If you're new to running and haven't already done so, check out my article Running for Beginners: Everything You Need to Know.
This week I wanted to go through the most important things you need to know as a runner who has built up some time pounding the pavement or trails. By now you've probably got some personal best (PB) times for your chosen disciplines such as 5k, 10k, half marathon and maybe even a marathon. Now you want to get faster and beat those times or perhaps step up to the next distance. Then this article is for you. So let's get to it and look at everyone's favourite.... Shoes!
Footwear: As I talked about in my last article, the main priority when selecting footwear should still be comfort and fit. However, now we are looking at improving performance it is important to talk about a few other factors to consider when choosing your next set of running shoes.
- The weight of the shoe: Now before you all go out and drop £££ on buying the Nike Vaporflys, let me be clear. You still have huge amounts of performance to be gained from structured training and hard work and that should never be substituted for things like new shoes that MAY improve your performance. That being said, research does indicate that for every 100g you shave off the weight of your shoes you can increase your run economy by 1%. Meaning it takes 1% less effort to maintain a certain speed. So a lighter shoe could help you run more efficiently and therefore faster by a marginal amount.
- Barefoot running: So with lighter shoes meaning faster running, we should all run in barefoot/minimalist shoes, right? Wrong. Whilst 'barefoot' shoes will be typically lighter than more traditional shoes, they will also have less cushioning or even none at all. For most runners there needs to be a balance between cushioning to reduce the muscular demand of running, and the weight of the shoe to stay efficient. There is also a recommended transition period of 1 month per every 20 point difference on the minimalist index between your old shoes and your new ones. This relates to the stack hight (distance between ground and foot) and heel top toe drop (difference in height of heel from ground compared to toes). As mentioned, a lighter shoe will typically have less cushioning and therefore, a lower stack height and, potentially, smaller heel to toe drop. This will increase muscular demand especially on the foot, ankle and claves, which is why a reduction in mileage should be applied to allow the body to adapt to the new shoe. This should be at least 1 month in duration. If you go from something like a 10-12mm heel to toe drop to something like 4mm, you may need a lot longer to transition to avoid injuries. This is why I mentioned the Nike Vaporfly. They utilise a new foam cushioning made from PBAX instead of the traditional EVA which is much lighter whilst still offering protection and due to it's increased resilience, it can return up to 87% energy, compared to 66% found in EVA. So in reality, it's only a matter of time before we see this material in our favourite brands.
- Heel striking is dangerous. Again, another false statement. There is no difference in the risk of injury between heel striking and forefoot striking. It is also a myth that forefoot striking (associated with barefoot running) is more efficient than heel striking (associated with cushioned shoes). For a lot of people who naturally heel strike (like me) retraining gait can take years of conscious effort which can be undone as soon as fatigue kicks in anyway. Not to mention, it feels comfortable for me and I have suffered ZERO injuries in my 20+ years of running. There is even recent evidence to suggest that heel striking (in cushioned shoes) is actually more economical than barefoot running in the short term. This is due to the energy return you get from the foam within the shoe - something barefoot shoes don't have. However, that energy return can be offset over time, once your muscle have become stronger in barefoot shoes therefore allowing more of that energy return.
I may I have given the impression that I am in the 'anti barefoot' crowd. But really I'm not. I use minimalist shoes when I coach and train in the gym as it is great for building sensory feedback within the feet. What I'm against is people claiming absolutes with regard to barefoot running, stating that it is the best way for EVERYONE with no actual consistent evidence to back it up. If you heel strike, wear cushioned shoes, suffer no issues at your knees and feel super comfortable. Stick with them! Could you be more efficient with a lighter shoe? Maybe. But I'd argue your training and losing a few hundred grams in bodyweight will do more for your performance. However, if you do suffer chronic knee issues and you've explored all other avenues of strength training, mobility work, and smart training then yes, a minimlist/barefoot shoe could help you get out of pain due to them taking load off your knees and placing it on your feet, ankles and calves. But remember, the transition period still applies.
For more advice on grip and terrain when it comes to shoes check out my article here.
Kit: I'm literally going to copy and paste my beginner article for this section as I believe this applies to almost all runners anyway. So now you've got your shoes sorted, it's time to get the rest of your kit. Again, as a beginner (or for most levels actually) it doesn't need to be complicated or expensive. Here are some suggestions on the kit you need to get started.
- Comfortable shorts/leggings/both
- Comfortable T-shirts/vests/long sleeve tops
- Comfortable socks
- Hat and gloves for colder runs
- Windproof/Waterproof jacket for wet and windy runs
- High visibility vest/head torch if running at night
It doesn't matter what brand you go for. They are all much of a muchness. I used to run in all Kalenji gear from Decathlon for years. It's well priced, lasts for ages and always did the job. I now use Alpkit gear which has been great, but I'm biased as I get discount for working there. Up and coming brands such as Validus and Run Through Kit are also worth checking out. Buy stuff that's comfortable and is within your budget. It all gets trashed at the end of the day.
What I will add to this is talking about backpacks/vests. You may now be increasing the distance of your long runs or training for your first ultra marathon (any distance over 26.2 miles) and so need to carry water and food. If you're running on arduous terrain far from a town or aid, you may also need to carry emergency supplies to deal with injuries or extra layers to account for changes in the weather. I live in the Lake District and whilst I'm a competent and confident runner, you never know what might happen on the mountains. So whether I'm running 6 miles or 20 miles, if it's on the fells I take a running vest and carry the following:
- Survival bag/emergency bivvy
- Spare long sleeved top
- Emergency food
- Waterproof jacket (if required)
- Hat and gloves (if required)
It might seem excessive, but I've literally come across an injured runner off track with no kit and borderline hyperthermic. If I hadn't found him when I did, it could have been a lot worst for him. At least with kit, he could have kept himself warm and protected from the elements whilst using a whistle to draw attention. If you're training for an ultra marathon, most have a kit list you must carry on you at all times, so it makes sense to train with such kit. When I did the Spine Challenger race, the MINIMUM kit required weighed 11kg!
Anyway I digress. Packs and vests. I use a Raidlight Ultra OLMO 5l vest which easily fits the kit list I mentioned before. Jayne uses a Salomon S-Lab 5l with the same success. Just like kit though, all are very similar and it comes down to personal choice of pocket locations and the fit of it over anything else. Check out innov8, Salomon, Decathlon, Ultimate Direction, Raidlight, Camelbak and Aiojie. You can also get waist belts from most of the above brands which are lighter but can't hold as much kit.
As I mentioned, my Spine Challenger kit list was extensive and certainly wouldn't fit in a 5l vest. Some ultra races are referred to as self supported i.e. you need to carry all your kit you need and in some cases all the food you need too. This is where backpacks come in. I've used the OMM Classic 25l for years including on Marathon des Sables and the Challenger. It's lightweight, robust and reasonably priced. Again though, shop around and try a few different brands on for size.