How to pick a running shoe for newbies or veteran marathoners
Danica Hemmann of Denver, left, try on several different running shoes for her training with the help of Alex Dejournett of Runners Roost Lakewood. April 18, 2018. (Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post)
It started with the Nike Waffle Trainer in 1974. University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman ruined his wife’s waffle iron by using it to melt and mold urethane in his mission to invent the best sole pattern for a running shoe.
Bowerman was a genius — the little company he co-founded with Phil Knight would become an international behemoth in athletic footwear and apparel — but he forgot to spray that waffle iron with non-stick spray and the urethane glued it shut.
From his trial-and-error R&D came the Waffle Trainer, the first widely popular running shoe thanks to the running boom of the late 1970s, when millions flocked to the sport. Since then, that humble blue sneaker found a place in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Nike grew to a net worth of $30 billion, and the process of buying running shoes has gotten increasingly complex. Nike alone has more than 20 models.
Now there are a half dozen general categories — neutral, support, motion-control, minimalist, maximalist and trail shoes — and that’s not even counting the track and cross country “spikes” worn by competitors in high schools to the pros. With the proper shoes, running can be a relatively injury-free pursuit, but the wrong shoes can ruin the sport for you forever.
Experienced runners know the most important tip in buying running shoes is to shop at running specialty stores. Not only do they stock wider inventories than general retailers, but they also train their sales personnel in the biomechanics of running, and those folks will watch you run on a treadmill in the store to make sure you make the right choice. Often these staffers are current or former high-level competitors who study shoe characteristics keenly.
“Fundamentally, humans should have pretty specific mechanics,” said Joel Hamilton, a former All-American runner for the Colorado School of Mines who works at Runner’s Roost in Belmar. “We all have slight variations, but there are some core principles that the foot and the lower half of the body should follow in order to minimize risk of injury. We figure out exactly how they’re moving and then figure out the best solutions in order to get them to move as close to ideal as possible.”
One of key terms in the mechanics of running is a rotation of the foot through impact called “pronation.” It’s the motion the foot uses to absorb impact safely — but too much or not enough of it is problematic. Those problems can be corrected with the right shoes.
“A person who has a neutral gait, it means they have a normal amount of pronation,” said Mark Plaatjes, a Boulder physical therapist and former world champion in the marathon. “If you put them in a neutral shoe, when you look at them running and they have all their weight on one leg, the shoe doesn’t drop inward; that would be (excessive) pronation. If it doesn’t stay to the outside; that would be supination.”
Thus the goal is “neutral” shoes for neutral gaits, “support” shoes for gaits with some pronation issues, and “motion-control” shoes for those who pronate even more.
“We look at how much pronation the foot has, then try to get it to the ideal amount,” Hamilton said. “The foot likes to be balanced, likes to be level. Over-pronation is when you roll in too far. If that’s happening, we want to push it back up a little bit. Opposite of that is supination or under-pronation, when you’re staying out too far.”
Complicated, right? That’s why it’s better to shop at a running store where someone with an expert eye can watch you run.
“I’m going to look at their feet to see if they have high arches, low arches, flat feet,” said Plaatjes, who co-founded the Boulder Running Company but no longer owns it. “I’m going to watch them walk with their bare feet and see how they function. Together with that, I will put them in a pair of shoes. You want to look at their gait when they’re running in a ‘neutral’ pair. If they are neutral, that pair will support them properly. If they don’t look correct in a neutral pair, then you want to go up in support. If the second category (support shoes) doesn’t do the trick, you might need to go into a motion-control shoe.”
Plaatjes estimated 20 percent of runners will do fine in “neutral” shoes, while 60 percent need a minimal amount of support and the remaining 20 percent would do best in motion-control shoes. These can be critical concepts for runners to address because pronation issues can cause knee and hip injuries.
“If your foot is landing and getting to a neutral position — a level position — and staying there, the knee is usually tracking evenly over the top of it, and more often than not, you’re not going to have injury issues,” Hamilton said. “When things start to deviate from that, you tend to run into problems. Ninety percent of the time you can follow the chain reaction. If something on the outside of the body is hurting, usually that means for some reason the force or the weight is going to be staying on the outside, like IT (iliotibial) band tightness (outside knee pain). Eighty percent of the time, it’s because somebody is in too corrective of a shoe or their shoe is worn out.
“If they’re getting inside knee pain, more often than not they’re in a shoe that’s not supportive enough. Their foot is over-pronating — arch collapses, knee rotates in and you start to get stress on the inside part of the knee.”
Got it? Great, because our tutorial is about to get even more complicated, thanks to the emergence of non-traditional concepts over the past decade. It started when some runners took up barefoot running or running in “minimalist” shoes following the 2009 publication of “Born to Run,” a book by Christopher McDougall about the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico’s Copper Canyons.
The Tarahumara are renowned for running extreme distances wearing thin sandals without getting injured. The success of the book triggered a minimalist trend whose proponents argued that humans evolved eons ago to run barefoot while hunting down prey, and that modern running shoes actually promoted injuries by altering natural biomechanics.
Critics countered that evolution may have prepared humans to run in the wild but not on concrete and asphalt. Furthermore, modern humans wear shoes most of their waking hours from the time they leave the cradle, so asking them to adapt to running barefoot by learning entirely new running mechanics was asking for trouble. Lots of injuries resulted.
“That movement,” said Plaatjes, “has come and gone.”
But minimalism was followed closely by a “maximalist” concept pioneered by Hoka One One, a company whose shoes have much thicker soles than traditional running shoes. Hoka made it work by using lighter foam in the soles so its shoes are lighter even though they are considerably bigger with more “stack height.” They also have more cushioning, which conforms to the foot to provide support. Doctors frequently recommend Hokas for people who spend most of their work day on their feet.
As minimalist shoes fell out of favor, Hoka became a major player even though its shoes initially reminded some traditionalists of “clown shoes” when they first gained a market foothold. No one is laughing at Hoka now.
“They use a lighter foam that’s more compressive, and because it’s lighter, they put more of it underneath the foot so you’re higher off the ground,” Hamilton said. “Maybe a way to think of it would be like a standard mountain bike tire compared to a fat mountain bike tire. A fat mountain bike tire, there’s more surface area but they run at a lower PSI, so there’s more squish to it. That’s kind of the idea behind Hoka. For people who are new to the sport, maybe more injury-prone or getting off an injury, the construction of the shoe is really good at protecting the body.”