Footwear. Seemingly the holy grail to running, injury prevention, performance and dare I say it, fashion. Running shoes get attributed to a lot of positives and negatives associated with the sport. However, based on my experience I think running shoes are given too much credit for the part they play. Now this article focuses on covering some basic advice on choosing the right shoe for the right terrain/distance but before I delve into that I want to get something off my chest.
STOP BLAMING YOUR SHOES FOR YOUR RUNNING INJURIES!!!
There I said it. Yes, there have been studies conducted on cushioned shoes vs non-cushioned shoes in terms of injury risk etc, but there is no conclusive evidence to suggest any form of shoe is more at risk of causing injuries than the other. Too often do people want to take the easy option of blaming their footwear for all their running woes. I have assessed hundreds of runners and helped get them out of pain without ever changing the footwear they have. Try looking at your strength and range of motion, your overall bodyweight and your run programming to understand why you are getting injured.
I know it’s a harsh statement, but on the whole running shoes should be no more complex than they should be comfortable and fit well. Yes, there are a couple of other factors when looking at off-road shoes, but again it’s relatively straight forward. At best you may want a couple of different pairs of shoes if you vary the terrain you run on regularly such as between road and trail.
Now I have had quite a few different shoes over the years from various models of ASICS road and trail shoes, Innov 8 Roclites, Salomon Speedcross and XA Pro Ultra to Hoka Speedgoats and Torrents (review here). I’ve done well with all but one of the above which were the Innov-8s and I’m pretty confident that was my own fault. They were my first pair of lower drop, less cushioned shoes after running in ASICS for years. I went straight into high mileage to train for MdS, I suffered with the typical calf and ankle issues that comes from not building up slowly in a less cushioned, less supportive shoe. Not the shoes fault.
So what should we consider when buying our next pair of shoes?
Terrain (what articles on the web say)
If you’re running on road, it’s pretty straightforward. Buy a road shoe. You can look at the next section for a bit more on choosing the right road shoe or carry on reading if you’re also running off road. Typically, a running shoe will want more cushioning as road and pavement have larger impact forces than off road surfaces.
Now if you typically run on wet, soft and loose trail such as bridleways and boggy forest tracks you want a shoe with at least 4-5mm lugs on the outsole (bottom of shoe) that are well spaced apart to prevent the build-up of mud in the tread and losing grip.
The opposite applies for more compact or rocky terrain where you want no more than 4mm lugs that are placed closer together to give better purchase on the terrain.
Terrain (real life)
I have ran on everything from road, deep bogs, mountains, snow and soft sand. I have had no issues using all of the shoes I mentioned before in terms of grip except on the most technical, wet and rocky descents where only my speedcross gave me the confidence to tackle them with speed. I have used road shoes on trail and sand and had no dramas. I personally think any trail shoe will do the job for you unless you’re looking at technical wet rock. Then you should consider at least 5mm lug size for your shoe such as Innov 8 Mudclaw/X-Talon, Salomon Speedcross or VJ XTRM. That is by no means an exhaustive list.
Heel to Toe Drop/Stack Height/Cushioning
You understand that your shoe will meet the demands of the terrain in terms of grip. The last thing to consider aligns more with comfort and that is the amount of cushioning a shoe has and where it’s placed. There are two numbers to consider.
Stack Height: The distance between your foot and the ground. This is usually separated into heel stack height and forefoot/toe stack height. The higher the stack height, typically the more cushioning the shoe has.
Heel to Toe Drop: This measurement is simply the heel stack height minus the forefoot stack height in mm. A lower drop is akin to more of a ‘barefoot’ running style with you typically landing on the midfoot or forefoot. A higher drop typically means more of a heel strike.
Now there is no right or wrong answer, just simply some factors to consider.
Distance: If you’re running marathon distance and above, you may want something with a larger drop or just a larger stack height especially on the heel. Salomon Speedcross have quite a large stack height on the heel (20mm) but not as much on the forefoot (10mm) to give you protection for longer distance, but more responsive feel for the terrain. Typically, a drop of 7-10mm will be more comfortable for most.
Bodyweight: Heavier runners may also benefit from higher drop/higher stack height shoes.
Foot Width: Nowadays, lots of the top brands have introduced wider fitting shoes. Just remember that for technical trail, you ideally want the shoe to fit as snug as possible whilst still being comfortable. This minimises excessive movement of the foot within the shoe to allow you to ‘feel’ the terrain better.
Now the above are just considerations. There will be runners who are absolutely fine running ultras in lower stack height shoes or zero drop (Altra’s are very popular in the ultra-running community with 0mm drop but typically high stack heights). Equally, there will be ‘heavier’ runners who handle the same without any issues. I transitioned from the 10mm drop of Salomon Speedcross to the 4mm drop of Hoka Speedgoats and subsequently completed my first 100-mile race with no issues. I took the time to build up my mileage to get used to the shoes and transitioned to them for the bigger forefoot stack height (more cushioning across the whole shoe) as I thought that may be useful due to running double the biggest distance I had ever ran before. However, on reflection I would have had no dramas doing the race in my Speedcross. And that’s my final point. Shoes are very individual and what works for some may not work for others. There is no best shoe out there. Unfortunately, there is also some trial and error required to find the one that works best for you and even then, it may be that it works best for you on some terrain and not others. I’m currently looking for a technical shoe to supplement my Hoka Torrents as my primary training shoe. I felt the Speedcross were becoming narrower on my feet and not as comfortable so tried the wide fitting version which just rubbed my feet on my last 50-mile race. So, I’m torn between giving the normal fit speedcross one more try as I really do like that shoe, or looking at something such as the VJ XTRM with a wider forefoot. I will have to commit to buying and running in one of them to truly understand if it was the correct choice. If it’s the wrong one, I will have wasted my money. However, that’s what it takes sometimes to get it right and when you’re running 50+ mile races, it needs to be right.
Shoes are just one part of the puzzle in running. Yes, there are a few considerations, but for the majority of runners who run on boggy tracks and dirt trails, comfort and fit are king. After that, having strength, coordination and skill can make up for a lot of perceived deficiencies a shoe may have. Check out my last article on how to run downhill like a boss.