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Finding the Right Running Shoes

Your chances of landing in a comfortable, quality pair of running shoes greatly increases if you shop at a running specialty shop rather than a huge, multisport center attempting to hawk everything from bowling balls to scuba gear to in-line skates. Employees of most running specialty shops typically are people who run themselves.

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The best running shops also serve as the center of your local running community and can be a gold mine of information on training, upcoming races, and group fun runs. A good running specialty shop not only allows you to take the shoes for a 5-minute test run, but it encourages you to do so. If the store doesn't let you test-run in the shoe, don't plunk down your dollars there.

Knowledgeable running store employees will most likely ask you (nicely) the following questions before they try to fit you in a particular shoe:

  • How much running experience, if any, do you have?

  • How many miles a week do you run?

  • What type of surface do you run on?

  • Do you have any short-term goals for your running program? For example, are you training for an upcoming race? Or do you simply want to get around the block three or four times a week?

The answers to such questions can help the running store people steer you in the right direction.

Shop for your running shoes in the afternoon. Why? Because your feet tend to swell slightly throughout the day, and Rule No. 1 is to avoid buying shoes that are too small! (Your feet also swell slightly during a training run.) And be sure to wear athletic socks of the same thickness that you'll wear when you run.

You can speed up and assist in the shoe-choosing process in two ways. First, take the "wet test" to determine what kind of foot you have, such as high-arched as opposed to flat. Second, if you tried to run or walk in a relatively recent life, bring in your old shoes. Even if the most vigorous thing you did in them was escort your toy poodle down to the corner mailbox and back, the wear pattern on your shoes may be helpful to the store employees.

Wet test: Tracking your footprints

You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to learn something from your footprints. Wet the bottom of one foot and then step firmly onto a flat surface (tile — or sand — works). If you have a flat foot, you'll leave a fat, complete footprint. If your footprint appears almost severed in half vertically, so that virtually no print from your arch is visible, then you have a high arch. A so-called normal foot is somewhere in between: The footprint will show about half of the arch.

Figure 1 shows some wet test footprints.

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Figure 1: Wet tests for three different footprints.

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Knowing something about what type of foot you have before you head to the running shoe store can at least steer you toward a range of models with the specific technology to address your potential problems.

Wear patterns and foot strike

By examining the wear patterns (the places on your shoes worn smooth by repetitive use) of your old shoes, a knowledgeable shoe guru may get some clues about particular models that will fit you best. Reading wear patterns isn't an exact science; one shoe expert admitted that "It's a bit like reading tea leaves." But the more information you start with, the better your chances of getting fitted in a top-rate shoe.

Foot strike is a term that you may hear bantered about in a running shoe shop, as in, "Are you a heel striker or a forefoot striker?" Most runners tend to be heel strikers who land on the outside of the heel and then roll up to push off the ball of the foot and the toes. A few runners are forefoot strikers and land more on the ball of the foot.

Wear patterns on shoes can tell a lot about foot strike. A forefoot striker (the wear pattern typically results in a smooth area around the ball of the foot) may need a shoe with plenty of forefoot cushioning. An ultraheavy heel striker requires extra cushioning in the heel.

Figure 2 shows the various parts of a typical shoe so that you can identify the areas where you may need extra cushion.

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Figure 2: The parts of a shoe.

Pronation

Inevitably, you will hear the term pronation if you're in the company of sports podiatrists, running store staffers, or veteran runners or coaches.

The physical act of running isn't just a case of putting one foot in front of the other; running is a somewhat complex biomechanical process:

  • Most runners (except the forefoot strikers) strike the ground on the outside of the heel.

  • Next, the rest of the foot comes down and rolls slightly inward as it meets the surface. (This down and inward roll rotation is called pronation.)

  • Lastly, the heel lifts off the ground as the runner propels himself off the ball of the foot and toes, applying the necessary force to move forward. The repetition of this process makes a person a runner (regardless of speed).

Pronation in itself is not a bad thing because it helps your feet and legs absorb shock. However, excessive pronation — rolling in too much — can cause increased injury risks. That's called overpronation, and the answer to it is finding a shoe with good motion-controlproperties. Runners with flat feet (and those with bowed legs) tend to be prime candidates for overpronation woes.

Runners who overpronate need a "straight" shoe (as opposed to one that curves at the tip) with a firm midsole for motion-control to prevent the foot from rolling inward too much upon footstrike. The very bottom of the shoe is called the outsole; the next layer up — the one designed for shock absorption duty — is the shoe's midsole.)

A much less frequent problem is underpronation. Although they're a rare breed, underpronators tend to have an inflexible foot (and often a high arch, too), and when they land, their feet don't make much of a rolling-in motion. The result is a lot of pounding force. A runner that lands like a ton of bricks and underpronates definitely requires a shoe with plenty of cushioning to absorb the shock.

Figure 3 shows overpronation, underpronation, and a happy medium.

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Figure 3: Buy shoes that match your pronation.

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