It’s easy to forget to that not everyone has the experience to make good decisions about their footwear when taking up running for the first time. I was alerted to this when I received an email during the week from Emma Somerville, a personal trainer with a number of beginner runners joining her running group. She was hoping to positively influence their running shoe choices and asked if I’d written anything on the topic. Well I hadn’t, so here are a few thoughts on choosing running shoes for beginners taking their first steps on the way to becoming a runner.
I should have been all over this topic. When my father took up running on doctor’s orders at age fifty, he did so in a pair of rubber soled leather dress shoes. The sight of him huffing and puffing in these less than ideal footwear drove my siblings into action, we soon had him stepping out in a basic pair of running shoes. Nothing fancy, no high tech features and nowhere near the top end of the available price range.
While twenty years ago I was embracing all available forms of technology and spending increasingly ludicrous amounts on running shoes trying to avoid yet another teenage running injury, my dad was out there steadily building fitness in his basic running shoes and soon logging what I now estimate to be 70 – 80km weeks. Never a man to adopt half measures, he was cranking out serious miles almost out of nowhere.
Remarkably he has remained relatively injury free to this day, where in his seventies, despite a heart attack eight years ago and the recent inconvenience of cancer, he’s still getting out for a jog every couple of days. Runners are tough.
Why get a specific pair of shoes for running?
So why should you have a basic decent pair of running shoes when first taking up a running based fitness regime? Hopefully not too many beginners commence running in leather dress shoes these days so we can eliminate that option without any further discussion. What you want is a pair of running shoes that are used only for running, not walking, not kicking a football or mowing the lawn. They’ll last longer and adapt to how your foot moves when running, not how it settles in everyday activity.
Cross trainers and tennis shoes
Other usual missteps for beginners include tennis shoes or cross trainers that many would use for sports such as tennis, basketball or group fitness classes. These shoes are generally heavier, can be flatter in profile from heel to toe and almost always have more support to protect the feet and ankles from rapid decelerations and changes of direction. Cross trainers are heavy and don’t have great feel for the ground making them unsuitable for running.
Running is a straight ahead game that does not require the same degree of lateral stability and support needed in other sports. Running requires good feel for the ground, you need to be able to respond to your feet contacting the surface so you can activate the muscles needed to run with proper running technique.
Flat funky retro running shoes – ok for beginner running?
Alternatively, there’s a big market in dress running shoes, many of these are based on retro designs from the 70s and 80s, the early days of mass market running shoe manufacture. They make a poor choice for a beginner with no background in exercise, running or even walking in relatively flat profile shoes. Many of these shoes don’t have much heel, ok for those that have gradually acclimatized and are used to running in flatter shoes, but dangerous for someone who is used to doing all their activity in raised heeled shoes.
Consider a simple mid-range neutral running shoe
So unless there’s a very good reason to do otherwise, starting your running career in a mid-range neutral running shoe that affords your foot good flexibility and feel for the ground is the way to begin. A neutral shoe is one that does not seek to control pronation. You can usually tell as shoe manufacturers place a firmer colored section of cushioning or posting under the heel and arch area of the shoe.
Some lighter weight trainers offer some support and are thereby not classified as neutral, but in many cases these shoes don’t get in the way of natural foot motion because the support included is so modest. The Adidas Tempo is an example of such a shoe. If a shoe like this feels comfortable when you have a test jog or you require a little support go for it.
Think fit comfort not features
Don’t get talked into being fitted for shoes features based on the shape of your foot, but do consider how well your foot fits into the shoes offered. Make sure you have enough room around the forefoot and toe box of the shoe. You don’t want to be squashing your toes together or feeling like your forefoot is being strangled.
You should also make sure there is enough volume in the midfoot (about the area above the arch) to accommodate your foot comfortably. Some minimal shoes and racing flats don’t have much space for some foot shapes. In my case, with a relatively high arch, some shoes put too much pressure on the top of my foot so I avoid those models.
Some examples of entry level running shoes
Shoes that might fit into this description are easy to come by and most running shoe manufacturers have suitable models. For example, Mizuno have the Precision, Nike, the Pegasus, New Balance the NB 890. Any of these entry level shoes are a good place to start. But don’t shop by brand or just consider these options, go for the model or brand that fits you best.
This a simple shoe, but for many runners that’s all you need.
Should a beginner wear a Nike Free or other minimal shoes?
For a runner doing a couple of short easy jogs per week on natural surfaces (e.g. <20 minutes) mixed with gym and some walking, then a Free Run might not be a bad option. The key is to take it slow, use the Frees for gym and walking first for a few weeks and then try jogging a few laps (<5 minutes) around a grass oval or dirt running track. Monitor how your body reacts, if you have immediate pain or lots of soreness in the following days then these shoes are not for you.
I wouldn’t give a pair of frees to a novice runner as their only pair of shoes, wish them good luck and say see you in six months, but in the environment contemplated of a supervised running group, mixing in small amount of running in minimal shoes (e.g. warm ups and warm downs) and having a second regular pair is not necessarily a bad strategy. It may sound counter-intuitive that those starting from scratch may benefit from running in a bit less shoe, but perhaps this is the right time to begin slowly bedding down good technique and build base strength?
I also wouldn’t recommend a beginner wear zero drop minimal shoes or racing flats because of the injury risks. The Free Run and other transition minimal shoes can be considered because they maintain some support under the heel.
So while there are no hard and fast rules for choosing your first pair of running shoes it makes sense to give it reasonable consideration. If you have the luxury of enough funds to buy two pairs, do so, but be sure to get different models to enjoy the benefits of different stimulus for your feet. As a final word you must absolutely try on the shoe and have a test jog in them for a few minutes. Most good running shoe stores will allow you to have a jog on the treadmill to make sure the shoes work for you and fit comfortably on your feet.
Written by Brian Martin