With hundreds of models to choose from, it seems impossible to make the right decision when purchasing running shoes. With so many choices, too often runners set themselves up for injury by buying what is on sale and hitting the road.
Armed with a little knowledge of the basic shoe types and their common shape profiles, you will be able to hone in on which shoe might actually be right for you.The bulk of this article applies to standard training shoes, not race flats or other specialty models.  Here, we are talking about the shoes in which most runners will put most of their mileage. Running shoes basically come in 3 different varieties.  From least stable to most stable, they are Neutral-cushion, Stability and Motion control.
The different shoe types are designed to control pronation to varying degrees.  Pronation is the term used to describe when the foot rolls inward and the arch flattens.  Pronation is a normal part of the gait cycle and occurs shortly after the foot strikes the ground.  Supination is the opposite of pronation and is used to describe when the foot rolls outward.  Both motions are normal; however, excess motion with either can lead to injury.  Too much pronation is a common cause of shin splints, for example.

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Shoe types vary by the amount of dense foam located on the medial side (inside edge) of the sole.  Dense foam offers more resistance to pronation and prevents the arch from collapsing.Neutral shoes have little or no dense foam and motion control shoes have the most. You can feel the difference if you look closely at the shoe and compress the foam with your fingertip.

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*Clinical Note: Cushion shoe characteristics can change as the foam compresses under stress.  We often see runners over 175 pounds start to experience foot and ankle pain, if they regularly go over 5 or 6 miles in neutral-cushion shoes. These runners can often feel and hear the shoe change during their run.  After several miles, the shoe will start to act as if it is worn out, becoming less cushy and making more of a slapping sound when it hits the ground.  After the shoe sits for a while the foam re-expands to its original state. 

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All of the major running shoe manufacturers have a characteristic shape, or perceived shape, that is common to their brand.  For example, the Nike brand is traditionally narrow in the front, middle and rear. People with narrow feet tend to do quite well in Nike shoes.  Asics are generally medium width throughout.  Brooks tend to be wide in the front, middle and rear.  Because of their width, the Brooks are often good at accepting orthotic inserts.  The Saucony brand tends to be pie shaped; wide in front and narrow in the back.  Adidas tend to be dumbbell shaped; wider in the front and back with a narrow middle.   

Choosing a running shoe

When choosing a running shoe, you can vastly improve your chances of success if you first choose the brand of shoe based on the shape of your foot. Try to match the shape of your foot to the characteristic shape of the brand. Next, choose which model based on the amount of stability or control you desire.

*Special note to runners with flat feet:  There are two types of flat feet.  One does well with arch support/pronation control, and the other does not.

Two types of flat feet:

1.  The kind you’re born with:  Some people are just born with flat feet.  Runners with naturally flat feet often do not have an issue with over-pronation. They just appear to be over-pronated when observed from the front or top.   This type of foot, I would argue, might actually be the ideal foot for running.  That is the subject of a future post, however.  Bottom line; trying to shore up the arch of a naturally flat foot without a pronation problem can lead to injury.  Naturally flat feet tend to do well in neutral-cushion shoes and even some minimalist shoes. 2. The kind you get:  Some people develop flat feet over time.  This can happen for a variety of reasons including age, multiple pregnancies, weight gain and general wear and tear to the ligaments that maintain the arch. This type of foot/arch often does well with the support of a stability or motion control shoe.

What about orthotics?

Some of the wider and flatter shoes tend to accept custom orthotics quite well.  Orthotics should only be used when clinically indicated and prescribed by a qualified practitioner.  Unfortunately, orthotics add weight, bulk and cost to your shoes.  With the proper shoes, many runners could eliminate the need for orthotics altogether.We live in a brave new world of design and innovation in the running shoe universe.  Some changes are good, and some bad.  The “minimalist” or barefoot running movement has paved the way for a whole new class of lightweight shoes including the Newtons, Brooks Pure series, Saucony Kinvara and others.  It also sparked the reactionary “maximalist” revolution, starting with the venerable, lightweight Hoka One One.Regardless of the newer designs, most manufacturers still classify their shoes as neutral-cushion, stability, or motion control.  Understanding the levels of shoe stability and the brand-characteristic shapes can help you narrow the field of choices and find the shoe that’s right for you.

–Guest blog by Kevin Sherman

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