In 1974, University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman was so obsessed with creating the perfect shoe for his athletes that even kitchen appliances became collateral. To create the ideal sole pattern, he ruined his wife’s waffle iron when he used it to melt and mold urethane.
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) August 24, 2017
The waffle maker’s sacrifice wasn’t in vain. That experiment and hundreds of others led to the Waffle Trainer, which became the shoe of choice for new runners during the running boom of the 70s. From that humble shoe, Nike was born and has since grown to a net worth of $30 billion.
Of course, there’s far more than just one shoe available for today’s runners. In fact, there are half a dozen general categories—neutral, support, motion-control, minimalist, maximalist and spikes—and that’s not even counting trail shoes, which include a shoe for every type of terrain. Nike alone has over 20 models of running shoes. Proper running shoes can make newbie runners feel good and can even drastically reduce the risk of injury, but the wrong shoes can ruin the sport forever. Here are a few things to consider when looking for a new pair of kicks.
The Shape of Your Feet
No two feet are alike: the height of the arch, the height and volume of the instep, the width of the heel—all can differ significantly from foot to foot, even between feet that are the same size. According to Spencer White, vice president of Saucony’s Human Performance & Innovation Lab, the location of the metatarsal heads, the widest part of the foot and where it bends, can vary by up to 10 mm forward or back.
Lucky for us, shoe makers have developed models to accommodate runners of all strides and foot shapes. When buying your shoes, be sure to align your foot type with the proper shoe category. White says that flat-footed folks tend to gravitate to a higher stability shoe, as they help prevent overpronation. Neutral runners can often run in many types of footwear, but most commonly go for a moderate stability shoe. Runners with high arches are best suited for a cushioned shoe, providing midsole padding with flexibility.
2. Consider What Terrain You’ll Run on
Just like they make shoes for all different kinds of feet, it’s becoming more and more popular for major shoe companies to design specialty shoes for different types of terrain. The main two categories are trail and road shoes. However, there are hundreds of very specific shoes that are designed for particular terrain or distance within those two categories. For example, within the road running category, there are shoes for fast workouts, easy day, marathons, half marathons, flats and beyond. Same goes for trail shoes. There are shoes made for rocky terrain, smooth trails, wet trails; there are even shoes made specially for trail races where you swim to an island, run across the island, then swim to the next island. Now that’s specificity.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed with all the options, but when buying shoes, it’s important to be realistic about what you’ll be using them for. Don’t buy a trail shoe with an aggressive tread pattern if your daily run is around the block. Conversely, don’t try to run on trails in a road racing flat.
3. Trust yourself
The best shoe for you will be the one that feels best while you’re running. This makes sense intuitively, and research has proven it to be true. But we often ignore it, preferring an add on the wall, our training partner that we spend a lot of time chasing, or even a well-meaning salesperson. But there is no substitute for testing shoes as you will use them: on the run, at multiple speeds. No person or advertisement can tell you how you will feel in them. Pay attention to every detail of size, shape, support and ride. The shoes that feel like an extension of your body are the ones that will work the best for you.
4. Buy Local
Experienced runners know the most important part of buying running shoes is shopping at running specialty stores. Not only do they stock more extensive inventories than general retailers, they also train their sales personnel in the biomechanics of running. The trained staff will watch you run on a treadmill in the store to make sure you choose the right shoe. Often these staffers are current or former high-level competitors who study shoe characteristics keenly.
But most importantly, buying at your local running shop helps to support the running community. Running shops are the epicenters of our sport: supporting athletes, putting on running races and weekly fun runs, hosting events and helping to foster a sense of community among all runners. Buying local is an easy way to give back to the community that gives us runners so much.