Picking running shoes can be complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. With the right advice and information, the process can be made simple. This article provides you with key information about running shoes, so you can make a more informed decision when picking your first or next pair!
Firstly, there’s no such thing as a best shoe or best brand as everyone’s feet are different. Running brands design shoes that run across a wide spectrum that ranges from ‘minimal’ to ‘maximal’ and envisage them being used for different types of running (from speedwork sessions to relaxed long runs) – each pair offering unique benefits to the runner. Having different shoes for different types of runs has its merits and there’s evidence to suggest that using different shoes on rotation can help prevent injuries, as runners won’t experience as many overuse related problems.
Varying levels of cushioning and support
With the exception of a few, the majority of road running shoes have some form of support. That is because the primary purpose of a running shoe is to help you run. Every person runs in a slightly different way, so running shoes are designed with different levels of support to accommodate varying ranges of motion in our feet and legs.
The way we run may also vary from day to day, depending on how tired we are, the time of day and what type of run we’re doing. Runners will benefit from using different types of cushioning for different lengths and intensities of runs.
So, running brands make shoes with different levels of cushioning and support, from very soft to very firm, and neutral to stability.
Neutral or Stability shoes
Assessing the degree of pronation
When we run, our feet land on the outer edge and then roll inwards. This movement is called pronation. Our feet pronate to help with shock absorption and it is a natural movement. Every runner’s feet will pronate by a different amount so running shoes are designed to cater for varying degrees of pronation.
The main difference between neutral shoes and stability shoes are that stability shoes have additional features that reduce how much a foot will pronate and help align the leg more. So, how much your feet pronate will be an important factor in determining the right shoe for you.
Differences of construction
As we land on the outer edge of a shoe, running shoes are designed with a softer lateral edge to slow the speed at which our feet and legs rotate inwards. This part of a shoe is called a crash pad. This is why shoes last for a certain distance as this part of a shoe breaks down over time. We pronate because of the torque going through our feet and legs. The outer edge of a shoe plays an important part in reducing the stress and load that goes through our body.
Neutral shoes and stability shoes work in the same way here. They are both designed to slow down the speed at which we pronate and reduce the rotation of our joints.
Neutral shoes help guide our feet and legs via this mechanism. If your feet don’t pronate excessively, a neutral running shoe will offer the most appropriate level of support as they will reduce the speed of rotation but not reduce greater degrees of pronation.
The neutral category covers a very broad spectrum of shoes though and there may be small differences in stability shoes between neutral shoes depending on what runner they’re being worn by. For example, someone with a narrow foot may be less stable in a wider fitting neutral shoe than a narrower fitting one.
As mentioned above, stability shoes have additional features that help reduce how much the feet pronate and help align the leg more than a neutral shoe. The most common way of stabilising feet is using denser foam on the medial side of the shoe. This provides additional support for the arches of feet and stops the feet from rolling in further.
The position and shape of denser foams used in shoes are all different. Brands use a variety of shapes and sizes of denser foams within their ranges, to try and cater for varying movements in runner’s feet and legs. By stopping feet rolling in further, rotation in the rest of the leg may be reduced.
No two runners are the same
Please note that arch height is not a determinant of what style of support you need. Two runners may have very similar shaped feet and shaped arches but can move in very different ways and therefore need different shoes. Some shoes use rails of denser material (similar to bumpers in Bowling), which provides a more holistic style of support. The theory being that this may help align the rest of the leg better.
There is no best style of support though due to the fact that we all move differently. Two stability shoes may have a similar level of stability features in them but, due to different construction methods, provide different levels of support to different runners.
Comfort is a key factor in determining the right shoe. When running shoes are comfortable and complementing the feet you're almost unaware and forget you're wearing them. As the outer edge of a stability shoe is designed slightly differently to a neutral shoe, as the aim is to hold the foot on the outer edge for longer and reduce the speed at which the foot rolls in. The upper (fabric) part of stability shoes use stronger fabrics and overlays than neutral shoes. The top part plays an integral part in helping controlling excessive movement in feet so support features are increased.
Soft or Responsive Shoes
Running shoes are not all designed with equal amounts of cushioning. Brands design midsoles with a variety of materials and change the stiffness to benefit different types of runs.
Why choose running shoes with softer cushioning?
Softer midsoles will stop joints flexing as much as legs and muscles do not need to absorb as much impact. Softer foam acts like a trampoline under the feet. For example, imagine jumping on to sand from a height versus jumping on to concrete from a height. We will flex our legs more when jumping down to the harder surface to absorb the impact.
Softer cushioned shoes are in theory more beneficial for slower paced running or when we are tired. Softer cushioning can make running feel easier as our muscles don’t have to work as much. Reducing flexion at joints such as knees can reduce the stress going through them. When running slowly or in a more fatigued state, our feet will be on the ground for longer each foot strike.
As already mentioned, the outer edge of a running shoe acts like a crash pad to slow the speed at which feet and legs rotate in. Softer cushioned shoes have softer crash pads that can help slow down rotation to a greater extent than firmer shoes.
So, softer shoes are more beneficial for running slowly or when tired, not necessarily just longer runs.
Why choose running shoes with firmer (more responsive) cushioning?
Running in shoes with firmer cushioning will result in muscles doing more work, as joints will flex more. This is beneficial when running at harder or faster efforts though. Greater flexion in muscles and joints will result in more energy being returned via the stretch shortening cycle.
Think if you were to jump as high as possible, you would squat down first and then jump. When you squat, your tendons and muscles store elastic energy that is returned on the upward movement enabling you to jump higher. Running is effectively hopping.
A firmer shoe enables us to utilise this stretch shortening cycle. It will normally result in greater energy return than a softer shoe as less force is being lost through the material. Therefore, a more responsive shoe will typically feel better when running quicker.
Firmer shoes won’t slow down pronation as much as softer shoes because the crash pads are stiffer. This is beneficial when trying to run at harder paces because running faster requires feet to be in contact with the ground for less time. Some shoes even have carbon plates or inserts in them to increase energy return when running faster.
What's the best running shoe?
It is important to reiterate, there is no such thing as a best running shoe because everyone’s feet are different and different shoes will have different merits for different types of running.
What may feel good for running faster in, may feel not feel as good as alternative pair for running slowly in. This is the reason brands design their shoes on a spectrum and envisage runners using different shoes for different sessions.
There are also potential injury benefits from running in more than one pair of shoes. Running in more than one pair may result in muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints being worked in different ways that may help reduce overuse injuries.
There isn’t a set rule on what shoes to alternate between either. Having a softer shoe for slower running and a firmer shoe for faster running could be one way to benefit from different shoes. Alternatively, running in slightly different levels of stability could be beneficial for the reason detailed above.
How to pick the right shoes?
Unless you know exactly what you’re looking for or have a good idea on what style of shoe you need, we'd recommend going and getting fitted for your running shoes at your local Run4It running shop. Book a +runlab appointment.
1. Have your gait analysed
At Run4It, our +runlab process is a tool that allows us to analyse the movement of your feet and then suggest appropriate options based on this information, your objectives and how you want your shoes to feel. This is a 2 way process. We will guide you towards what shoes are suitable options but ultimately you have to decide on what feels right. Working collaboratively is the most effective way in getting the right shoes for you.
2. Be open to try different options
On some occasions, there may be more than one shoe that is suitable for the same objective and there will definitely be other shoes that will have merits for other types of running. Part of the process is to discuss these options so that you have more information to make more informed decisions in the future about what shoes are right for you.
Run4It shoe categories
At Run4It we split our road running shoes into 4 categories based on the feel of the shoe (Soft or Responsive), and whether or not the shoe offers additional stability (Neutral or Stability). For further info, please read our shoe advice page.
Our website features product descriptions for each shoe, which provide information about the type of runner and types of runs the shoe is best suited for. Be open to the idea that running in different shoes may provide you with a new experience and that there can be many advantages to mixing up the running shoes you use!