Footwear and function: what makes a good running shoe and how to pick them

In the case of most trainers, function doesn’t go past looking good. So how do you pick the right pair for you? Risqat Fabunmi-Alade reveals all…

You’ve battled crowded high streets in the howling wind and rain to get a pair of fresh kicks, parting with an eye-watering sum in the process. Sure, they might also be the most comfortable thing you’ve ever slipped your feet inside, but it doesn’t mean they’re best suited to running…

In fact, a lot of trainer function doesn’t go past looking good. Mike O'Neill, from The College of Podiatry says "65 per cent" of UK recreational sportspeople are wearing the wrong shoes. Which is huge considering how footwear is arguably the most important piece of equipment for any sport: ill fitting trainers put you at risk of serious back, hip and knee pain, shin splints, Achilles tendinitis, toe trauma, blisters and more.

Unfortunately, there is no ‘best shoe’, as everyone’s needs are different: your biomechanics, surfaces you run on, distance, and, of course, the shape of your feet mean one runner’s holy grail trainer is another runner’s worst match. So how do you choose? Read on...

Shop with specialists
Many retailers now list what the shoe is intended for in the description, so make sure you check for it before buying. For a more hands on and personalised approach, head into stores such as Runners Need, Sweatshop, Run & Become, Nike and Asics, where staff are trained to seek out a perfect fit. And for those serious about their stride, some shops even offer various gait analysis to discover all the nuances in your running style and find you a suitable trainer accordingly.

Not all footwear is created equal
Running shoes are for - you guessed it - running. They tend to be flexible, allowing the foot to bend and flex through each stride. But if you're looking to double up your running with other sports such as tennis (which including more lateral activity and agility) you might need a sport-specific pair.

Think about your sex
2There are countless differences between the male and female physique, including our feet. Research has shown women have broader forefeet, a narrower heel, longer toes and higher arches. Our biomechanics also differ due to lower body weight, better flexibility and a wider ‘Q angle’ (angle between the hip bone & kneecap). So, a gender-specific shoe range may be an idea when shopping. Most big name brands such as Asics and Nike cater to this.

Size yourself up

The College of Podiatry estimates 60% of people have one foot larger than the other, so check yours. Moreover, what ‘type’ of feet do you have? Normal, high or flat arches? Wide or narrow? Supination or pronation? Allow us to reveal why.

Normal arches: Normal feet with a normal-sized arch land on the outside of the heel and roll inwards slightly to absorb shock during motion. Runners with these feet are likely to be biomechanically efficient and will very often need a ‘motion control’ shoe.

High: Highly arched feet are generally supinated or underpronated, resulting in less effective shock absorption. Specialist stores will likely recommend cushioned (or 'neutral') shoes with plenty of flexibility to encourage foot motion and advise you to get away from motion control or stability shoes, which reduce foot mobility.

Flat: Flat feet have a low, almost nonexistent, arch and usually indicate an overpronated foot – one that strikes on the outside of the heel and rolls inwards (pronates) excessively. Over time, this can contribute to many different types of injuries. Overpronators are generally assigned a motion-control shoe or high stability shoes with firm midsoles and control features that, in theory, reduce the degree of pronation. Stay away from highly cushioned, highly curved shoes, which lack stability features.

Wide or narrow feet: Some trainers are wider or more narrow in their design but unlike with formal shoes, brands don’t tend to have that many width options. What to do? Consider buying the standard width and use foam inner soles inside the shoe to take up a little of the extra width. You might even have a more comfortable shoe because you have more padding. The way in which you tie your laces can also help improve fit to an extent. Those with wider feet, in some trainers the pressure of a wider foot can cause the material to give and adjust to the width of the foot. Also, letting out the laces to accommodate your width is a last resort.

What are your trainers for?
When buying your new trainers, you have to consider what running you're using them for. Sprints? 5k? 10k? Half marathons? Full marathons or ultras? Is your training recreational or will you be racing? These factors impact your choice.

If your focus is on performance and you’ll be competing in your running trainers you may opt for a lighter shoe much like elite athletes. One frequently referenced study found adding 100g to a shoe increased the aerobic demand of running by 1%, equated to roughly one minute during a marathon. Interestingly, the same study showed that the gains from racing in a lightweight shoe were lost if the shoes became too light as then the legs were absorbing more impact, which in turn costs energy.

Some elite athletes shun lightweight racing flat altogether and race in heavily cushioned training shoes during marathons and long-distance events for this reason. The race shoes are a balance between cushioning and lightness. Where you sit on the scale is dependent on your weight, speed, running style, strength, foot shape, fit of the shoe and personal preference.

For example, lighter runners can afford to go with less cushioning and get lighter shoes, while a heavier runner might need extra cushioning. It’ll reduce the stress on the lower legs and make your landings more comfortable. Cushioning protects your feet as well as the rest of the chain from the feet up as the shock of each stride is carried up your legs. However, cushioning also absorbs energy, forcing you to work harder to maintain speed, so you don’t want too much of it either. For events 3hrs+ I advise a shoe with more cushioning simply due to the amount of time spent on the feet pounding the ground & the forces they’ll be contending with.

And do take into account the running surface e.g. grass, track, sand or concrete/pavement. Also consider arch type - normal arches are more suited to the lighter pairs, as they’re the most efficient natural shock absorbers. The margins for how much difference a light shoe makes (1 minute in a marathon) are quite small so depending on your level of competition, go with what works for you.

Think about the material
Lastly, if you’ll be running often, far, or competing at a good level, think about investing in trainers with breathable mesh in the upper so your feet don’t get sweaty and uncomfortable, making it harder to run and increasing likelihood of blisters. Your body generates a lot of heat during exercise and that includes your feet, so try to let them breathe!

Ok. So you've found a pair you like. How should your shoe fit?

Try before you buy: Try on BOTH shoes and walk around the shop to check if they pinch or rub. Some stores will even let you have a jog or run.

Wiggle room: Make sure there is 1cm between the longest toe and the end of the shoe. You don’t want your toes right up against the front, as this won’t be comfortable once you start running.

Hold on: You should have a secure, comfortable fit through the midfoot (i.e. not having to tighten your laces a ridiculous amount to have a hope of them staying on).

The heel: There should be little or no slipping at the heel.

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