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Shopping for Running Shoes

Choosing your shoes is one of the most important aspects of a running program. Your chances of finding a comfortable, quality pair of running shoes greatly increases if you shop at a running specialty shop rather than a huge, multisport center.

Here’s one telltale sign of a good running specialty shop: It 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.

Your feet tend to swell slightly throughout the day, so shop for your running shoes in the afternoon. Be sure to wear athletic socks of the same thickness that you’ll wear when you run.

Tracking your footprints

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.

Wet the bottom of one foot and then step firmly onto a flat surface. 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.

Wet tests for three different footprints.
Wet tests for three different footprints.

Examining 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. 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.

Considering 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. Most runners 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.)

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-control properties. Runners with flat feet (and those with bowed legs) tend to be prime candidates for overpronation woes.

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 requires a shoe with plenty of cushioning to absorb the shock.

Buy running shoes that match your pronation.
Buy running shoes that match your pronation.

Finding a running shoe that fits

Fit is the most important aspect of choosing a shoe. If a shoe seems a tiny bit on the big side, you can get away with it by wearing a slightly thicker sock, for example, or by pulling the laces a bit tighter. If you have even the slightest inkling that a shoe’s a bit too small, don’t take it. A shoe that’s too tight can only result in blisters, discolored toenails, and general discomfort.

Here’s a checklist to determine whether the shoe fits:

  • You should be able to wiggle your toes in the toe box, or tip of the shoe.

  • Your foot should feel snug in the heel, and there should be no “slipping” sensation. Your heel or Achilles tendon should not feel pinched to any degree either.

  • You should have reasonable flexibility in the forefoot/toe area. (Try bending the shoe slightly with your hand.)

  • The shoe should fit snugly across the top of the foot, but it shouldn’t have a straitjacket feel, either. In addition, the tongue of the shoe should be padded enough to prevent the shoe laces from irritating, or cutting into, the top of your foot.

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