The Moving Crew

Search for the Perfect Running Shoe: A Cautionary Tale

By Laura S. Jones
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Like the famed ivory-billed woodpecker, my perfect running shoe is hiding. I have been as methodical and patient as those champion bird-watchers in my search. All I have to show for it is the orthopedic version of a fuzzy photograph. Flashes of greatness have flown from my feet in some shoes. But only for brief moments, and maybe they weren't even real.

I've got my fingers crossed for the woodpecker, but I'm pretty sure there is no perfect running shoe that will make me run faster or allow me to make foolish training errors without paying the price in injuries. At 41, it may be time to drop the fantasy.

It all started 17 years ago in Atlanta. I fell in with a crowd of yuppie runners who were devoted to a local running store. I dutifully ran up and down the sidewalk so the guys could watch my feet and pick my shoes with the care normally reserved for an Olympic champion.

I was hooked by the attention; I loved how different all the shoes felt. I settled on a pair but always wondered about the others. So each time I needed new shoes, I went through the process again. It was fun, like dating. Love 'em and leave 'em. No commitment. My poor, confused feet played the field along with me.

Fast-forward a dozen or so years, though, and I was paying the price in our new town. Experimenting was costing me a lot of money and time spent in physical therapy with various minor injuries. I'd gotten a little faster, but only because my pain tolerance had gone up. Like a gambler, though, I was sure a big win was just around the corner.

So what are the shoe rules? F. Clarke Holmes, director of sports medicine at Georgetown University, sees a lot of runners in his practice. One of the first questions he asks a new patient is, "How old are your running shoes?" Advises Holmes, "Whether you are a competitive or recreational runner, you should replace your running shoes every 300 to 500 miles." For most people, that works out to every six months.

Holmes then looks at the wear patterns on those old shoes, particularly in the forefoot. "If the shoe is worn on the outside [little toe side] of the forefoot, you probably supinate," meaning your foot rolls to the outside. "If it is worn on the inside [big toe side], you probably pronate [roll your foot inward, flattening it out]."

Then he'll examine your arch. Pronators usually have low arches -- flat feet, to you; that means your feet roll around too much when you walk or run. You need a motion control or stability shoe. Supinators have high arches and feet that don't flex enough. You need cushioned shoes to ease the pounding.

Most of us pronate some. My shoe odyssey was fueled by the fact that I have one pronating foot and one supinating foot. I look like I'm standing sideways in a strong wind.

Wear patterns and arch height will determine what types of shoes you should try on. Holmes sends patients to a good running shoe store -- he likes Georgetown Running Co. and Fleet Feet -- and tells them to figure on spending $75 to $120. Beware of shoes on sale and those in big-box or department stores, he says. Shoes that have been sitting too long will deteriorate.

Holmes says the staff should watch you run in neutral shoes (shoes that don't reduce motion or have too much cushioning) to see how your feet and legs move naturally and then offer shoes that address your particular foot type and goals.

If you are new to running, you may have to try several brands of shoes and sometimes even more than one type (e.g., stability) or a hybrid. It's worth the investment of education, time and money because the right shoe will make you feel like you have new feet. You'll want to run or walk farther and more often.

What if you don't run? "I like running shoes for just about everything," Holmes says.

Once you find a shoe that works, don't stray, Holmes says. Let your feet and body adapt. I learned my lesson the hard way through injuries, and I came back to the brand that worked best for me. Luckily, the shoe, a basic low-rise stability shoe with a flexible sole and room for my bunion, forgave me, and we are blissfully happy again. And I'm almost back up to my husband's pace, so we can run together.

Now I can focus on something else. Like socks.

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