Whether it’s jogging around the block or racing in the 40th annual Marine Corps Marathon on Oct. 25, running is a high-impact activity. Nearly 70 percent of runners will experience injury from running, according to the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. One preventive measure is using an appropriate shoe.
“The quality of materials and design that go into the running shoes tend to provide better structural support and shock attenuation than shoes that are marketed in other categories,” said Shawn Fenty, second-generation owner of Fleet Feet Sports in Adams Morgan.
The shoes can also correct for biomechanical problems such as pronation, in which the foot rolls inward, or supination, where it rolls outward.
But “appropriate” is subjective, and finding the right fit can be tough.
There’s some homework you can do before you start shoe shopping. First, focus on how your feet feel with each step. Check out the bottom of your shoes to see where they’re most worn down. Get a sense of what options are out there.
“You can certainly do a lot of research on the different kinds of shoes,” said Rich Mendelowitz, 56, president of DC Road Runners. “Look at Runner’s World reviews. Go to DSW and try stuff on and see what’s comfortable as a starting point.”
Then hit a specialty store, where experts can assess your stride.
“In a perfect world, you want to land mid-foot with your arch hitting the ground, and you want to roll forward,” said Mendelowitz, who lives in Arlington and has run 40 to 50 miles a week for 37 years. “That way you get the natural spring out of your arch.”
At Fleet Feet Sports, shoppers undergo a static posture evaluation. “We find that we can accurately forecast needs by assessing alignment when people stand with their heels directly below their hips,” Fenty said. “That is a critical moment” in the cycle of a runner’s gait.
At Potomac River Running, the staff looks at customers’ feet in motion. “You can stand in a shoe and it might feel great, but if you’re buying a shoe to be mobile in it, you should be trying a shoe in a mobile way,” said Ray Pugsley, a co-owner of the chain, which has eight stores in the area. “You can go outside on the sidewalk or you can get on the treadmill, and on the treadmill, we can videotape you and we can show you how the shoe is working.”
Every running shoe manufacturer makes shoes in three main support categories: neutral, stability and motion control. Neutral, for those who need almost no foot-position correction, is the most flexible. Stability shoes have a medial post, a device that firms up the middle of the shoe. And motion control shoes are the most rigid, perhaps having stiffer heels or a straighter sole to keep the foot from tilting.
And what about the cushioning factor? There are a lot of options to choose from, with each brand touting its own technology. Should you go minimalist with a Vibram FiveFingers shoe that mimics the bare foot? Proponents say these shoes strengthen feet and embrace the body’s natural ability to run — and less bulk means you go faster.
Or are you better off throwing on a pair of heavily cushioned Hoka One Ones? Maximalists like these kinds of well-padded soles, arguing that they prevent impact injuries, such as plantar fasciitis, which is inflammation of the tissue that connects the heel and toes.
Nike has seven types of running shoes, including the Nike Air Max line, which was the first to have visible air bubbles in the soles when it launched in 1987. Asics is known for its gel insoles, which it introduced in 1986 to help with shock absorption when feet hit the ground.
Details like these don’t come cheap. “These days the sweet spot [in shoe pricing] seems to be between $120 and $130,” Fenty said.
Fenty also advised against a common buyer’s error: “Most people don’t understand that your running shoe will be a whole size bigger than your street shoe,” he said. “With business shoes, you’re wearing a thinner sock. In many cases, the design of the business or the leather shoe is such that it has to be worn fairly snugly to keep it on if it’s not a lace-up type of shoe. The athletic shoe is typically worn with a thicker sock. A proper fit allows for a little more space in the front for the swelling of the foot. The shoe tends to draw up toward the toes a little bit as the foot flexes.”
Brand loyalty is another mistake, Pugsley said. “The trick is finding out what stability category you’re in, and once you know that, then you look at shoes from different brands in your category and find the one that’s most comfortable for you.”
Ultimately, the deciding factor is how the shoe feels, Mendelowitz said. A shoe may correct for pronation or supination, but if it hurts, it’s no good.
“There are lots of reasons to get different shoes, but at the end of the day, the most important thing is they are comfortable on your feet and you are comfortable running in them,” he said.
Kanowitz is a freelance writer.