Shoe selection used to be easy. Back in the early days of the running shoe market, there were only a few players and the line-up of products was simple and limited. Today, however, choosing running shoes is far more complicated. There are dozens of companies in the market and each of them makes dozens of products.
Sometimes too much choice can be paralyzing. To help you navigate the running shoe landscape, here are four critical shoe elements you should consider when making a purchase.
1. Foot Type
Most companies build their shoes for specific foot types. Although there’s a considerable range of foot types within the population, your arch will generally fall into one of three categories: flat, neutral or high. This measure refers to the nature of your arch and how well formed it is. Shoes often come with varying degrees of arch support. If you fall into one of the extremes you may need to seek the advice of a foot specialist for alternative solutions.
Another factor to consider is the width of your feet – are they narrow or wide? There are companies out there that make varying shoe widths to accommodate different foot widths. Some people prefer specific brands based on how wide they make their shoes. One brand of shoe may not have the range you need. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of brands and inevitably you’ll find one that suits your feet.
2. Running Gait
Foot type and running gait (how you move and land when running) are often intimately connected. The simplest gait analysis usually involves observing what happens to your feet, ankle, hips and upper body upon landing. Some people have a tendency to collapse inward upon landing, especially at the foot and ankle. Shoe companies will often have a shoe within their line-up that supports this collapse through a more stable medial portion and/or higher arch support. Likewise, they will usually also have a shoe in their line-up that’s neutral for people who have limited or no inward collapse.
3. Heel-to-Toe Offset
Heel-to-toe offset is the difference in height from the heel of the shoe to the toe of the shoe. Shoes that are considered “barefoot” or “minimalist” will often have zero difference in height from heel to toe. Conversely, more traditional running shoes will have 12–14mm of difference between heel and toe.
Although heel-to-toe offset is not new to shoes themselves, advertising and promoting shoes in this way certainly is. Several shoe companies even include this number in the promotional material or on the shoe itself.
Heel-to-toe offset might be one of the single most important factors when considering a shoe. If you have been running in a shoe with a 14mm offset and suddenly start running in a shoe with a 0mm or 2mm or even a 4mm offset it will stress your body differently. Lower heel-to-toe offsets will stretch the Achilles tendon and calf muscles to a greater extent. If your body’s not ready for this, it can cause injury. If you want to progress to a barefoot or minimalist running shoe, then I highly recommend that you work your way there gradually.
The final, and perhaps the easiest, factor to consider when choosing a shoe is the terrain you’ll be running on. Many companies make both road and trail versions. The most forward-thinking companies usually line up the foot type, running gait, and heel-to-toe offset factors into both trail and road versions of the same shoe. This makes it easy to select trail shoes with all the key elements you need, built into essentially the same shoe as your road version.
Brands that align themselves more deeply with trail running often take the terrain factor a few steps further by integrating some great technology that helps you maximize performance off-road. Some examples of this technology include:
– Impact plates made of carbon fibre or hard plastic, which help protect your feet when landing on rocky terrain.
– Vents at the bottom of the shoes that allow water to drain out if you’re running in wet environments.
– Light cabling instead of laces to prevent waterlogged laces and to maintain the integrity of the snug fit if the shoes get wet.
– Tread patterns provide significant gripping off road.
– Lightweight or water-repellent materials that don’t get water logged and heavy when wet.
Running shoe technology has come a long way. Too much choice can be daunting but if you pay attention to these four aspects, then you should come out with the right shoes for you.