quest for the ideal running shoe. As a result I spend time working with each runner rehabilitating from injury analysing and correcting any running form deficits that the runner may have (e.g. over-striding, body positioning etc). *Side note: I have designed the RUN101 Workshops for this very purpose (a small group technique education and correction program).
Choosing Your Next Pair of Running Shoes
So if selecting a pair of shoes based on a runner’s basic foot type is not supported by scientific evidence, what is the running shoe consumer to base a decision on?
The answer is really quite simple. The following six key considerations need to be considered when making your next running shoe purchase.
Consideration 1: Comfort
Yes, that’s right – comfort! When it comes to making an appropriate running shoe selection comfort is important. How often have you tried a pair of shoes on, walked a few steps in them, bounced up and down in the shoes, and thought to yourself, ‘These are comfortable’? If you have had this experience, you are actually well on your way to making a good shoe purchase decision. According to UK sports podiatrist Ian Griffiths, comfort is linked to a reduction in injury frequency. So buying a running shoe based on comfort alone is the first key consideration. Simple.
Consideration 2: Shoe width
In selecting running shoes, shoe width is also important. It used to be that when you purchased a pair of shoes the shoe salesperson would bring out a metallic foot-width measuring device. (I’m sure you can recall going to a shoe store and having your
foot width and length measured.) Today, though, for a reason I’m not aware of, the width of the foot is no longer measured. Without this measurement, the running shoe consumer must rely on the ‘feel’ of the shoe width.
Care must be taken as you do not want your foot to be too loose by selecting a shoe that is too wide in the forefoot (toe box) region. Likewise, you do not want to select a shoe that is too tight, either. Aim for a shoe width that is both ‘snug’ enough in the toe box, but still has sufficient room for the foot to swell and move. Different shoe brands will differ with their shoe width. For example, the width of ASICS will differ from Nike, which will differ again from Brooks. In trying to find what brand is best for your foot, I suggest trying different shoes from different running shoe manufacturers to discover what feels most comfortable. Remember, comfort is the first consideration for selecting an appropriate running shoe. This will represent a better strategy for making a good shoe choice than being loyal to a particular brand. Keep in mind that some shoe brands, such as ASICS, allow you to order extra-wide shoes in a preferred shoe model.
Consideration 3: Stack height
Stack height is the third consideration when selecting running shoes. A shoe’s stack height refers to the amount of cushioned shoe material (sole) that exists between the ground and the foot. Two different stack heights are often described: the forefoot stack height and the rear-foot stack height (see the below figure).
A shoe’s stack height is different to its pitch or heel drop (see the following consideration). Conventional motion control shoes often have a rear-foot stack height of greater than 30 millimetres, while minimalist type shoes will often have a rear-foot stack height of approximately 10 millimetres. By having lower stack heights, the minimalist shoes provide for more foot awareness of the surface that the runner is running on.
So how do you choose a stack height that is best for you? The good news is that there is no hard and fast rule. The bad news is that there is no hard and fast rule! Getting the stack height of your running shoes correct comes down to trial and error. I suggest you trial a pair of shoes, taking note of how they make you feel and, of course, any potential niggles that may develop.
Keep trialling shoes until you find what you feel works best for you. If you still lack confidence in your selection, I suggest consulting a health professional and seeking their advice (e.g. a physio or podiatrist). However, care must be taken to not be too radical in experimenting. Avoid going from a shoe with a large stack height to a very small one too quickly, as this may result in problems such as unwanted injuries.
Consideration 4: Pitch or ‘heel drop’
The fourth key consideration when making a shoe selection is the shoe’s pitch or ‘heel drop’. The terms ‘shoe pitch’ and ‘heel drop’ are interchangeable – ‘heel drop’ has simply become the popular term for what the footwear industry would typically call shoe ‘pitch’. The terms describe the distance or height between the rear-foot stack height and the forefoot stack height. In other words, they describe the degree of the shoe’s ‘slope’ or the shoe’s gradient (see the following image).
Historically, the bulk of running shoes have had a heel drop of 10 millimetres. Craig Payne, on his blog Run Research Junkie, states that no research, theories, arguments, or rationale exists as to why 10 millimetres has been the standard. He writes that it just appears to be what most runners are comfortable with. All the major shoe manufacturers design shoes with a 10-millimetre drop. Craig writes that he was unable to find any blanket recommendations for the best heel drop for runners.(1)
With the advent and popularisation of minimalist shoes, the term ‘zero drop’ has become part of the running shoe vocabulary. However, no research exists to substantiate a zero-drop shoe being superior to a more traditional shoe with a 10-millimetre drop. The rationale for zero-drop shoes from manufacturers is that the zero-drop shoes facilitate a more ‘natural’ running technique – that is, away from a heel-strike. The assumption being that 10-millimetre drop running shoes facilitate a heel striking running form.
However, anyone who has observed runners wearing either a zero-drop or a 10-millimetre drop running shoe will recognise that it is still possible to heel-strike in either a conventional shoe or a minimalist shoe. This renders the claims made by some minimalist shoe manufacturers that runners will shift to a whole or mid-foot strike when running in minimalist shoes as questionable.
So how do you select the correct heel drop or pitch for your next running shoe purchase? The ideal heel drop is runner specific. There is no ‘one size fits all’! There is no conclusive research that shows either a zero-drop or 10-millimetre drop shoe as being superior for either running performance or injury minimisation. As a result, and as with my recommendation for selecting the shoe’s stack height, I suggest you experiment with different heel drop heights.
Some runners will do better in a zero-drop shoe, while others will do better in a 10-millimetre drop shoe. Once you discover what feels best, you can quite simply stick with what ‘feels right’ for you. As Craig Payne cites, there is no systematic ideal height but rather a subject-specific ideal height. To find your individual best heel drop, you must experiment with different shoe heel drops.
Consideration 5: Stiffness in the forefoot and mid-foot
The fifth key consideration when selecting a pair of running shoes is to consider the shoes’ forefoot stiffness. It is my opinion that over time all runners should aim to move towards a lighter pair of running shoes. However, when selecting a lighter running shoe it is important to choose a shoe that has some degree of stiffness in the forefoot. Why? Well because stiffness in the forefoot appears to be consistent with better running performance.
Researchers propose that having a stiffer midsole of the shoe can increase the ‘rebound’ a runner’s foot gets at the time of toe off (the final phase of foot push-off). The research asserts that this increase in rebound due to a stiffer midsole of a shoe can improve a runner’s economy(2). The importance of having some mid-foot and forefoot shoe stiffness is evident when you look at the racing spikes worn by track runners. The shoes have rigid plastic that reinforces the forefoot with the aim of reducing the wasted energy for high speed running at the point of the runner’s toe off.
Therefore, when you go to a lighter shoe you should still feel the ‘rebound’ from the surface you are running on. The shoe should not be too soft, floppy, or thin in the forefoot. If it is, the runner will be wasting energy at the time of toe off , which will likely reduce running economy and therefore running speed.
Consideration 6: Moving towards lighter weight shoes
The final consideration when selecting your shoes is to consider the weight of the shoes. Elite runners know the benefits of running in lightweight shoes. This is why they race in lightweight racing flats – although they will often train in a heavier shoe than what they race in.
The key with transitioning to a lighter shoe is to not make the transition too quickly. In order to make a successful transition to a lighter shoe, runners must be prepared to be patient. (Unfortunately, patience is a virtue I often find many runners lack!) There will be a transition period required in getting used to the new running ‘state’ of wearing lighter shoes. This transition period will differ between all athletes in terms of method and time. There are no reliable set generalised formulas available that instruct how to integrate lighter-weight running shoes into a weekly running training program.
In order to make a sensible transition to lighter-weight running shoes, I suggest making progressive shoe purchases whereby each successive shoe gets lighter over time. For example, it may take a runner 18 to 24 months to arrive at the pair of shoes that best suits them in terms of weight. In this example a runner may transition through two to three pairs of shoes, before arriving at a shoe that is not too heavy, and not too light.
I suggest runners begin to transition to lighter and more minimalist shoes if they:
- know their running body (any weaknesses, stiff joints, or tight muscle groups that will affect their running form and therefore performance)
- are regularly performing the home exercises that target strengthening of calves and hip muscles, which will make their running body more robust and able to deal with the loads of running in lighter shoes.
- are not currently rehabilitating an injury
- are in a steady and unchanging part of a training regime (that is, as an example, not starting to run more volume or hills).
The preceding list includes my top tips for runners transitioning to lighter shoes; however, it excludes what I believe to be the keystone of making a successful transition to lighter shoes – that is performing daily calf raises.
Good calf endurance allows a runner to absorb the extra work the calves will do when running in a more minimalist or lighter shoe. I recommend all runners do 30 single-leg calf raises a day on each leg in order to facilitate better calf endurance, and to lower injury risk. When doing the calf raises, it is important to not do them too quickly. Care should be taken to push through the first and second toe of the foot and to take two to three seconds to do one single repetition. Most runners will struggle with this when they first attempt this exercise, but persistence pays off. See calf raises demonstrated correctly in the below video:
A common question I get asked is when to stop going lighter in weight with shoe selections. I suggest a runner stops transitioning to lighter shoes when they are running pain and injury free! Otherwise, if they consistently adhere to their body maintenance work and avoid training errors, they can go ahead and experiment with lighter shoes. However, a runner should select heavier, more traditional and supportive, shoes if they:
- have an existing Achilles tendon or calf injury – if they go to a lighter shoe with a lesser heel height with these types of injuries, they will likely add additional load to these already painful and sensitive areas, which will, in most instances, aggravate the injury and exacerbate the pain experienced
- are comfortable in a heavier shoe and are enjoying pain and injury-free running
- are able to consistently run with a cadence of 90 steps/ min and also exhibit the four other key principles of good running technique (correct foot placement, minimising excessive bopping, optimal body positioning, and utilisation of the natural leg springs).
A summary of key points when navigating the footwear maze is below:
You will find further information around how to best navigate the footwear maze in Step 3 of You CAN Run Pain Free, available for purchase HERE>>
- Payne, C. 2013. ‘What is the ideal “drop” for a running shoe?’. Run Research Junkie. http://www.runresearchjunkie.com/what-is-the-idealdrop- for-a-running-shoe. Accessed 20 October 2014.
- Roy, JP, Stefanyshyn, DJ, 2006. ‘Shoe midsole longitudinal bending stiffness and running economy, joint energy, and EMG’. Sci. Sports Exerc. 38 (3), pp.562–569.
Brad Beer (APAM)
Physiotherapist, Author, Founder POGO Physio, Podcast Host