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I like to run outside and therefore need shoes to run. However, there's a massive market for running shoes and I get lost in all of the options. What are some guidelines in selecting a good shoe for running?

(Note: I'm not looking for "which is best" but rather, what technology or features should I look for)

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...just personal experience after getting fructure apparently due to -inversion supported shoes over a long distance and killing runner knees probs: try to find out first the natural way of running (I think barefoot or neutral) and then with proper shoes. The word technology is a bit comical in this context, your technology is your foot -- they are efficient and natural. It is hard to say what even running is if you don't know basics. Before wasting time in shoe -shops and shoe -pornography, learn the basics well. It took me over 10 years to realize this! Run -- and most importantly have Fun! –  user2598 Dec 28 '11 at 23:27
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4 Answers

up vote 30 down vote accepted

Disclaimer: I've worked for a company that makes pressure plates, that allow you to analyze running patterns (with or without shoes). I've done research at a specialized running shoe shop and my father is an orthopedic shoe manufacturer. So in short, my opinions are fairly biased, but by no means scientifically proven.

While md5sum names some great rules of thumb, they apply to every shoe and don't help you determine what type of shoe you're looking for.

First a short note: Adidas did a study way back in 1987 and found that most injuries come from:

Injuries caused by training:

  • Wrong intensity of training: 12%
  • Too rapid increase in intensity: 9%
  • Several others: 9%

Injuries caused by shoes:

  • Bad quality of shoes: 17%
  • Wearing your shoes for too long: 11%
  • Wrong kind of shoes: 44%

As you can see, picking the right kind of shoes is pretty darn important! So how do we pick one?

Dissection of a Saucony shoe

When you dissect a shoe, it's made up out of two main components:

  • the upper, which is the mesh, leather or synthetic material + the shoe laces;
  • the sole of the shoe, which can consist out of several layers

The first component is composed the same for nearly every pair of running shoe. While the last around which it is made, may or may not fit your foot (see md5sum's answer for some excellent advise there), you won't find much variety within a certain brand. However, you should note that this is mostly true for the running shoes. Don't even consider running on those cheaper aerobic or tennis models, because you'll fall in the trap Adidas found earlier.

The other component, which is the sole of the shoe. Now when I say sole, I'm actually referring to everything that is below your foot when you're inside the shoe. Trying to discuss all the bits and pieces that compose it depends strongly on the brand and their design-department.

When limiting choices towards endurance running and excluding fancier shoes that are meant for trail running or sprinting on a track. You're left with a shoe sole that serves several functions:

  • offer stability and control of motion,
  • shock absorption and/or reduction,
  • protection against the underground and overuse/strain,
  • comfort,
  • enhancing your performance

Shock absorption is mainly determined by your body weight, rather than the type of shoe. When you're lighter, you can get away with having a 'softer' (as in lower shore values) soles than when you're heavier. When I say shock absorption, don't immediately think: Nike Air! because most absorption comes from flexing your joints, rather than compressing your sole.

There are several 'special' features for motion control, though you can safely assume that unless you have some severe disorder, you probably don't need any of the extreme models. With extreme, I mean shoes with extreme angles at the heel or other gimmicks:

enter image description here

If you're 'normal' you fall in one of three groups: those who pronate too much, those who run neutral, those who don't pronate enough (or supinate). Don't mistake this for the other three types people like to call out: flat, normal arched and high arched feet. Hate to break it to them, but since the shoes all have the same shape on the inside, they surely aren't adapted to your arch! No I'm talking about biomechanics here:

enter image description here

These pictures depict the maximal motion in this subjects ankle, that your running shoe is trying to limit. Funny enough, I almost never encounter shoes that help against eversion (supination), so choice boils down to: how much pronation do you have, ranging from excessive to normal?

This boils down to three main types of shoes:

  • Heavy support shoes, you can recognize them by having a very straight last and the arch area is either entirely filled or there's antipronation support running from the back till the ball of the shoe. You can recognize this by its gray color or at least using a distinctive color difference between the inner (medial) and outer (lateral) side of the shoe.
  • Moderate anti-pronation shoes, these often only have the antipronation support in the heel area. Again, you can recognize this by the grey color.
  • Neutral shoes, these have no special features for reducing pronation (that the other two models don't have already).

So how do I know which one I need?

Well one easy way of determining this is looking back at your history:

  1. You never had anti-pronation shoes and didn't sustain any injuries? --> Get neutral shoes
  2. Do you run a lot and for long distances? Neutral shoes
  3. You're not overweight? --> Neutral shoes unless move point 3 applies. If not, more stable shoes
  4. Did you ever have any injuries that are linked to pronation? Get more stable shoes.

If you're overweight and you have a history of pronation-related injuries then yes, probably you need the heaviest kind of support you can get. In most other cases, the neutral shoe is of such decent quality that you don't need anything else.

So isn't there any choice at all?

Well, yes all the brands will tell you they have superior technologies built into their shoes and they're all right. But sadly for them, that technology also has to fit your foot. When you take 5 different brands and you start to test them on a treadmill, you probably end up having to chose between two brands, because the rest 'didn't feel right' and you end up picking the one with the fancy colors.

What do I do if I want to start with running and don't know what's good for me?

Typically, it depends on many things, but any good running shop should be able to advise you based on your conditions. What's your posture, age, physique, level of activity, general health, your goals with running, training intensity etc...? But all in all, in most cases a good stable running shoe is more than sufficient. When you have a good shoe, the other factors from the Adidas study become more important: running too hard, on a too hard underground, for too long, far too often in a short amount of time will causes injuries no matter what shoes you wear.

Any final words?

Seasoned runners will generally disagree with my advice, but it isn't catered to them. Because if you're capable of running a lot and very often, chances are that natural selection decided you're a pretty good runner or else Mother Nature would have stopped you in your tracks long ago. This means that you get to wear lighter shoes or silly shoes like the Vibram ones, because you let your body do all the work. That's mainly where the performance enhancing comes from: leaving as much of the shoe out to not get in your way.

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Note that this answer is a first draft, so it might chance significantly over time –  Ivo Flipse Mar 2 '11 at 0:09
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"First Draft"?! I feel like I just read a college paper :P Great info. –  KronoS Mar 2 '11 at 2:30
    
Surely the running shoe shops will give the same advice as the runners world article? Which was presumably written by an expert in the field (or maybe it wasn't) –  Chris S Mar 2 '11 at 10:35
    
@ChrisS: I don't have anything bad to say about Runners World, but given they also represent a shoe shop franchise, they won't publish bad things about shoes they're trying to sell. Furthermore, I don't think you'll find any scientists working for them and even scientist don't agree on what shoes really do. There's on research group in Belgium now testing this with robots, which hopefully should answer the question. –  Ivo Flipse Mar 2 '11 at 11:55
    
However, experienced runners have a lot of experience with different models and brands and also know what other people's experiences were. So based on that they should be able to pick the right one for you. They also don't have any say in what kind of shoes get manufactured, so we're all dependent on the shoe brand to make decent shoes and try to fit you the best ones we have available (this season). –  Ivo Flipse Mar 2 '11 at 11:57
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All the options exist because running shoes are a very individualized item. Some people need more support in one area but not another while others need the exact opposite. Your best bet is to get a cheaper pair, use them for a time until broken in, and determine where you need to make improvements.

  • Get them the right length:
    • Don't get them too short, or your toenails will turn black (seriously).
    • Don't get them too narrow, or you'll cause ingrown toenails.
    • You should have difficulty fitting your thumb behind your heel. -- With the shoes tied, you should have full range of motion in your ankle.
  • Don't tie them too tight or you'll cause extreme discomfort in the bridge of your foot.
  • The heel should fit to your heel but not press on your ankle.
  • Your arch should feel comfortable when running.
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My experience with running shoes is it's more important to replace them regularly than to worry yourself too much with some kind of marketing bs that manufacturers like Nike like to use to sell the shoes. A shoe with a lot of 'bounce' and flexibility in its sole that provides shock absorbence for your knees is best for running on concrete. Avoid the fashion house trainers and stick to Asics, New Balance, Mizuno as they're better value for money and made for runners instead of to pose in.

There's a trend with bare foot running now (this TED talk explains why), so you could save some dollars by grass/beach running instead!

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This really doesn't approach the 'technology' or what to look for other than "bounce and flexibility". Also I'm not looking for a brand name, but rather what makes a shoe good or not. –  KronoS Mar 1 '11 at 22:17
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I would caution against your last advice if you're not a skilled runner. Just going out there and starting to run barefooted without proper adaptation or training is dangerous! –  Ivo Flipse Mar 1 '11 at 22:35
    
@Kronos runnersworld.co.uk/shoes/choosing-a-shoe-the-very-basics/… goes into podiatry details. Any decent running store will determine which of those 3 feet types you are, if you get problems with pronation. –  Chris S Mar 1 '11 at 22:35
    
Your foot type says absolutely nothing about the amount of pronation @ChrisS. However, you are right that there's basically only three types of shoes, so there's that much choice anyway –  Ivo Flipse Mar 1 '11 at 22:36
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@Ivo The 'bare foot' running idea does not actually mean running bare foot. It means running with minimal shoes like people did before the running shoe business became big. The idea is you let your foot work the way it evolved to. I'm not sure it's the magic cure all they say it is, and I'm sure some people need orthopedic shoes because of issues but the idea is interesting and worth looking at. –  AmaDaden Mar 2 '11 at 15:17
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In my (limited) experience, I find its better to go to a shop for advice on what shoes to buy than use my own judgement. In the UK, there are a range of shops called The Sweat Shop which have treadmills in the shops. They use these treadmills and slow motion cameras to analyse your running technique and advise you on the type of shoe to buy.

I thought this was a much better way of buying shoes than trying to find the shoes myself and they know what they are talking about. I'm guessing there are similar shops for our American cousins. So in summary, leave the choice to someone who knows that they're talking about.

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In the Netherlands there are a couple of stores that have a small track that they use for slow motion technique analysis. Getting properly fitted shoes help me reduce small pains and aches when I was training heavily. –  Jeroen Huinink May 16 '11 at 17:10
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