Choosing running shoes for your purpose

As I’ve continued to review and run in a number of different shoes I felt it worth the time to pen a few thoughts on how to assess the characteristics of running shoes so you can then choose the right shoe for your purpose. In this article I’ll look at certain design elements and how they relate to what you’re trying to achieve with different types of running and as a means to strengthen your body and stimulate the development of proper running form.

I’ve now got a pretty good idea about what I like, what suits my running form and which shoe is going to be good for each type of running training and surface. By looking at some of the factors discussed below you can also develop your own framework for assessing your next shoe purchase.

Forefoot cushioning and feel

One of the more critical elements to inspect on any shoe is the volume and composition of the cushioning material and outer-sole. Too much cushioning that is too firm or soft and you have a shoe that will provide you little feel for the ground. In my opinion this delays the engagement of key muscles and reduces your overall ability to run with skill and good form.

If you train as I do in a rocky environment also keep an eye on how you think the forefoot cushioning and sole is going to handle sharp stones. Some trail shoes offer a bit of rock protection without sacrificing all feel for the ground, so shop around for something that offers protection but still lets you practice good technique.

Forefoot and shoe flexibility front to back: feel versus performance

Something I’ve mentioned frequently in shoe reviews is the level of stiffness and spring a shoe has from front to back. This is easy to asses before you try on the shoe, flex the shoe in both directions to see what you’re dealing with. Many racing flats and spikes are very stiff and springy, whereas minimalist shoes such as the Nike Free offer no resistance to this flex test. A racing flat might tick the box for training and racing fast, but it won’t be the best option for a minimalist runner looking to strengthen up their feet and lower legs. Remember that stiffness built into the racing flats and spikes does some of the work for you. Unless a flat is very flexible it shouldn’t be considered a minimalist shoe even if it has a low heel-toe drop.

Forefoot flexibility lateral: vital for learning precise forefoot running

Something that I haven’t focused on enough in my reviews is lateral flexibility in the forefoot – if you are and especially if you are trying to become a forefoot oriented runner then this aspect is absolutely critical to look at. Forefoot oriented running requires an outside-in contact pattern with the outside of the forefoot lightly contacting first before the foot flattens as the full weight of the runner comes to bear on ground contact. It’s difficult to get the feel for this if your shoe (even if it is a racing flat) is like a stiff board laterally.

As I’ve written before, there are higher priorities than racing to forefoot running such as building up strength and stability at the hips and learning to activate your buttocks and hamstrings (hip extensors) during ground contact. Getting this right first will have you moving towards running with a lighter springier stride. Your feet will thank you.

Heel-toe drop – relativity more important than zero drop

In terms of heel-toe drop you need to be aware of sizing up the difference between the current shoe model under consideration and the shoes you regularly do most of your running in. The impact of removing heel height will be different for every runner, but generally speaking you’ll be working the muscles and tendons of the foot and lower leg and calves a bit more. So stepping down gradually and introducing shoes with a lower heel-toe drop cautiously is the way to go. Most runners don’t need to aspire to running in zero drop shoes, but some running in shoes with a smaller drop than the old 12mm benchmark will be worthwhile considering for some of your running.

Cushioning volume – how thick is the heel and sole overall?

In the race to produce more low and zero drop shoes we’re seeing shoes enter the market that have lower heel-toe drop but also retain a decent amount of cushion under the heel and forefoot. The end result is a flat profile shoe that still carries some protection. I’m not completely convinced this is a great idea as you’re making more demands on the lower extremities but not adding to your ability to feel and react to the running surface. Jury is out on zero drop cushioned shoes.

How many pairs of shoes are justifiable?

Well I’m more than a little biased, but I must admit I have too many pairs. Striking a balance between getting some miles on the shoes I want to review compared to established favorites is a challenge. I think three to four different pairs of running shoes are completely justifiable. The fact that I have about a dozen pairs to rotate through is excessive, but is a lot of fun.

So what does all this mean for the shoes you should have in your collection?

If you have the funds to stretch your running budget to multiple shoe models then it’s worth having a few different pairs for different purposes. I’d say three pairs is a nice number to work with and rotate through the running week. If you want to add a fourth pair, try a trail shoe or look at an aspirational daily trainer i.e. a shoe with slightly less support or lower heel-toe drop for some short runs. For example, depending on where you are coming from, this might be a lightweight trainer such as the Adizero Ace or a marathon racing shoe.

The daily trainer

Consider something flexible, but with just enough cushion and support relative to where you’ve been. Shoes such as Nike Pegasus, Nike Zoom Elite+, Mizuno Precision, Mizuno Elixer, Adidas Tempo, usually provide enough cushioning and support for most runners, but are often not recommended in favour of more feature rich, expensive and less responsive models. Find something with adequate cushion and sufficient flexibility to give you some feel through the forefoot. This is important whether you run heel-toe or with forefoot orientation. Some feel and flexibility in your daily trainer is the way to go.

Not everyone can or should race straight into minimalism as their daily running shoe.

The foot and calf conditioning shoe and (feel training shoe)

Less structured shoes force your feet and lower legs to work harder and are desirable for adding stability, strength and more pop to your stride.

Nike Frees are the obvious choice, with the Free Run 2 providing an entry level shoe and the Free 3.0 for those wanting to push the envelope a little more. The soon to be released Free 4.0 will provide another option. Now any shoe make or model with maximal flexibility in the forefoot front to back and side to side will do a similar job for you. The nice thing about the Free range is even the 3.0 has a little heel retained which makes them a more approachable option for a wider range of runners.

Remember to ease into this type of shoe with caution and very short easy runs (10-20 min) to begin and back off immediately if any unusual soreness or tightness develops. Don’t run in them every day, but over time you will be able to build up the frequency and volume of running – give your body an easy 12 weeks to adapt.

Performance

Performance shoes such as marathon racers (e.g. Adios 2) and then genuine racing flats such as Nike Lunarspider R2, Adidas Rocket etc provide the aforementioned stiffness and spring to give your plantaflexors a helping hand when doing faster training and racing. They also offer a useful change up for minimalist runners who like running without a cushioned heel, but wind up getting a bit tired through the feet and lower calves from running exclusively in flexible low drop shoes. That little bit of stiffness can allow you to keep the low profile shoe you like and give your lower extremities a a rest before diving back into your barefoot shoes.

Conclusion

With the mind boggling array of shoe choices and technology available I’ll wrap this article by making the point that keeping things simple will help you focus in on what you really need rather than what zany technologies are discussed by the salesperson. In most cases it boils down to a discussion about flexibility, feel, heel-toe drop and making sure your have enough shoe to support your running technique.

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12 Responses to Choosing running shoes for your purpose

  1. Karen Wildman July 5, 2013 at 9:54 pm #

    I agree with Greg, this article has really opened my eyes to the effect that different shoes have on different runs. I have always used the same shoe on different runs, except for trail runs, and I’ve been plagued by injuries for the last few years. I’ve come to the conclusion that I should try a different approach ie a lower drop/increased flexibility to try and strengthen my lower limbs. I bought a pair of Saucony Peregrines and I love the feel of them but I think they’ll take a while to get used to (my other trail shoes are Pegasus). So I’m now grappling with which new road shoes to try out. Your article is making me lean towards the Nike Free 5’s. I’m currently in the Nike Lunarglide 3. Fingers crossed my injuries disappear soon!

    • Brian July 6, 2013 at 9:02 am #

      Hi Karen, it’s definitely a good idea to mix things up but good not to force your body into change too quickly. Free 5.0s are worth a try but small volumes on natural surfaces to begin until you work out how your body is reacting to them. Keep the Lunarglides going also – rotate between.

  2. Benny April 10, 2012 at 3:59 pm #

    Nice article and I saw it by Chinese language on this site.
    http://www.sportsnote.com.tw/running/view_article.aspx?id=31cd4b6c-15cb-43cc-be6d-3d72f47b111b

    • Brian April 10, 2012 at 6:26 pm #

      Thanks Benny, Hadn’t seen that, so thanks for letting me know. Is it a good website? Brian

  3. Frank Dhondt March 15, 2012 at 8:05 pm #

    Nice post but wonder if you have any advice for ultra-running such as 24h races and 100 milers. I’ve successfully transitioned to minimalist running and even use my nike free 3 for races tip to half marathon. For marathon distance and more (recently a 100k) I mostly use Saucony tangent. For my ultra’s I want a light breathable shoe with low heel to toe drop and some cushioning to support the lower limbs and my hips. Doing some research I ended up road shoes such as Adidas Adizero Boston 3 and Inov-8 Road X233, while for trails I would like to try the Adidas Adizero XT3 or the Inov-8 X-Talon 212. Any advice? Thanks in advance?

    • Brian March 15, 2012 at 10:08 pm #

      Hi Frank, thanks for the feedback. I’m not so sure about the Boston’s for ultras, especially if you’re used to minimal running, it’s a fair bit of shoe. I’m not an ultra guru so I’d suggest having a look at http://www.irunfar.com/ for some more suggestions. The New Balance MT110 looks good for trails, I have the previous model and like them a lot. Inov-8 f-lite 195 could also be good if the going is not too rocky. I have heard of some runners going long in their Frees also but that is not for everyone! Brian

  4. seda February 23, 2012 at 7:38 pm #

    very informative article, there are so many shoe reviews that comment on different brands/models but only a few of them teach smt about choosing your running shoes. Currently my shoe preference is like this: Adidas Rocket for the runs with 20sec-1 min sprints, Adidas Adios for 10k tempo runs/race, Nike Free 3 for slow long runs and everyday trainer. I do agree with alternating shoes, until 4 months ago I was running only with Rockets and when I started to run with Free3 I felt like I can never like them but now they’re the ones that I love the most and even after getting in back to Rockets, the day after running with Frees doesn’t feel awkward. One thing that I want to add is that personal foot shape plays a role as well when it comes to foot comfort such as having a wide forefoot and narrow heel makes it difficult for me to find shoes that fit well to my feet.

    • Brian February 23, 2012 at 10:06 pm #

      Hi Seda, Thanks for the insights, great that the Free 3.0 are working out so well for you. Agree about the foot shape, essential to try on different models to make sure the fit is comfortable. There is a lot of variation out there in feet and shoes it seems. Brian

  5. Paul Joyce February 23, 2012 at 12:13 am #

    Brian, nice article and I agree with much of what you say. I used to do all my running in the same pair of shoes whether it was a short or long run or road or trails. I now rotate between 3-4 different shoes depending on the distance and the terrain. One point where I disagree with you and Greg is I do think think that cushioned zero drop shoes have their place. For me this is when running longer distances. The zero drop helps me maintain good form and the cushioning helps when I start to tire late in the run. Perhaps as I get fitter and stronger I won’t need that cushioning during long runs but for now it helps a lot. Two shoes that fall into this category that I can highly recommend are the Altra Instinct and New Balance MR00. Cheers, Paul

    • Brian February 23, 2012 at 8:48 am #

      Thanks Paul, no worries I’d be worried if everyone agreed all the time! Thanks for the shoe recommendations too. Brian

  6. Greg Strosaker February 22, 2012 at 6:14 am #

    Nice post, this is the first time I’ve seen some well thought-out advice on what types of shoes to rotate through (or, maybe I’m biased as it’s similar to my own thoughts and approach). Too many people think “rotate shoes” means using different copies of the same pair, as opposed to consciously trying to alter the muscles they stress (or relax) with each workout.
    And I too struggle with the “cushioned minimalist” shoes as it seems an oxymoron. Kinvaras are a great example, I just wrote a post where I point out that you really don’t have to do anything in improving your form to successfully utilize the Kinvaras, which are both their strength and their weakness.

    • Brian February 22, 2012 at 8:26 am #

      Thanks Greg. No I agree with you, we must be right :-) Actually aside from the different stimuli of rotating shoes it’s also a bit of a mental holiday I reckon. Checking out your post. Brian