Monday, May 7, 2012

Highly Personal Questions- Running Shoes

So, here we go again... Several of my runners asked me about shoes. It's as if the word coach is synonymous with "answer man". Just like running watches, I don't have the answer. Nor should I as shoes are highly personal.

A Brief History of the Running Shoe
The concept of the running shoe started back in the early Roman times. The shoes had evolved from sandals, which is the main reason the Romans were able to overthrow the Greek empire (other than extremely advanced war tactics, better sanitary conditions, kickass architecture, and reduced emphasis on communal bathing). The Greeks, as part of their military training, all read the book, "Born to Run" and had accepted barefoot running as the dominant form of exercise. Sadly, the Greek battle fields were cluttered with large, sharp cobble stones which caused the Greek soldiers to bounce up and down. Their phalanx fell apart and the Romans took over, mostly due to their foot coverings.

AKA Monkey Feet
As time went on, army leaders started learning that they could encourage their politicians to spend money on military research. Guns and nuclear weapons had not been invented yet. Scientists were already bored with trying to reinvent the spear (there's only so many combinations of shaft length to head weight that can be done). Engineers went on to focus on clothing and footwear. One early incarnation of the shoe had a soft rubber sole and toe pockets that fit the feet like a glove. Soldiers didn't like these shoes because their wives told them that their feet 'looked rather Simian' (umm, this exact conversation has not, err, actually happened in the Banter's household. Nope. I swear.) The lead scientists grew frustrated with the attitudes of the men and women. But, there's really no use in arguing over the beauty of a man in uniform and the effect it has on his lady. They filed the prototype. It was later discovered in an old museum and became the template for Vibram 5 Fingers.

The engineers, desperate for government funding, decided to expand on the sandal. Initially, the scientists thought that they could gain extra support and speed by adding leverage over the calf region. This was also considered decorative and the wives approved. Even though, no measurable improvement could be found, the style caught on. One day, while watching the Roman soldiers spar, they saw one bloke bring the spear butt down on the foot of another bloke. Ding ding ding. The top of the foot could use some protection too. So, they took the existing cork sole and simply added more leather. This became the template for all shoes for the next 2000 years. Engineers went back to the spear length to weight ratio without much success.

In the early 1960s-70s, some dudes noticed that some people rolled their feet while running. Some people rolled to the outside. Some to the inside. Some to the middle. As this was a new age of peace and sharing for runners, they believed that the middle was the best despite the fact that they had no evidence or data to confirm this belief. Didn't matter. The went on to build shoes that corrected pronation "issues". Then they set an aggressive marketing campaign stating that pronation control shoes will help reduce running injuries. There is still no real evidence that these shoes prevented any kind of injury. But, just like the electrolyte people's gibberish, people bought in and we've been forced to run in over-engineered shoes ever since.

So, where does that leave you and picking a running shoe?
Remember my answer about a running watch being very personal? Running shoes are worse. Everybody has different feet and different running styles. Plus, I am not, by any means, an expert on running shoes. I ran in HS in Nike Air Pegasus. Then, for some stupid reason, Nike canceled the shoe and I was forced to change. They realized their mistake and later re-introduced the shoe but it wasn't the same. Since then, I have run in Asics and Mizunos. Asics was my shoe for a long time until they increase the arch support (which hurt me badly). I switched and haven't strayed from Mizuno since. The problem is that I haven't experimented much with the different shoe companies or the different styles to give an informed recommendation.

Here's what I can tell you:
  1. Don't go to Dicks, or the Sporting Authority, or other national chain store (not yet, anyway). Same with using the internet.
  2. Go to a running store. (For local athletes, the Rochester area has a few that I have used in the past. Fleet Feet in Brighton. MedVed in Pittsford. Tri Running and Walking in Victor. They are all good.)
  3. Bring in your old running shoes. Ask them to analyze your running gait. They will put you on a treadmill or run around the store. They will see what type of runner your are and have options.
  4. Since you are probably not a sprinter, you don't need 'racing flats' or cleats. Since you are running a bunch of miles, get a regular running shoe. I prefer lighter shoes. Every shoe company makes a variety of shoes with varying levels of support. (I personally don't believe that the support does much for you. I also don't think the support hurts you either. Some people swear by it. I tend towards 'neutral', lighter weight shoes.)
  5. Try on the shoes. Walk around a bit. Get on the treadmill and run in them for a couple of minutes. Pay attention to how your toes, heel, and arches feel.
  6. If there is any discomfort, try a different shoe.
  7. Your shoe should have a little room for your toes to wiggle. Feet can swell during a run. That means you need a little extra width and length. It should also feel snug, not tight, around your ankles.
  8. More expensive shoes are NOT better. The best shoe is the one that fits you the best and is most comfortable.
  9. BUT, be prepared to pay between $80 and $110 for this shoe.
  10. After you have spent some time in the shop, buy the shoe from that shop! They have done you a great service and you should reward them with your business. In the future, you may decide to go to Dicks or shop on the internet for the exact same shoe. Not now. (FWIW, I refuse to buy shoes on the internet. There is so much variation in running shoes and I prefer to try each shoe on before I buy them. The internet does not give you this opportunity. Internet shopping does allow for cheaper prices and you can always return the shoes, I just don't like the hassle.)
I am a firm believer that running shoes are at least 90% independent of running injuries. That means that the shoes themselves neither promote nor prevent running injury. Most injuries can be related to training injuries (over-use, stress, repetitive, ankle rolls, bad coaching, etc). Just as there is not much data that pronation control prevents injuries, there is also not much data on it causing injuries.

The best advice I can give you when deciding on a running shoe is to get the shoe that will encourage you to run. Or, at the very least, won't discourage you from running. The other details are relatively minor. I have been known to pick on older model over a newer model simply because I liked the color better.

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