Trouble finding the right running shoe? Use our tips to hone your shopping technique and tame the shoe racks of your local running store.
Posted Thursday, 23 April, 1998
One of the great advantages of running over many other sports is that it requires very little equipment. Lace up a pair of shoes, and you're good to go. But choosing that pair of shoes is all-important. The right pair of shoes will make your runs comfortable and adjust perfectly to your foot type, while the wrong pair could actually invite injury.
With all the shoes that are on the market, though, it can be a truly baffling experience trying to find that elusive perfect pair. Much of the process depends on the help you receive and, yes, the finer points of shopping technique. We're here to help. But before we take you to the running store, be sure to brush up on your knowledge of shoe construction and foot types with our pointers on the mysteries of the running shoe.
Choose your store carefully
General purpose sporting goods stores rarely cut it and often don't train their staffs properly about the specific needs of runners. The staffs of most specialty running stores, by contrast, are typically quite knowlegeable. They know how different shoe models are constructed and for what type of foot. Even better, the salespeople at the best stores can look at your foot and your gait to help decide what shoe will be best.
Running stores tend to be small mom-and-pop businesses, and while prices are rarely bargain-basement at running stores, the service and know-how always make it worth a few extra dollars. Besides that, these stores are often very supportive of the local running scene, giving a leg up to races and running clubs. It's only right to support them for their efforts. (Looking for a running store near you? Try our regional running links.)
Without question, you should invest in a quality pair of running shoes. This does not mean that you have to buy the most expensive shoes out there, but don't buy the bottom of the line. You get what you pay for, and since your shoes are the only thing between you and the pavement you're pounding, it's worth spending a little money. With that said, you can get a good pair of shoes that fit your budget as well as your feet. Decide on a budget range before you go to the store and keep to it.
Tell your salesperson as much information as you can. How much you want to spend, whether you pronate, what surfaces you run on, your weekly mileage, your running goals, any recent injuries. It all makes a difference. Bring in your old running shoes so that the salesperson can eyeball your wear pattern.
Pick your shoe
Try on several different pairs, and don't be afraid to ask for more. Take your time, and ask plenty of questions. You should try on the shoes wearing the running socks you normally wear. Be sure to try the shoes on both feet -- most of us have one foot that is larger than the other, and manufacturer irregularities can also make the shoes slightly different sizes, too. If at all possible, do your shopping in the afternoon or evening, or just after your run -- your feet swell during the day and especially during a run, and you should try on the shoes when they're at their largest. Even when you do this, you should still allow a little room for expansion. Leave about a thumb's width between your longest toe (not necessarily your big toe) and the end of the shoe. You should be able to wiggle your toes freely.
The width should be snug. If it's loose, the shoe will slide and cause blisters. On the other hand, make sure the width is not too tight; if your foot bulges out over the midsole, you will lose support, and potentially circulation, in your foot. When in doubt on shoe sizes, always err on the large side.
Finally, once you've found a pair you think you like, ask if you can try them outside. Most specialty stores will have no problem with this. If the salesperson seems anxious about it, then offer to leave your driver's license or a credit card. It's worth pressing for, since there's no substitute for taking the shoes out for a test drive. After you've bought the shoes and you find that they aren't the right ones after all, you may be able to return them. Most running stores don't mind taking back shoes that have only been out for one or two training runs.
When you find a model of running shoe that really seems to work for you, stick with it. There's absolutely no reason to change brands. All too often, however, a model is phased out or changed enough that it's no longer quite the same. If you find out this is going to happen, try to stock up on your shoe and buy several pairs. If the shoe is discontinued, of course, then eventually you'll have to face the music and find a new model. In that case, it can't hurt to bring your old stand-by shoes into the store to ask the salesperson for advice on your next selection.
The next pair
Even after all the hard work of researching and finding your perfect running shoe, it is of course inevitable that your beloved running shoes will eventually wear down. The midsoles flatten out and the cushioning gives way. When this happens, your shoes are no longer acting as shock absorbers. Instead, the shock gets passed along to your bones and joints, and that's an invitation to injury.
The trick, of course, is knowing when to retire your trusty shoes before you hurt yourself. Depending on the shoe, the surface on which you run, and your weight, running shoes should last anywhere between 300 and 500 miles before they lose the spring in their step. This means that runners who log 25 miles per week should look at replacing their shoes every three to four months.
It can be difficult to recognize the signs of wear simply by looking at the shoe. Outsoles are so durable these days that the shoe's cushioning may be long gone before the tread is significantly worn down. The best test is just to pay attention to how you feel. As your shoes begin to give out, you may begin to get some pangs in your bones and joints; you may have slight shin splints or some tightness in your calves.
It's a good idea to have more than one pair of shoes. Buy your second pair about midway through the life of your first, and alternate pairs. Shoes wear down very gradually, and it can be difficult to recognize it without a reference point. With a second, newer pair of shoes, you will feel the difference in cushioning when one pair wears out. This should make it easier to tell when it's time to bid the old shoes farewell and buy another pair. Do not, however, alternate between a brand new pair and a completely worn out pair. You'll only mix up your feet and cause injury. Start wearing the new pair when your "old" shoes have about 200 miles on them.
Using two pairs of shoes, of course, doubles their lives (in terms of time, not miles); if you would normally replace a given pair in three months, you would now do it in six. And you might actually squeeze a few extra miles out of them, too. Shoes tend to last longer when you let them rest and dry out between runs.