Three "F's" of Athletic Footwear

by Adam Stuhlfaut, Director of Running

Buying running shoes can be overwhelming.  Walk into any athletic shoe store, and there may be as many as 100 different models of running shoes, all competing for your attention and your dollar.  Look closer, and the shoes seem like race cars with ads all over them. Each one has a special new feature called out by a fancy technology name.

Today, the design of running shoes is a science, and these high-tech marvels have become more like medical devices.  The correct shoes can help propel the runner or walker on the road to fitness.  The wrong shoes, however, can lead to nagging injuries and expensive medical bills.  Without a degree in rocket science or biomechanics, how are you supposed to choose the best shoe for your needs and budget?

It’s easy. Just remember three simple words to guide your shoe-buying process: fit, feel and function. 

Fit

The foundation of shoemaking is the “last” or molded form used to make each shoe to a specific size and shape.  Shoemakers have been using lasts from the days of hand-stitched shoes to modern times where shoes are made by the millions.  The last is basically a form that is shaped like an ankle and a foot. Each shoe is built on one, therefore each shoe fits the foot and ankle of the last perfectly.  The problem is that if a runner’s foot doesn’t conform to the last, the shoe will not fit properly.  Poor fit can lead to irritations, blisters, pulled muscles, and worse.

In addition, sizing is not consistent across shoes brands.  That’s because shoe companies have developed their own system of lasts to create a unique fit.  Also, within each shoe brand, different styles are built on different lasts.  In a recent New Balance catalog, I counted 36 different lasts.  That's 36 different foot types New Balance is attempting to fit. In additiona, most of the shoe brands also have a different selection of widths.

Fit Tip: Don't buy based on brand logo, buy based on fit. Try on multiple brands in your shoe selection process to find the fit that best matches your foot. 

Feel

Like with lasts, each shoe brand has its own theories on how a shoe should feel underfoot for different types of runners.  The challenge for the runner to understand is that just because a shoe feels comfortable in a store doesn’t mean it’s the correct shoe for the road.  Also, running shoes require a break-in period that will affect the feel of the shoe after purchase. 

Some shoes offer more responsive cushioning that is designed to feel a little stiffer.  Stiffer shoes are generally recommended for runners that need more stability (see function below), and for lighter runners or competitive runners looking for more spring in their step.  Other shoes offer a softer, cushioned feel to absorb the shocks of a runner’s foot striking the ground.  Softer shoes are generally recommended for runners who do not need additional stability or for runners with achillies tendon issues, for example.  

Finally, the insole can greatly affect the feel of a shoe.  It’s the bed of the shoe that makes direct contact with the bottom of your feet. If the brand wants you to think the shoe is very cushioned, they will insert a soft insole.  If the brand wants you to think the shoe is supportive, they might add a stiffer insole.  The problems is that the funtional cushioning comes from the sole of the shoe, not the insole. Just because a shoe feels soft, doesn't mean in is more cushioined than another shoe. 

Feel Tip: It takes up to 100 miles of use to properly break in a new pair of running or walking shoes.

Function

Like a fingerprint, every human walks with a unique stride.  In shoe talk, a person’s walking or running motion is referred to as the gait cycle.  While the gait cycle includes the entire motion of a runner’s body, footwear brands are most concerned with the part that starts when your heel first hits the ground and ends with the last moment your toe pushes off the ground.  Most important is the foot’s path between heel hit and toe off.  Most people have one of three gait cycles: underpronation, normal pronation or overpronation. 

In normal pronation, also referred to as a neutral, the foot typically lands on the outer part of the heel and gently rolls forward toward the middle of forefoot.  The forefoot of the running shoe’s sole is generally worn evenly on the bottom.  This style of running is typically accompanied by a normal to high arch. 

In underpronation, also referred to as supination, the foot strikes on the outer part of the heel and continues on the outer part of the foot through toe off.  The entire wear pattern of the sole is generally on the outer part of the shoe.  This style is typically associated with a high arch, but not always. More and more we are seeing flat footed underpronators. 

In overpronation, the foot strikes on the heel and rolls severely inward.  The wear pattern of sole typically shows the inner part of the sole worn down over time.  This style is typically associated with low or flat arches.  

Function Tip: Have a professional such as a physical therapist, chiropractor or podiatrist analyze your gait cycle.  A store that specializes in running shoes with knowledgeable staff can also assist you in the process.

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