Before you get too far into your training routine, it’s important to think about your shoes, says Brittany Garrett, manager of the footwear department at Sports Basement in the Presidio, who coaches collegiate cross country at San Francisco State University. “Unlike other sports, running really only requires one vital piece of equipment to keep you going, and that’s your shoes.”
“You have all of your essentials in order: a high dose of motivation, your three-month training plan, your race-day outfit pressed and waiting patiently in your bedroom closet, and your trusty running shoes. They are trusty, aren’t they?”
Trusting in the quality of your shoes is very important, says Garrett, because you and your shoes will be going through a lot together. “Your shoes are with you from your first three-mile run/walk until you toe the line for your first 13.1.”
As you run all those miles and miles, over dirt, gravel, and pavement, improving your fitness as you go, “The simultaneous anguish and elation of improving your fitness will bring you closer to your running shoes than you ever thought possible,” says Garrett.
But only if you are in the right shoe. Aside from the imminent emotional bond you will almost certainly form with your running shoes, choosing the right shoe is also a crucial step in injury prevention. Running is a high-impact activity, and running shoes are designed to absorb some of that impact so your body doesn’t have to.
The right running shoes can help you avoid injury in a few important ways:
Most running shoes have an EVA (foam) midsole with a proprietary shock-absorbing substance imbedded in the EVA for added energy return (i.e., energy is absorbed by the shoe instead of your body and that energy is utilized to propel you forward into your next stride).
Stability is a very misunderstood term in reference to running shoes. Stability does one thing: correct for over-pronation. What is over-pronation? “When you run, your foot rolls through the motion of ground-contact to toe-off through each stride,” says Garrett. This rolling-through is called pronation, and nearly everyone does it as a natural shock-absorbing mechanism. “Over-pronation occurs when your ankle rolls in excessively and creates angles at the ankle, knee, and hip that are not ideal for efficient shock absorption, often resulting in pain or injury if not corrected.”
Stability, Garrett says, is key to preventing your food from rolling in. “Most running shoe companies imbed a wedge of high-density foam into the shoe, called the medial posting,” says Garrett. The stiff foam is designed to prevent over-pronation by redirecting the excessive inward-roll toward the outside of the body, helping you to achieve the optimal amount of pronation without over-correcting. Some manufacturers achieve pronation-correction through other means, but the goal is the same: to keep your foot landing centered resulting in proper alignment of the joints and back.
Can you use the same shoes for walking as for running? “Running shoes are great for walking!” Garrett says. “Because they’re designed for the impact of running, they offer more cushion, support, and stability options than traditional walking shoes.” They’re also more breathable and flexible so they’re more comfortable over long distances.
Arch height is another factor many runners wonder about. “There’s a correlation between arch height and degree of pronation, but arch height alone is not enough to determine what you need in a running shoe, says Garrett. Having a high arch doesn’t automatically mean you don’t over-pronate, and if you have flat feet you may be surprised to find that you don’t over-pronate as much as you thought, she adds. “Everyone is built differently and your personal biomechanics dictate your body’s efficiency in absorbing shock. That is why you want a trained eye to analyze your running or walking gait.”
Every running shoe company manufactures shoes of all stability types from Neutral to Motion Control, so you want to be sure that you are fitted for the correct stability type before trying on different shoes from a brand you like.
It’s important to purchase running shoes from a sports or running store where staff are experienced and well-trained. It’s even better if the staff are avid runners themselves, Garrett says. “A good store will offer a free service called gait analysis to determine your stability category. It’s as simple as taking off your shoes and running up and down the aisle a few times.” Accounting for your degree of pronation, along with a few other factors, an expert staff member can help you find the perfect “sole mate.”