Choosing the right running shoes: which shoes are right for you?
Ask 10 different running experts and you will get at least 6 conflicting answers.
Running shoes are the only piece of equipment that is absolutely necessary and directly affects performance in the athlete. Everything else from the shorts you wear to whether or not you use a camp back or water bottles comes down to mere accessories. There is a confusing array of different kinds of shoes on the market with all types of variations, along with famous runners endorsing them.
So how do you figure out which shoes are right for you? First we should talk briefly about three categories of running shoes that have emerged in the past 20 years.
Traditional style running shoes
Traditional running shoes have had some raise to the heel, which we call drop. The heel is between 4 and 6 millimeters higher than the toe in most average running shoes. They have had some padding in the sole, between 1 and 2 centimeters— sometimes a little more, and the sole material usually slightly blocks excess pronation by being either thicker or stiffer on the inside of the foot. This is a normal running shoe that has been popular and constantly innovated as well as improved along the same lines for the past 40+ years. These are the kind of shoes I ran in as a competitive distance athlete in high school, and even today most runners use this medium built “normal style” running shoe, which is being constantly improved every year.
Minimal running shoes
About 15 years ago, some runners including my self, began to study indigenous people in Mexico and Africa and in my case, Papua New Guinea. Some running experts came to the conclusion that bare foot running was how we were meant to run, and had advantages over using shoes at all. This lead to the Barefoot Running movement, and the advent of minimalist running shoes. I even bought and tried it for a few years. A minimalist shoe has little or no cushion, with no “drop” and the sole is very thin and can be only a few millimeter thick, to just a light skin that runs along the bottom of the foot in the most extreme cases.
Minimalist shoes necessitate that the runner make a fore foot strike, landing on the ball of the foot, and rely on the springing of the foot and knee to take up the shock – as there is no cushion provided by the shoe sole. This allows the runner to run the same as a bare foot runner, with the shoe protecting the skin foot against cuts and other injury as well as keeping it clean. Minimalist and bare foot running led to the development of a huge number of foot injures and a lot of business for doctors like my self who specialize in treating running injuries. There were even a number of law suits against minimal running shoe companies. However, there are still a serious minority of hard core runners who advocate bare foot running. The best advice I can give, is that if you wish to start bare foot running, or wear a minimal shoe, take at least one year to gradually condition your foot and legs to the style, and get proper coaching for the technique.
Over built running shoes
An extreme reaction to the Barefoot / minimalist shoe movement is the recent development of over built “ ultra” shoes. These are shoes that have gone the opposite direction from the barefoot movement. They are thicker and more cushioned than the average running shoes. Originally conceived for ultra marathons and off road trail as well as mountain runs, over built shoes have become increasingly popular for just average runners and marathoners. Over built shoes often have soles that are twice as thick as the average running shoes. They can be several centimeters thick from heel to the toe. Many runners find the over built shoe to be much more comfortable and seem to cause less injures to the feet and knee in them.
However, like with the minimal shoe there are some problems that occur, especially in Asia. Vietnamese often have super flat feet and these feet tend to roll in a process known as “pronation”. Some pronation is normal for all runners but too much pronation, usually from a flat foot can lead to knee problems and foot injuries. Over built shoes sometimes are too soft and as the foot pronates, the inside of the shoe compresses like a marshmallow and amplifies the inward angle of the foot. This causes the foot to run wedged in and can rapidly cause problems in the knee, hip or ankle joints. The same problem can occur in all kinds of running shoes, especially those which have seen more kilometers than they were designed for. Over built trail shoes can be the worst for amplifying this issue.
Solution of Corrective running shoes and running orthotics
I have been a competitive runner, professedly mountaineer and extreme athlete, and have worked with world class runners for more than 20 years. Asian athletes, especially here in Vietnam quite commonly have flat feet which creates excess pronation. Some shoes are specifically designed to correct flat footed runners. These shoes are thicker and denser in the inside of the sole. The addition of a foot orthotic can also increase the correction of foot. However Orthotics should be carefully prescribed and custom made for each condition. Over correction in the form of wrong shoes or too aggressive of an orthotic can cause problems as well. The best way to know if the shoe is right for you is to perform a gait analysis, where the shoe performance is tested by slow motion video capture. I actually have runners from all over world come to Vietnam to have their running style evaluated.
After more than 20 years in Asia and working with professional as well as amateur runners, my conclusion is that the majority of Asian runners will do well with one of the many traditional running shoes made by any of the major manufactures. Quite a significant minority especially in serious runners, will do much better with a specialized running shoe, either an over built trail or ultra shoe, or a pair specifically designed for correction of their flat feet. A very small minority will become minimalist— or barefoot runners, but these will represent an extreme ideology, not what works for the majority of runners taking to the roads.