One of the benefits of running as a sport is that you won’t need to invest much in kit and accessories.
All you really need is a decent pair of running shoes and (if you are a woman) a well-fitting sports bra. Given how little you need for the sport, it would be a huge mistake to think that you can get by without either of these. Of course, if you enjoy accessorising and want to spend lots of money on clothes and other kit, there is plenty of running-related paraphernalia you can buy. This chapter tells you how to go about it.
What shoes to buy
There is no such thing as a better “brand” or “model” of shoes. A good pair of running shoes is one that suits your particular running style; and a bad pair is one that does not.
Biomechanics and shoes
The human body generally comes with complicated machinery – muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, bones – to enable you to walk and run. Your ability to run efficiently and injury free depends in part on the alignment and operation of these moving parts. Your individual biomechanics are partly determined by your genes, but also by your lifestyle, past injuries, treatment and exercises. Running shoes vary according to the way and extent to which they compensate for faulty biomechanics, and your choice of running shoes should depend on your personal biomechanical profile.
Paradoxically, the best runners often don’t need to spend much money on running shoes. Because they are typically lucky enough to have good biomechanics, their running style does not require them to buy shoes which correct the way in which their feet roll when they hit the ground, or cushion them from the stress on their joints as their feet repeatedly hit the ground. Us mere mortals, however, need shoes which will correct our deficiencies and weaknesses, and improve our running action so that every footstep does not place an intolerable pressure on our feet, legs and pelvis.
Pronation and supination
When your heel hits the ground, the foot naturally rolls in from the outside of the foot. This rolling is called pronation, and is a natural and desirable part of the running action, since it helps to absorb the impact of running (rather like a parachutist bending her knees and rolling as she hits the ground).
Although some pronation is desirable, around three quarters of runners “over-pronate” – that is, their foot rolls in too much. This is most visible in the effect it has further up the leg, as the knee tends to bend in across the centre of the body towards the other leg. Persistent over-pronation may cause a variety of injuries, from stress in the ankle and Achilles tendon, shin splints, knee pain, torn hamstrings, hip strains, to pain in the lower back. These injuries are discussed in more detail in Chapter 8.
Just before the take-off phase of running, the foot rolls back towards the outside. This is called supination. As with pronation, this is a normal part of the running action. But a small minority of the population – less than 10 per cent – over-supinate. This can also cause a range of over-use injuries over time.
Excessive pronation and supination may be caused in part by problems in the feet; but they are usually also symptoms of imbalances or weaknesses elsewhere in the body, including in the back, hips, buttocks, hamstrings, quadriceps and knees. While the right running shoes can help to limit the effect of these biomechanical deficiencies, it is better if possible to identify and correct the underlying causes.
Runners who are lucky enough to neither pronate nor supinate excessively are called “neutral”. They don’t need special shoes to correct their gait (i.e. their running style) – though shoes which are designed to prevent over-pronation are unlikely to do them any harm – which often means that they can wear lighter and cheaper shoes than their less fortunate brethren.
A simple check for overpronation
1. Stand in front of a full-length mirror, barefoot, on one leg, with your hands behind your back, and your toes facing forward;
2. Keeping your pelvis level and your back straight, slowly bend the leg on which you are standing;
3. Your knee should go straight forward, over your second toe. If it bends in towards the other leg, past the big toe, then you probably over-pronate when you run.
Motion control and stability
Because most of the population over-pronates, most running shoes are designed to prevent or at least limit over-pronation. A simple test to see how much a shoe prevents over-pronation is to hold the toe in one hand, and the heel in the other, and twist the shoe. The more difficult it is to twist, the more the shoe will help to control over-pronation.
Running shoes come in the following categories:
- motion control
most aggressive at preventing over-pronation
help to limit over-pronation, but not as much as motion control
for runners who don’t need their shoes to prevent biomechanical weaknesses
for the minority of the population who over-supinate.
These running shoes all look basically the same at first, but when you look at them carefully they have different components built in to the shoe according to the extent to which they are designed to control pronation.
“When I first started running, I used a pair of old plimsolls. It did my knees no good whatsoever. I recommend that you go to a good running shop and get a decent pair of trainers.”
Chair of the Serpentine Running Club
As well as controlling the rotation of the foot and ankle, running shoes vary in the extent to which they cushion the foot as it hits the ground. Good cushioning is important because it reduces the shock that is transmitted through the foot to the lower leg, knee and hip joints. As well as reducing the risk of injury, cushioning improves the comfort of running. Heavier runners, and those doing big mileages on roads or pavements, should ensure that their running shoes have sufficient cushioning.
However, cushioning makes the shoe heavier, and because it absorbs energy it can reduce your running efficiency. For most of us the effect on performance is imperceptible; and the benefit of more comfort and safety when running more than outweighs the loss of performance. But some runners will also use racing flats for important races (see below).
Different manufacturers have different cushioning technologies. Some use pockets of air to absorb impact; others use gels or spongy plastics. You should try these for yourself and see which you find most comfortable. I personally don’t believe that pockets of air are a good way to cushion shoes (air is very hard to compress) so I use shoes with EVA midsoles. [i]
Other types of shoe
As well as regular trainers, other running shoes available include:
- racing flats
these are basically trainers that have very little cushioning, and usually not much motion control, but they are correspondingly lighter than shoes you might use for regular training. Unless you are very concerned about your performance, or have very good biomechanics, racing flats are generally best left to the professional athletes.
- track spikes
these are for training on the athletics track. They have short spikes under the toes which grip the track. The shape of the shoe forces you to run on your toes, which is more efficient on short distances (though harder on your legs). Track spikes have very little cushioning or motion control.
- cross country spikes
these have longer spikes than track shoes, designed to give you more traction on soft ground; like track shoes they have little cushioning because they are usually used on softer ground and because the lack of cushioning gives them more stability on uneven ground. They also have little motion control. Because of the spikes, they cannot be used on hard surfaces. The spikes are replaceable, and different length spikes are used depending on the nature of the surface.
- fell shoes
these are designed for running off road, for example on mountain trails; they usually have good grips on the bottom of the shoe, such as studs. Like cross country spikes, they generally have little cushioning and motion control, because they are designed for use on softer, uneven ground.
These specialist running shoes are not generally available in high street sports shops. For a good selection, and good advice, you should go to a specialist running store, where you will be given individual advice on your needs.
“Buy a new pair of shoes every 300 miles or so: in the end it will save you money because you won’t have to pay out a lot of money for physio treatment.”
How long do shoes last?
You often see people looking at the bottom of a running shoe to see if it needs replacing, for example by seeing whether it has much “tread” left. This is not the right test of whether a shoe is finished: the main determinant of the longevity of a shoe is not the extent of wear to the outer sole, it is the compression of the mid-sole, which is the spongy layer between the outer sole and your feet. Most running shoes today have an EVA mid-sole. EVA is light and absorbs shock well, but it gradually compacts as it is used, which reduces its shock absorbency and gradually distorts the shoe. As a result of the compression of the mid-sole, most running shoes have an average life expectancy of about 300-600 miles. Very heavy or uneven runners might wear out part of the outer sole before the mid-sole is too compressed, but this is unlikely.
The actual life of your shoes depends on your weight and your running style. You can see whether your shoes are past their best by looking at the compression lines along the side of the shoe, and seeing whether the mid-sole can be compressed with pressure from your thumb. If you can no longer compress the mid-sole, then it is time to replace the shoes. If you begin to get any kind of ache or pain in your ankle or knee, check that your running shoes don’t need replacing.
Incidentally, you should not put your running shoes in the washing machine, nor use very hot water to clean them. The hot water damages the shoe, especially the midsole, and leads to distortion in the shape of the shoe.
Many runners keep track of the life of their running shoes in their training log, and use this to warn them when they are likely to need a new pair. Alternatively, use a marker pen to write on the side of the shoe the date on which you started using them.
How many pairs of shoes do I need?
Most runners will do fine with a single pair of training shoes. However, if you are going to run track or cross country regularly, you should consider getting a pair of specialist shoes for this too.
Some runners have two pairs of trainers at the same time, and alternate between them. The reasons for this are:
- it is claimed that both pairs of shoes last longer than they would do if they were used one at a time, because they benefit from the “rest” between runs to allow the EVA midsole to decompress;
- the two pairs of shoes will be slightly different (even if they are the same model they will wear slightly differently), which marginally reduces the risk of injury, because there is more variation in the way you run;
- if a pair of shoes gets wet, you can use the other pair while the first pair dries out;
- when you find a model of shoe that suits you, the shoe manufacturers may discontinue it, so you might as well buy two pairs of a shoe you like.
Where to buy running shoes
You should buy running shoes from a specialist running shop if possible. At a good running shop, the staff will help you to pick shoes which fit your own running style and gait. They may have specialist equipment for this (e.g. a treadmill with sensors to detect how your feet hit the ground) or they may watch you run up and down the street outside.
These specialist shops are often a little more expensive than high street stores, but they usually offer discounts to members of running clubs on production of a membership card. Their staff are much more knowledgeable and patient than your average teenager in a Saturday job; and they are usually runners themselves. I buy my shoes in a specialist store because I think it is a good idea to support this part of the running community. And it is a false economy to save a few pounds on running shoes if the result is that you get a pair that are not right for you, and end up injured.
Try to go to the running shop in the afternoon, when your feet are larger than in the morning; and pick a quiet time (e.g. mid-afternoon on a weekday) when the staff will have time to help you choose the right shoes. If they are not willing to let you try out the shoes, and watch you to see how you run in them, shop somewhere else.
You will find the details of running shops in running magazines, or on the internet; or your local running club will be able to advise you on where you can go.
If you run high mileages and you are prone to running injuries, you may want to get advice from a podiatrist on the best pair of shoes for you (see Chapter 8).
[i] Ethylene Vinyl Acetate