The best shoes for running
Dealing regularly with runners, I get asked about running shoes all the time. I think the running shoe is seen as the ultimate injury prevention apparatus. I know when people ask me this question they’re looking for a simple answer – Nike Free, Saucony Kinvara, Hoka one one, and I really wish it were that simple, or that I had some kind of magic ability to match a runner with the perfect running shoe. I can imagine me, sat in my mystical tent, a queue of excited runners lining up outside, ready for my wisdom – The Dalai Lama of running footwear. Enter runner, eyes to the floor (naturally I wouldn’t allow them to look me in the eye ;-)) I study him in a stroky-beard type way ” hmmm 6ft 1…bearded…walks with a limp…you sir are a Vibram five fingers – NEXT!…ok…female…red handbag…strange laugh…you madam are an Innov-8 F-Lite 230” …although now I’ve written that, it sounds like a good gig! I might pitch that to the running shoe shops as the new way to match runners with the right shoe! would probably be as successful as there current method of videoing someone’s foot on a treadmill! (forgive me running shoe shops – I know you’re doing your best!)
All joking aside, I know people like simple and definitive answers. Something they can implement immediately, but my answer always ends up being “it depends” followed by me reeling off a long list of variables to take into consideration, whilst the person in question looks on with a “wish I never asked” look on their face and begins desperately working out how to get out of this conversation as quickly as possible.
I think that many runners believe, that if they can just find that perfect shoe, they’d never get injured and they would run like the wind! If only that were true. I can’t blame them though, in this world of marketing and advertising, no-one does a better job at convincing us of the panacea qualities of the running shoe, than the running shoe industry.
The truth of the matter is, there is no best running shoe. There is no good or bad, in the world of running shoes, there’s just different. Running shoes can definitely influence the way you run, and, the way you run can have an effect on how, and where, the load, associated with running, is distributed around your body. The important thing to note is, it is the way you run that determines where the load goes, not the running shoe per se. So, you can run the same way, no matter what’s on your feet, it’s just that people tend to run a certain way with certain footwear.
For example, more built up running shoes, with a sizeable drop (drop is the angle from heel to toe, so a shoe with a high heel and low fore foot would have a greater drop), such as the Asics Gel Radiance, tends to place more load on the knee and shin. Again, it’s not necessarily the shoe that does this, but when you have a nice big crash pad under your heel…you’re gonna use it! So you start lengthening your stride out in front of you, over-striding and landing on your heel. As far as injuries go, this is not necessarily right or wrong, good or bad, it just means that this style will place more load on the knee and shin, whereas, a more minimal shoe, like the Vibram Five Fingers Bikilo, tends to place more load on the foot and ankle, not necessarily because of the shoe but because it leads to changes in the way you run.
Neither is right or wrong, it just is what it is. This type of information can be really helpful, however, when choosing a running shoe. Ask yourself, why you are buying the running shoe, and what you want to achieve. You might be an athlete, who suffers with knee or shin pain, so armed with the above information, you can reason that you may get on better with a more minimalist shoe, or vice versa, you may be a runner who suffers from Achilles tendon problems, so going with something with a bit of a heel may be beneficial. Just be careful when using this reasoning, the load still has to go somewhere! If you shift load from the knee, to the foot and ankle, by way of minimalist footwear, and you do not respect the law of adaptation, and graduate the stress being placed in this area, you’ll just swap one injury for another.
They key things that I’m thinking, when I’m looking for a running shoe, are:
1) Is the shoe going to protect me from the environment I run in? – temperature, sharp objects, terrain etc.
2) Is the shoe as light as it can be? Adding a big weight to your foot is really not a good idea when it comes to running. There is a good reason why your legs look they way they do. Most of the mass is situated proximally e.g. around the hips. This is designed to minimise the inertial mass of the lower limb. Have a look at the below diagram. The black dots represent the joint axis and the triangles are a body segment. Note that the body segments (triangles) are the same size and have equal mass, however, that mass is distributed differently A) is an example of a system with a small moment of inertia (like our legs), as the majority of the mass is close to the joint B) shows a joint with a large moment of inertia as the mass of the segment is distant from the joint axis. Moving the body part in A) requires much less effort than in B) due to the mass distribution. Therefore, adding mass distally, is going to create more work for the body, and greater energy expenditure.
3) Are they comfortable? Not too tight, wide toe-box, don’t excessively rub etc.
4) How could this load my body? Using the information above, could this type of shoe alter my style and place more load on the knee and shin, or ankle and foot?
5) Do I like the way it looks. Actually quite important for me when looking for running shoes. You’re not going to see me bounding across Richmond Park with a pair of Crocs any time soon!
For what it’s worth, this is what I do. Here are the shoes I own:
1) Saucony A6
2) VivoBarefoot Stealth (yes, I know they have seen better days)
On a day to day basis, I’m generally in my VivoBarefoot stealth’s. In my opinion, I think you need to let your foot be a foot, and not bind it up all day in ill fitting footwear. I like a day to day shoe that gives the absolute minimum in terms of protection. This, I feel, keeps my feet strong and flexible. However, if I want to run long distances in my VivoBarefoot stealths, I simply can’t, my calves and foot muscles are not adapted (yet) to be able to do this. So, I do most of my mileage in my Suacony A6’s. These are light weight, yet not as hard work for my foot and ankle as my VivoBarefoot stealths.
I wear my Asics Gel Radiance sparingly, but they do get an outing. For example, last week, I wanted to get out and have a nice easy run, and get out and into some nature, but my calves were quite sore from a previous workout 24 hrs earlier. So, knowing that the Asics would offload my calf, more than my Saucony’s, I chose them, and had no problems at all with my calves. They actually felt better post run.
So in summary, my advice would be: Firstly, understand that there are no bad running shoes, just shoes that can lead to changes in the way you run which can load the body differently. Get yourself a few different types of shoe, and mix it up a bit. Shoe rotation is underrated. As long as it’s pain free, I think there’s huge benefits from being barefoot or minimalist for most of the day.
If you’re really into your running shoes then I can’t recommend Pete Larson’s blog (runblogger) highly enough. You can follow him on twitter here. He’s like the rain man of running shoes. Incidentally, he has also authored a book – Tread Lightly – which you will find in my recommended books on my home page or running shop. It’s is one of the most balanced, and evidenced based, books you’re likely to read on running. It really is a good read.
Anyway, I hope this helps give you a bit more information to draw on, when you’re choosing your running footwear. Good luck and stay injury free!