How to choose beginner running shoes

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.

Doctor’s orders

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.

You risk calf, Achilles tendon injuries and shin splints if you run in shoes that are too flat.

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.

Conclusion

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.

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10 Responses to How to choose beginner running shoes

  1. Nat - shoe confused August 13, 2013 at 6:37 am #

    Buying a decent pair of running shoes this week, and local sports store who “analysed” (watching me walk back amd forwards) my walking style have recommended the ASIC kayano 19 which feels comfortable, however in 5 minutes at the shop only walking back and forward the area behind my knee had started to ache, and this morning still feels sore! I haven’t yet purchased these only due to cost (aus$ 229), but should I be cautious of these shoes? Or do you think maybe it is as I’ve been wearing old cheapie shoes that these are now correcting my gait??

    • Brian August 13, 2013 at 9:31 am #

      Hi Nat, beware of any shoe that makes you sore. There are plenty of options to choose from so try on some different models and different brands. Go with the one that feels best rather than a choice based on a potentially flawed gait analysis.

  2. Jeff Gaudette April 4, 2012 at 10:52 pm #

    Great article on a difficult and comprehensive topic, Brian. I’ve long thought of writing my own piece on the subject, but the shear volume of information was a little too daunting. You did a great job and now I have somewhere to link my athletes too when they ask about shoes when they are first getting started. I appreciate the hard work.

    • Brian April 5, 2012 at 7:08 am #

      Thanks Jeff, it’s not any easy choice for any new runner to make with so much choice in the form and function of shoes these days. Brian

  3. Lewis March 29, 2012 at 8:24 pm #

    Hi Brian,

    Great article!

    I’m not a beginner runner but by no means am I a running veteran.

    I’m running a 10k charity event in a couple of months time. I tend to run fairly flat-footed / on my heels, and suffer from patella tendonitis as a result of playing too much football with not enough rest.

    What type of running shoe should I be looking for in terms of support? I’ve tried the Asics 2160’s, but didn’t like the feel of how the heel was supported.

    Thanks,
    Lewis

    • Brian March 29, 2012 at 9:48 pm #

      G’day Lewis, Thanks for the feedback. Hard to pick a shoe for you blind, I’d suggest getting to a store and having a run in a few different pairs. Any of these shoes would be worth a try to begin (except the Frees which don’t have much heel cushion). Brian

      • Lewis March 30, 2012 at 7:42 pm #

        Hi Brian,

        Thanks for the response; much appreciated.

        I went into a local running shop yesterday and had my running analysed. Turns out I’m an over-pronator and land flat footed and/or on my heels. They said I ran like a footballer (soccer player)…which is a fair point seeing as I play a lot!

        They’ve recommended cushioned shoes to start with, so I’ve bought some Nike Pegasus+28 to start with, and then look to develop my technique by wearing in some minimalist shoes.

        Cheers again.
        Lewis

        • Brian March 30, 2012 at 8:17 pm #

          No worries Lewis, good choice, prob a reason that shoe has been around for a long time. Not flashy but does a good job for a lot of runners. Brian

  4. running form March 28, 2012 at 1:10 am #

    Hi, thanks for your post! I have never been a runner(always just walk fast) but I really would like to begin trying. I just bought these shoes: http://www.runningcenters.com/p/252-asics-gt-2170-womens-running-shoe.aspx
    DO you think that was a good choice? Thanks!

    • Brian March 28, 2012 at 6:56 am #

      Hi thanks for the comment. I’m not familiar with that shoe, but it looks quite heavily cushioned. Some cushion is ok to begin, but it should give good feedback to the surface and be flexible. Brian