How to Pick the Running Shoe That Is Best For You

Shoes are a runner's only protection; be sure to get the right kind

How to Pick the Running Shoe That Is Best For You

Contributor: Michele Dierkes, PT, DPT, ATC

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Many runners experience an injury severe enough to sideline them from activity. The best method to avoid injury is prevention.

Wearing the correct running shoe is one way runners can safeguard themselves from injury. Once the right shoe is selected, maintenance of the shoe and replacement guidelines are important.

Running shoes come in three types:  cushion, stability/neutral and motion control. Before starting a running program, be sure you have the right shoe to get the job done.

Components of a running shoe

Shoes have several components. The component that controls and gives the foot support is called the midsole. This is the part of the shoe sandwiched between the part that touches the ground, called the outsole, and the part of the shoe in which the sock liner rests, called the insole.

The midsole serves as the external shock absorption system, which can protect your body from the potentially harmful effects of repeated loading from running.

Different brands of running shoes have different kinds of midsoles. A midsole can be made from polyurethane foam, air units, gel units and ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA).

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A midsole made primarily of EVA generally is light and compressible. Midsoles made of polyurethane are denser, heavier and more durable than those made of EVA.

Each material has unique properties and can react differently in various climates. For instance, polyurethane and air units were found to remain firmer in hot temperatures than EVA and gel units, and so they give more support to your foot when you’re running in hot weather.

The stiffer and firmer the midsole, the more control the shoe will give your foot. You can use your thumbnail to push on the midsole to determine the firmness along the inside of shoe.

Soft or firm midsole?

The type of midsole that is right for you depends on the mechanics of your foot throughout the running cycle. Pronation of the foot occurs after the foot hits the ground. Pronation is our bodies’ ability to absorb ground reaction forces. It is a natural movement of the foot that occurs differently in each person. A runner who over-pronates usually has a low arch. A runner who under-pronates, or supinates, usually has a higher foot arch.

Generally, if you have high arches, you should run in cushion-type shoes, which have a softer midsole. High-arch runners are prone to bony type injuries like stress fractures due to higher loading rates from inadequate foot pronation. Cushioned shoes allow the foot to pronate, or turn, so your body can absorb the shock of your feet hitting the ground.

If you have low arches, you should run in stability or motion-control type shoes with firmer midsoles that control the amount of pronation. Low-arch runners generally are prone to overuse soft tissue injuries like tendinopathy due to excessive foot pronation.

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No two feet are alike. Generalizations about arch height can be made, but they are not hard and fast rules. For example, a runner can have a low arch but need a cushion shoe.

Several variables contribute to pronation of our feet and may affect the type of shoe needed.  For instance, weakness of the hip muscles can cause more foot pronation.

If you’re a runner, it’s best to seek an evaluation from a physical therapist in a sport-specific rehabilitation program to determine the variables that contribute to your foot type and guide you in selection of a good shoe. A physical therapist will help you understand your body, and address the variables that can help keep you injury-free.

How to get a proper shoe fit

  • Go to a specialty running store to get properly fitted for shoes or ask a physical therapist.
  • Buy shoes appropriate for your foot type and training intensity.
  • Get sized in the evening, because your feet are longer at the end of the day.
  • Wear running socks when trying on shoes to ensure proper fit.
  • Bring your prescribed orthotics.
  • Allow a half-inch between your longest toe and the end of the shoe.
  • Take a test run in store before purchasing. Running shoes don’t need to be broken in to be comfortable.

Running shoe care

  • Wear running shoes only for running. Wearing them to play other sports can break down the motion control and cushioning properties.
  • Don’t kick off shoes without untying them. This will destroy the heel of the shoe.
  • Avoid running in wet shoes. A wet midsole has 40 percent to 50 percent less shock-absorption capability.
  • Allow shoes 24 hours to restore absorption capabilities after running. The midsole needs time to restore its shape after wear and tear.
  • Alternate running shoes if you run every day.

Running shoe replacement

  • Replace your running shoes every 400 miles to 600 miles or every six months. Research reports a strong correlation between infrequent change in running shoes and injuries.
  • The midsole of a shoe will break down before the outsole, because midsoles are made of less durable materials than the outsoles.
  • If the midsole begins to look cracked or display wrinkles, it’s time to get a new running shoe.
  • Running shoes lose 30 percent to 50 percent of their shock absorption after about 250 miles of use.
  • Shock absorption capabilities of the midsole are reduced even if a shoe sits on a shelf for one to two years.