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There is more to buying a running shoe than simply picking the shoe that is your favorite color. It can be a process to determine which shoe is right for your feet, but when you are in the middle of a long run and your feet feel great you will appreciate the effort.
Historically there have been three basic categories of shoes: neutral, stability, and motion control. Recently the lines between these categories have blurred a little, and some running publications have even gone away from using them, but they are still the best system to use when finding the right shoe for your feet.
To find your category of shoe you need to determine whether you pronate, and to what degree. Pronation is the collapsing of your arch and inward roll of your ankle as you progress through the action of taking a step. The more inward “flex” your ankle has, the more you pronate. Everybody has some natural pronation, but if you pronate excessively you are prone to injuries such as plantar fasciitis.
To determine whether you pronate you can have a professional at a specialty running store watch you walk or run. They will be experienced enough to know what shoes will work for you.
Your arches are actually a pretty good indicator of pronation as well. If you have a high, rigid arch you will probably not pronate excessively. Flat feet generally correlate with more pronation. While there are exceptions, this is the general rule.
It can also be helpful to look at running shoes that you have previously used. Look at the wear on the bottom of the shoe, under the forefoot (ignore the wear on the heel, it can be deceiving). You want most of the wear down the center of the shoe. If there is excessive wear on the medial side of the shoe (the side that faces your other foot when the shoe is on) then you need more support for pronation than what that particular shoe offers. If there is excessive wear on the outside of the shoe you need less support – the shoe is probably overcorrecting.
If you do not have more than a slight amount of natural pronation look for a neutral shoe. These are sometimes referred to as “cushioning” shoes because they are made with softer foam than stability or motion control shoes. The amount of cushioning in these shoes varies by model, but none of them are made with the purpose of correcting pronation.
Most over-pronators wear a stability shoe. Stability shoes have a slightly firmer midsole to increase support, and they also have technology such as a bar of dense foam called a “medial post” along the medial side of the midsole to stop the inward movement of pronation. This keeps your feet, ankles, knees, and hips in line if you pronate and reduces your risk of running-related injury.
Motion control shoes are like stability shoes, but with even more of the corrective dense foam along the inside of your foot, and a slightly different shape for even more support for pronation. It is less common to need this amount of support and there are fewer shoe choices in this category.
Once in the correct category of shoe, finding the right fit for your foot is very important. There are a few principles to keep in mind about the length and width of running shoes.
When selecting the size of your running shoe it is very likely that you will need to go up half a size from your regular shoes. In some brands, like Nike, you might even have to go up a full size. From year to year the sizing can even change within the same line of shoes. You want about a thumb-width of space in front of your toes to allow room for your foot to swell while you run, or you might end up losing some toe nails. Most people have one foot that is longer than the other. If this is the case, look for that thumb-width of space in front of the longer foot, but make sure that the shorter foot does not end up sliding around too much in the shoe.
The width of the shoe is a careful balance to find. You want enough space in the toe area so that your toes can comfortably splay out when pushing off, but you do not want to be sliding around in the shoe. If the width of the shoe feels too tight do not expect that it will “break in” and stretch out. The materials in running shoes will not give substantially over time, so if the shoe is too tight when you try it on it will be too tight when you run in it. Also, if the heel of the shoe slides off easily there will be rubbing and blistering. This can often be prevented by lacing up with the extra eyelet at the top of the shoe.
Overall, you want the shoe to feel natural on your foot with no rubbing or uncomfortable pressure. Ideally, the shoe will feel like an extension of your foot.
A common question is whether you want the softest shoe possible for running. This is completely up to your preference. Of the major running shoe brands Nike and Saucony will feel the softest with a “marshmallow-y” feel, and the newer Adidas running shoes with “Boost” midsoles are also very soft but with a bouncy feel. Asics and Brooks running shoes are right in the middle of the spectrum, while most New Balance and Mizuno shoes have a firmer feel. Some runners like a soft shoe for the shock absorption, others prefer a firmer shoe for more ground-feel.
Once you have narrowed down your shoe category and found a few models that fit well, but need to make a final decision on one shoe, you may employ the characteristic that we originally rejected: your favorite color.