Some thoughts and tips on finding that one perfect shoe for you
By Nick Bradley
I’m not afraid of admitting that I hoard running shoes. This year alone I’ve tested about 30-40 pairs – the latest racing flats; cushy ultra running cruisers; traditional “drop” daily trainers; minimalist; maximalist; you name it! I’m not a wear tester so most have been purchased using my hard earned cash.
Here’s a few snaps of the collection …
My current rotation, a few options for both road and trail:
The ones destined for eBay:
The hidden ones … that my wife doesn’t know about just yet!
You could say I have a running shoe problem? I like to think it’s more of an absolute love of running and a continuous search for that perfect shoe (or shoes!) that will take me further, faster, in whatever level of comfort the challenge presents. In short, I’m happy to be called a Running Shoe Geek.
But I’m not alone. Significant changes in philosophy, design, marketing, even types of running events, have meant that the running shoe industry has transformed itself over the last few years. It would be easy to blame everything on “Born to Run” but you can’t argue with the stats that indicate there are more factors being pushed out in marketing channels now that excite, confuse, divide budding runners than ever before.
Are you a barefoot runner? What’s the drop? Stability vs. neutral? Cushioned vs. minimal? Wide toe-box! Speed laces! New Balance Fresh Foam … that’s as hard as a rock! I could go on. Evolution is a great thing, but it can also cause ambiguity when it comes to finding that perfect shoe.
The point I’m making here is pretty straightforward. You used to walk into your Local Running Store (LRS) and get fitted for the right shoe for you, based on a small number of choices, and you’d walk out more or less happy, none the wiser. But these days there are many more brands, many more models, and many more marketing messages to consider. And as a result of this, I’m suggesting that many runners are forgetting the most important thing when selecting a shoe and instead they are choosing the brand that they think is the coolest, or the shoe model that connects with the latest fad, it might even simply be the colour!
Perhaps I’m being harsh? A fair challenge. But as a race director myself, coordinating my local 10km road race, it amazes me how many people line up in Hoka’s. Not that there is anything fundamentally wrong with this, especially if a Hoka is the right shoe for them. I’m just betting that a shoe designed for ultra marathons in the upper Pyrenees was perhaps not the first choice a shoe fitting professional would have suggested … certainly not for the masses.
So what is the most important thing? Quite simply, it’s how the shoe fits = bespoke to you; your foot size (note: not necessarily your traditional shoe size on the Brannock!); your individual biomechanics; aligned to what you like and what you are trying to achieve as a runner. And with shoe manufacturers evolving, trying new things, launching new models, now more that ever is the best time to find the right shoe for you. Here are five steps that I’ve found can successfully narrow down that search:
1. Get your running form and biomechanics properly analysed
So many people who have running injuries or issues blame their shoes. This is understandable but dangerous. I was once diagnosed with a hip labral tear caused by weak hips and glutes, plus other imbalances along my kinetic chain. But the initial diagnosis and recommendation was moderate stability shoes and potentially orthotics – in hindsight this would have been the worse thing for me! Get a proper analysis done, either through a medical professional or a respected shoe fitting/gait analysis expert, and know what your working with.
2. Align your physical needs with your personal views and running philosophy
This may sound “new age” but I feel it’s important to recognise where you stand in terms of your motivations and beliefs. Some people believe the body doesn’t need shoes, and if anything, very little protection or cushioning. Others adopt and embrace minimal ground feel and ‘floating’ above the terrain. Others don’t care and mix whatever they feel like on the day. The point here is know where you stand, understand what your body needs, and then you’re free to explore and narrow down the huge amount of choices on the market. It’s very enjoyable reading the marketing blurb on various manufacturer’s sites. But better to do this with clear knowledge of what your looking for and what you’re trying to achieve.
3. Visit the most respected LRS in your area and/or order a heap of different shoes and sizes from an online retailer (that allows free returns!)
This is the fun bit! My personal view is that you should try lots of options and prioritise fit, as per my definition, above everything else. Then focus on feel – a common expression in the running shoe geekosphere is …. ‘does the shoe disappear when I’m running?’ If you’re lucky enough to find that shoe, and it works with your individual needs and running form, stock up! Too often does version 2 or 3 of a model end up being an entirely different shoe vs. the one that you loved in the very beginning.
4. Decide on the 2-3 options that fit and feel the best
I never choose a shoe that I can’t run in first. Even if that is only on a treadmill for 5-10 mins. Ideally a professional LRS or online retailer will allow you to fully try out a shoe and return it if it doesn’t work for you. Regardless, goes without saying, never buy from anyone that doesn’t allow some kind of ‘live running test’. There have been multiple times in the past where a shoe has felt great walking around a shop only to become a problem when out on the road or trail. I also find that in some shoes the fit only becomes ‘true’ when a bit of foot molding has occurred – watch out for this! … it’s worth studying online reviews to ensure a shoe is running to size, keeping in mind that this is simply a directional guideline. Your ultimate choice then comes down to things like brand, design features (yes, looks are important!) but only after you’ve addressed the primary consideration of personal fit.
5. Consider building a shoe rotation based on the different types of running you do
Do you run purely on road? How about trails on the weekend? Does your race schedule mix up fast 5kms with an annual Spring marathon? What about a very minimal shoe for form work and treadmill training? Shoe rotation is not for everyone and in some ways contradicts the idea of finding that one perfect shoe. But the reality I’ve found is that there is no one perfect shoe for every occasion. There is however the right shoe for the job that is the perfect shoe for you under those circumstances. I train for and race ultras, predominantly on trail, but I keep a few lightweight trainers in rotation for short road races and Tuesday track work. I combine these with 3-4 trail options which eat up the bulk of my miles, especially on my weekly Sunday long run. You get the point! There is some evidence to suggest that shoe rotation mixes things up and reduces the chance of overuse injuries because your body is always adapting. I can only comment from personal experience here and say that it has worked for me … but I’m very diligent in sticking within certain parameters, and shoe fit is the key driver in terms of what gets a look in to make the list.
So all in all, lots of choice in a transforming running shoe market is a great thing. But you need to step back and think more about your needs before jumping in. That may lead to the purchase of 30+ shoes in a year! If so, good for you. But whatever your approach, there is a perfect shoe for you out there and there has never been a better time to test the possibilities.
About the author:
Nick Bradley is a keen marathon and ultra distance runner, competing in numerous events around the world each year. Initially from Australia, Nick now resides in the UK where he is the MD of a learning and development business. But in a previous life, he worked as a writer for Men’s Health magazine and also ran a personal training and fitness leadership business in Adelaide, South Australia. His inspiration for running comes from his Grandpa, Ken Wood, who ran the 1984 Adelaide Marathon after open heart surgery – one of the first Australian’s to achieve such a feat. When time permits, he can be found blogging at www.endurancelimit.com.