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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Written by Brian Martin