Brian Metzler has wear-tested more than 1,500 pairs of running shoes over the past 25 years. He is the founding editor of Trail Runner magazine and former editor of Competitor.com.
WHAT THE HELL IS UP WITH RUNNING SHOES? Do you remember your favorite pair of running shoes from six or seven years ago? You probably wouldn’t buy them now, even if you had the chance. Why? Running shoes have gone through a storm of change over the past decade, a whirlwind that has included a minimalist revolution of lightweight, low-to-the-ground “barely there” shoes, and then an infatuation with high-off-the-ground, thickly cushioned maximalist shoes that look doped up on ’roids.
So where are we now that the squall has subsided? Well, we’re all better off for having gone through the storm. We’ve learned a lot in recent years, and the key learnings from the uprising are represented in the shoes you’ll buy this year. For starters, shoes are generally lighter, more flexible, more durable, and less built-up in the heel than they were 10 years ago. Gone is the three-point paradigm of motion control, stability, and neutral shoe construction.
Here is the first of six points to consider when you shop for your next pair of running shoes, no matter if you’re using them for training, a trail run, or your next Spartan race.
How a shoe fits your foot is still the most important element of choosing what to put on your feet. The key is finding a shoe that fits the shape of your foot, and the best way to do that is to try on several pairs at a specialty running store before you buy. “If you don’t have a good fit, you don’t have anything,” says Kris Hartner, owner of Naperville Running Company in suburban Chicago. “It’s an individual process because every shoe brand and model will fit slightly differently. The best way to find out what works is to try on several models.”
Generally speaking, you’ll want the fit to be snug in the heel and mid-foot or arch area, but otherwise it should fit or adapt to the specific size and shape of your feet. If you have a wide foot or narrow ankle, you’ll quickly learn that different brands of shoes have slightly different shapes. One of the new characteristics to emerge over the last several years is the idea of a roomier toe box. Having that extra room no only gives your toes a bit more wiggle room, but it allows your transverse arch to flex properly, allows your big toe to remain straight and un-compromised and provides room for the other toes to splay out naturally, both of which contribute to your performance (i.e., better control and agility, more power, and greater range of motion) and the long-term health of your feet. Several brands have made a roomier toe box part of their design DNA, but especially Altra, Topo, and Inov-8. “Having the shape and the space in the toe box means the shoe can accommodate the natural and preferred movement path of your foot,” Altra founder Golden Harper says. “And that’s the best way to get your feet—and the rest of your body—to move and perform most effectively.”
2. Cushion: Good, bad or evil?
How much cushioning do you need in a shoe? That’s been a hotly debated topic over the past 10 years. Studies have shown that running in shoes with less cushioning can reduce injuries, and yet there is plenty of reason to believe that shoes with more cushioning tend to feel better on your feet over the long haul. Still, it’s a very personal question and one only you can really answer. Part of it comes down to personal preference, but part of it is based on performance aspects, too. The lower your feet are to the ground, the more you can engage a proprioceptive sense of how your feet need to move over various aspects of terrain—for example, running over a rocky section of trail or training to maintain balance while maneuvering through Spartan obstacles.
Does that mean sacrificing comfort and some protection for nimbleness and agility? Yes, it might. On the contrary, if you’re wearing a highly cushioned shoe, you’ll have more protection and comfort but the proprioceptive connection with the ground will be a bit vague. Also, while speed is most efficiently derived from firmer shoes, it doesn’t entirely mean that softer cushioning means you’ll run slower. It means you have to weigh the benefits of how fast you want to go versus how comfortable you want to be for your 5-mile Spartan race or your 50K ultra-running event.
While many brands claim that their newfangled foam midsole components contribute additional energy return, that’s just not true. All foam midsoles absorb energy; it’s just that some of the new midsole components (including, among others, “Boost” from Adidas, “React” from Nike and “Everun” from Saucony) tend to lose less energy than traditional foam midsoles made from the standard EVA (a.k.a. ethylene vinyl acetate) foam used for decades. In other words, some of the new foams will seem to be more energetic than basic or traditional midsole materials, but really they’re less debilitating. But that’s a good thing!
For decades, excessive pronation was a four-letter word in the running industry. The natural but sometimes extreme inward-rolling of a runner’s ankle and foot upon impact with the ground was believed to be the cause of numerous injuries and therefore shoe designers and running stores took it upon themselves to try to slow it down or stop it with slightly supportive stability shoes or more restrictive motion control shoes. While excessive pronation certainly contributes to many common overuse injuries, it’s not the only factor, and trying to reduce or eliminate it with running shoes tends to only cause more challenges. Supportive running shoes are generally heavier and more constrictive and also work counter to a runner’s natural and preferred path of movement. Limiting that natural movement can actually increase the negative effects of impact forces.
The modern approach to building shoes is to allow the body to run the way it prefers. The best shoes for you will let you run as efficiently as possible with the least muscular effort. To some extent, that means shoes that allow the foot to move as there was no shoe, but with just enough of the necessary cushioning and protection. So instead of stopping the natural motion of the foot, ankle, and lower leg, shoes should support that motion, says Carson Caprara, Brooks’ senior global product line manager.
4. Heel-Toe Offset
Shoes with a lower heel are another modern approach to running shoes spurred by the recent storm of change. For years, running shoes were built with a steep forward-leaning ramp angle, meaning the bottom of the heel your foot was significantly higher than the bottom of your forefoot. Typically, that offset—often called “heel-toe drop”—has been in the 10 to 12 mm range. But to better mimic a foot’s natural movements in the spatial environment of running, shoe makers developed models with much lower heel-toe offsets. Essentially, a lower heel-toe offset (and thus, a considerably less chunky heel component) will help reduce the need to overstride and run with a heavy heel-striking gait. While some shoe brands claim lower ramp angles can reduce injuries, that hasn’t really been proven or disproven. However, many people believe that a lower heel-toe offset—at least lower than the traditional 10 to 12 mm—can contribute to improved running form and reduce overstriding. You should definitely ask about the heel-toe offset of specific shoes while you’re at a running store or dig for the information online.
“You don’t have to go all the way down to zero, but running in shoes with a slightly lower ramp angle will help you keep your foot strikes closer to your body,” says Jay DiCharry, a Bend, Oregon, physical therapist, noted running form guru and author of Anatomy for Runners. “Ultimately, running in lighter shoes that have a lower heel will help you run with better mechanics.”
For example, Dicharry says, if you’ve been running in shoes with a 10 to 12 mm drop, consider gradually going down to the 4 to 8 mm range when you buy your next pair of shoes. Some runners will be able to eventually transition down to the 0 to 4 mm range, but doing so too quickly—in other words, buying shoes with a lower drop and running a lot of miles or fast workouts—can lead to soreness, strains, and injuries to your feet, calf muscles, and Achilles tendons.
Although many brands have offered a few shoes with very low ramp angles, the three most prominent brands to offer flat or near-level platforms are Newton, Altra, and Topo. Saucony, New Balance, On, and Hoka One One are among the brands with numerous models in the 4 to 8 mm range. Keep in mind that shoes with lower ramp angles don’t have to be minimalist shoes without much cushioning; shoes with lower ramp angles can have minimal or maximal amounts of cushioning or somewhere in between.
Generally speaking, the more flexible a shoe is, the more your foot will be able to move naturally with its preferred movement path over any type of terrain. When you run barefoot on soft surfaces, your feet don’t have to make adjustments for the variables of a shoe (i.e., the added weight, the cushioning, the structure, etc.). In other words, if the shoe isn’t impeding the natural movements of your foot, your brain can focus on balancing and propelling your body as you move through the terrain. But let’s face it, whether you’re walking down a city sidewalk, running on a dirt path or trying to conquer a Spartan race obstacle, we wear shoes so we have protection under our feet and at least a little bit of cushioning to soften the ride. With a flexible shoe that allows good range of motion, you’ll have maximum control and agility both in your typical running gait and amid the precise and unique movements necessary to conquer the Olympus, cargo net, or rope climb of a Spartan race.
If you are a Spartan athlete, a frequent CrossFit participant, or a trail runner, you’ll want—actually, you’ll need—your shoes to be durable and protective. Durability and protection come partly from the materials of a shoe and partly from the design of a shoe. Key durability-enhancing materials and features to look for include a protective toe bumper, a full-length rubber outsole, reinforced sidewalls, a mesh upper that’s been enhanced by thin thermoplastic polyurethane overlays, and a flexible rock plate sandwiched in the midsole. There are some trade-offs to consider, though, because the features that provide durability and protection add weight. For example, if you have a shoe with more cushioning or thicker outsole lugs, it might offer plenty of protection without a rock plate. Similarly, a shoe with a wider toe box won’t need as much of a toe bumper because your toes won’t be quite as vulnerable.
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