Fitness: Comfort, performance and the running shoe dilemma

Over the last couple of decades, the ideal shoe type has gone through many iterations.

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Spring is when runners often buy new shoes, an occasion that sparks equal parts excitement and trepidation.

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Deciding between staying with familiar brands like Asics, Saucony, Brooks, Nike, New Balance and Mizuno, or trying one of the newcomers to the market like On or Lululemon is a continuing dilemma. Adding to an already difficult decision is the endless number of enticing marketing pitches by shoe manufacturers offering the latest in comfort, cushioning and performance, considered the holy grail of running shoe features.

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But it’s not just how a shoe feels that’s important to runners. There’s an expectation that shoes will decrease the risk of injury. Yet, despite all the technological advancements in running shoes in recent years, the injury rate has stayed the same, with about half of runners getting injured in any given year. Still, they hang on to the idea staying injury-free is all about finding the right shoe.

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Adding even more complexity to the decision about which shoe to choose is running shoe manufacturers and retailers continue to recommend shoes geared to specific types of runners — beginners, pronators (runners whose feet roll excessively inward with every footstrike), racers and distance specialists— despite little in the way of science to support claims that certain shoes are better for certain types of runners.  

If that’s not baffling enough, over the last couple of decades, the ideal shoe type has gone through many iterations, with cushioning, heel height and motion-control features falling in and out of favour. From minimalist shoes to the new super shoes, which are stacked high with cushioning, rigid plates and specialized midsoles, if you’re a veteran runner you’ve likely bought shoes that have both over- and under-delivered in terms of comfort, cushioning and performance.

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Given all the hype and hyperbole about running shoes, how does the average runner decide which model to buy? A team of researchers, including Canadians Jean-François Esculier and Kim Hébert-Losier of the Running Clinic in Quebec City, investigated what influenced runners’ decision behind running shoe selection.

Based on a sample of 1,947 runners (31 per cent female and 69 per cent male), comfort ranked No. 1 in deciding which shoe to buy, with cushioning a close second. Price and value were also mentioned as factors related to buying decisions, which isn’t surprising given the average price of running shoes is about $150, with most manufacturers and running experts suggesting shoes need to be replaced after 500-800 kilometres of wear.

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Recommendations from peers also weigh heavily in shoe selection, with 64 per cent of runners surveyed stating fellow runners, friends, health-care providers and even retailers influenced their choice. The researchers caution features like comfort and cushioning are subjective, meaning it’s risky to choose running shoes based on the recommendations of others.

And don’t forget the fit factor, which is part of what makes a shoe comfortable. Some models are known to be a better fit for wide or narrow feet and some are better at reducing heel slip or require runners to go up or down a size. All of these variables have to do with your foot shape, running style and running volume, which further illustrates that the favourite shoe of your running partner might not work for you. Running volume, technique and training habits are likely to have more to do with running injuries than wearing the right pair of shoes.

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“Runners should be conscious of the multifactorial nature of running injuries rather than relying solely on shoe choice for injury prevention,” the researchers said.

What does all this mean for runners on the lookout for a new pair of shoes? One of the recommendations of the researchers is to use a heel-to-toes approach to evaluating comfort, rating each shoe on heel cushioning, stability, arch support and forefoot cushioning and flexibility. It’s also wise to be realistic about the role shoes have in performance and risk of injury. Even the new super shoes, which have been adopted by much of the racing community, don’t provide the same performance boost for all runners.

Studies suggest the biomechanical adaptations to footwear aren’t the same among elite and recreational runners, meaning the performance benefits and injury risks of the shoes worn and endorsed by high-profile runners may vary considerably from the average runner putting in the miles around their neighbourhood.

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When the time comes to replace your old running shoes, consider all the factors that are important to you in order of priority. Then put your checklist into action when trying on a new pair of shoes — even if you’re getting an updated model of your favourite shoe. New models sometimes feature new technology that may or may not feel great on your feet.

And whatever you do, don’t hang on to a new pair of shoes if after a few training runs they still don’t feel right. Admit the mistake, relegate your running shoes to walking shoes, and go back and find another pair of shoes that make your feet happy, which after all is the primary job of any pair of shoes.


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