If the Shoe Fits, Start Running

Our Guide to Buying the Right Athletic Shoe -- And The Left One, Too

A Running Shoe Dissected
By Vicky Hallett
Special to the Washington Post
Tuesday, March 4, 2008; Page HE01

This is a story about running shoes, and don't let anyone like Bart Yasso, chief running officer of Runner's World magazine, hear you give them any other name. "When people call them sneakers, we correct them. A sneaker would be something you walk around in," he says.

It might seem silly, but the distinction matters, at least to the person whose feet they're on. Running shoes are highly technical footwear that provide stability and cushioning while heroically bearing up to three times the wearer's body weight; sneakers, on the other hand, are fashion accessories designed to look cool at the mall. "If you run for more than five minutes at any time, you might as well have running shoes," advises Stephen Pribut, a District-based podiatrist specializing in sports medicine.

But not any pair will do, even if you're dropping upwards of $100, because finding the right running shoe is something of an art -- or "a science and a feel," according to Warren Greene, the brand editor of Runner's World, who is charged with organizing the magazine's exhaustive annual shoe guides.

The science part begins with the shape of the arch of your foot, which anyone can determine at home with this quickie experiment: Dunk your foot in water and then place it on a brown paper bag. If you see a "C" shape on the paper when you remove your foot, you have a rare high arch, which suggests you're an under-pronator. If the shape looks more like a rectangle, that means you have flat feet and are likely an over-pronator. See something in between? That's a normal arch, which usually translates into some pronating but not a whole lot.

Pronation isn't as sinister as it sounds -- it's merely the flattening of the arch as you move through your step, which makes your foot roll inward. "There should be a degree of that occurring," explains James Christina, a podiatrist who serves as director of scientific affairs at the American Podiatric Medical Association. "Pronating loosens up the structures in the foot and allows it to adapt to changes in the ground. But if it happens excessively, you have problems." Think shin splints and tendinitis.

Of course, under-pronation (also called -- get ready for it -- supination) comes with its own host of maladies because your foot doesn't absorb shock effectively. Without proper cushioning, that's a recipe for stress fractures and knee and hip issues.

Luckily for runners, shoe technology has come a long way since Ed Grant, president of the D.C. Road Runners, trained in Converse shoes and the like in the 1970s. "What was available back then, you wouldn't use as walking shoes today. A piece of rubber with a vinyl top, no arch support, no cushioning," he recalls. Now, manufacturers focus on foot biomechanics and devote extensive resources to designing products that can correct practically anyone's stride.

Companies typically classify their shoes in three categories: neutral (for high arches), stability (for normal or low arches) and motion control (for flat arches). Conveniently for shoppers, that's also how specialty running stores tend to divvy up their inventory, and even if you haven't done the paper-bag test at home, staffers there can analyze your gait to steer you to the right part of the wall. (At larger sporting goods stores, you're likely to be on your own.)

At that point, most people would just grab an appealing shoe and try it on. But pros first like to conduct a series of quality-control tests. Christina sets his pair on a flat surface so he can look for differences in alignment between the right and left shoe. (Yes, these can occur even in premium shoes.) "One shouldn't look like it's tilted in a different way," he notes.

Pribut has a three-phase sequence for checking stability: First, he bends the shoe toe to heel to see where it flexes. If it's not at the forefoot -- where the foot actually bends -- be afraid. He then grips both ends and twists in opposite directions. If he can wring it like a towel, that means there's zero support. Finally, he squeezes the heel in both directions right above the midsole. A stable heel won't cave in.

Even if a few pass these tests, there's a lot more hunt ahead to find the right fit.

It all starts with the "last," the mold that shapes the inside of the shoe: whether it's wide or narrow in the midfoot, how it sits on the heel and how roomy the toe box is. Each company's lasts are slightly different, which is why some people detest a certain manufacturer's shoes while others are completely devoted to that brand.

"It's not a fashion show when you're running," reminds Yasso of Runner's World. You want the heel securely in place. You don't want to be squished in so that either the inside or outside of the foot feels like it's protruding. Anything that's rubbing, or even just feels off, is a sign to slip into another pair.

It's wise to hold off until the afternoon to make your purchase, to allow for any swelling that your feet do throughout the day. Toes also dictate sizing choice: The rule is you need a finger's width from your longest toe (whether that's your big one or not) to the end of the shoe.

In addition, the fact that running shoes have a tendency to run small may mean the right size is as much as a whole size larger than what you'd opt for in a dress shoe.

That somehow tends to be easier for men to swallow. "For some women, it's hard to get over wearing a size 10," says Howard Osterman, a podiatrist with offices in the District and Silver Spring. They manage, however, when he tells them the alternative is possibly bloody toenails. "The caveat, though, is that getting a shoe that's too large . . . can also make you lose your toenails," he adds.

The easiest way to solve the size conundrum is to visit a specialty running store, Greene says, and give a trained person there as much information as possible about your running habits. "You don't need to tell them what you had for breakfast, but if you keep losing your toenails, they should know that," he says.

And take your current shoes with you. Don't wait till you can see the pavement through them. Once your shoes have covered 500 miles, they're ready for retirement. To make sure he's on track, Yasso logs the number of miles he has covered with each shoe. "When I get up to 300 miles, I'll turn them into cutting-the-grass shoes," he says.

Pribut says many people think they've stumbled on a great discovery when they notice that their heels wear on the outside corner at the back. "It does for most people. Where the wear is on a shoe is the point of first contact," he says. More telling are oddities, like if the inner part of the heel is wearing down. Holes at the toes, of course, indicate a poor fit (or drastic need for toenail clipping).

Where the old pair really comes in handy is to show off what kind of support and stability you've had for your past 400 miles or so: Are you experiencing any aches or pains that indicate your new pair should have a little something extra? How well did these hold up with what you've been doing?

If what you've been using has been working, the shoe-store folks will typically start you with the same shoe. The only problem is that . . . well, it might not actually be the same. Manufacturers update most of their shoes every 12 months, and sometimes the shifts can be dramatic.

Some changes can have a discernible impact on a shoe's "ride" and certainly affect its price. Even Grant, who was once a bargain-rack shopper, says you're a fool to focus too heavily on price. "If your feet aren't in the right shoe, that'll hurt your experience," he says. And besides, he points out, they're the only equipment you really need to participate in the sport.

The question becomes how much do you spend, and for what. Most shoes hover around $90, although certain pairs sell for twice that -- usually because they're packed with more innovations. But someone's got to pay for advertising, too.

Reading about a shoe's construction can feel a bit like parsing a foreign language, what with all the references to proprietary materials. Brooks boasts that one of its newest shoes, the Infiniti, has the ultimate cushy forefoot because its trademark MoGo compound is sandwiched around a layer of something called e-Fusion. Adidas's adiStar Cushion 6 comes with ForMotion plates that keep the heel steady on uneven surfaces, plus a GeoFit heel and an abundance of adiPRENE. And on and on.

Greene says the advances worth springing for are the ones that improve your run.

"There are early adopters who want the most whiz-bang shoe on the market," he adds. "But you need to be in the shoe that fits you correctly. I would dissuade readers from buying shoes on technology."

What's most likely to feel different from one pair to another is the type of cushioning. Each brand has its own technology, be it gel, foam, air or wave. Even though Runner's World puts hundreds of runners in shoes in its own advanced testing lab to gauge wear, Greene isn't about to declare one technology the ultimate champ. "Take [Nike's] Zoom Air. Some people love that firm feeling, while other people want a softer shoe," he says.

While Runner's World singles out some shoes as "Best Buy" and "Best Update," picking shoes on that basis alone is ill-advised. "People always ask me what's the best shoe," Greene says. "I tell them that I don't know. I'm running in what are the best shoes for me." ¿


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