Why You Should Buy More Running Shoes
By Jim Nicosia
I was talking to a friend after a race last week, and, as we are both over 40, one of the topics that naturally came up was injuries. My friend, let’s call him Joe, has been dealing with Achilles (heel) and back issues; my latest concerns involve my foot and back. Both of us have had to take time off the past year.
Like most runners, however, we’re not about to give up, and are looking to anything we can do to improve our situation. We have each been engaging in training and exercise regimens to strengthen ourselves, but the fact is, there is always something in a runner’s form that is causing an injury. Unless that form is changed (which is something that physical therapy/exercises can help with, but only if followed religiously, and only in the long term), continuing to run is going to continue to exacerbate those issues. It’s like the old Henny Youngman joke:
Patient: “Hey, doc, it hurts when I do this.”
Doctor: “Then don’t do that.”
Joe and I are not about to stop running, and one can’t quickly learn to “run differently.” So, after biology, the next biggest contributing factor in a runner’s form, is their running shoes. That’s naturally where my conversation with Joe went next.
Both of us, as it turns out, were wearing Brooks running shoes (different models), and both of us are pleased with the results we’ve been getting out of them lately. Now, while there’s a lot I can say about different brands, whatever I might share would only be applicable to me, so I’m not going to suggest one brand or model is better than another. That’s highly individual, and even if we claim to love one brand, that’s probably due to personal preference (“I ran my best time in these shoes,” “I love the colors,” “They feel so good on my feet”) rather than biomechanical fact. Furthermore, each brand of shoe has different models to serve every kind of runner, theoretically. So the truth is, every shoe you put on will have a different effect on your body. I also want to note that, although I may mention several brands here, I have run in almost every major brand (and some minor ones), and I’m not here to suggest one is better or worse than another. But let’s get on with it, shall we?
Joe and I were discussing our success with our shoes, and our frustration with lingering health issues. It just so happens that both models of our shoes have a higher heel-to-toe drop (the height of the padding under the heel compared to the height of the padding under the forefoot). Traditional wisdom has been, if you have issues with your Achilles, a higher heel drop will help you transition easier because the shoe is essentially pushing you forward by itself, thus making your heel do less to propel you.
There is certainly some truth to that, and some runners with heel issues may benefit from the higher heel of some shoes. But what also happens with a higher heel is that, when your foot strikes the ground, because the heel is higher, that part of your foot hits the ground first, and hits it sooner in the gait cycle than a comparable lower-drop shoe—therefore causing more impact on your heel. So, even if the higher heel helps move you forward, it also causes more stress on the back of your leg and calf: both things are happening at once, one for better, one for worse. Long-term use of higher heels, by the way, shortens the Achilles tendon, and that's the exact opposite of what runners want to do.
There is, naturally, a lot more going on than this, and if you’re one of the lucky runners who never has injuries anywhere in your body, and can run in any shoe without any problems, none of this concerns you. For the rest of us, however, it might be helpful to understand that every footstrike is a complicated and repeated process of impact (as your foot strikes the ground and transfers that impact from the foot all the way up your body) and energy return (turning that impact into the next stride forward). Numerous things are happening to almost every body part as we stride forward. Then multiply that by 1200-1500 times per mile, and it’s almost surprising that we runners don’t suffer from more injuries than we do. It’s a good thing the human body is actually made to be in motion.
For me, I have come to learn from my sports chiropractor and exercise therapist that I have certain weaknesses that I need to strengthen through exercise and cross-training. That being said, I also have learned that there are certain elements in my shoe choices (width at the toe-box, for example, and heel height) that can exacerbate my issues or relieve them. It would be great to say that one particular shoe fixed everything, or avoiding another type or brand of shoe is the single answer, but there is no perfect answer. Even if the human body is made to be in motion, it might be made to be in motion without shoes at all, but the minimalist movement in shoes only proved that, unless we spend our whole lives barefoot (and never run on pavement), we need running shoes. What’s worse, as most of you know, by the time I find the best shoe for who I am as a runner right now, that shoe is likely to change, and even the slightest variation can make a big difference in your biomechanics. Then it’s all about starting over again to find the best shoes for who you are right then.
Joe revealed in our discussion that he has been using his particular model of shoe exclusively for all his runs. That shoe has a somewhat higher heel-toe drop than average, and his Achilles issues seem to be returning. Yes, he likes the shoe, and he races well in it. But because he wears them over and over again, the repetition of his stride is identical from stride to stride, mile to mile, day to day, week to week, and so on. As such, even if there’s a tiny bit of stress occurring on his heel because of the higher heel drop (or for any other reason), then using the same shoe for every run means each stride, each mile, each day, is repeated, and it’s natural that any stresses from the shoe are amplified as the strides, miles, and days of running the same way add up. This is why most injuries runners suffer fall under the category of Repetitive Stress Injuries (it’s also why we should sometimes run in the opposite direction on a track, but that’s a discussion for another time). Whenever any athlete does the exact same thing over and over, that athlete is putting the same exact stress on the same muscles, joints, and tendons in the exact same way, over and over. That’s why the need for cross-training exists, for varying the types of runs you engage in (some at long slow distance, some at goal pace, some speedwork), and for having a regular rotation of the types of shoes you run in.
As I suggested to Joe: no matter who you are as a runner, it’s important to have three (or more) different models of shoes in your running stable, and probably three models that are designed for different purposes. Some people prefer three different models from the same brand, while others may opt for three from three different makers. The goal in either case is to vary the type of shoe, just as it’s important to vary the types of runs you do—one or two days of speedwork; one or two days of long runs; one or two easy runs.
Most running shoe stores (and RunningWarehouse.com is a great resource—check with Ben for the club’s current discount code) identify shoes for their desired purposes (though there are inconsistencies in their terminologies), and details about their amount of cushioning and heel-drop. A quick introduction is here, but you might want to visit a running shoe store of choice (Fleet Feet staff is usually quite helpful) and say, “I’ve been using this shoe for races, and want a shoe to complement it for longer training runs,” or vice-versa. Then try on the shoes and give them a test run… RunningWarehouse lets you return them within a 30-day trial period! What you’re likely to find is that your feet/legs/hips/back/body will feel different when you’re using one shoe as opposed to another, and that’s a good thing. That means you’re activating your muscles differently—so long as you’re not experiencing pain. (Pain is always a sign that you need to visit your doctor and probably exchange those shoes for something different.)
If you’re not aware of the often-confusing methodology that makers use to label their shoes, here’s a simplification of the terms you might confront. Generally, each shoe manufacturer has at least one shoe in each category, but increasingly they are likely to have two or three in each category:
Racing flats: ultra-lightweight shoes (under 7 ounces for a size 9, and maybe 10-20 millimeters of foam underfoot) for racing only.
Lightweight trainers: lightweight (under 8 oz.; 20-28 mm. of foam.) for faster runs.
Daily trainers: average everyday shoes that will protect your body more than the first two categories (in the 8-9 oz. range; 28-36 mm. of foam)
Cushioned trainers: very protective shoes (likely over 9 oz., more than 36 mm. of foam) for longer runs, which will likely absorb a lot of the impact and keep your legs fresher. Some of these may be called:
Maximal trainers: each brand has at least one such shoe (Asics Nimbus, Brooks Glycerin, Saucony Triumph, for example), and they are usually very soft and comfortable, with a lot of foam (some more than 40 mm.) underneath.
To make life more exciting, some shoes fall into the above categories and are also classified as stability shoes. To determine if you’re in need of stability shoes, you really need to have a professional analyze your stride and/or the wear pattern on the soles of your shoes. A half-dozen years ago, most runners were classified as needing stability shoes; today the stability shoe is being reserved for those with significant issues with how their foot hits and pushes off the ground.
As a serious shoe enthusiast (then again, who among us isn’t?), I regularly rotate the following into my running routine:
1) several lightweight trainer/race shoes for 5k-10k races (currently, I am currently rotating between Brooks Hyperion Tempo, Skechers Razor Excess, and Saucony Endorphin Speed, because each one of them seems to irritate my foot/heel issues, but in a different way from each other).
2) two daily trainers, depending on my mood (Saucony Kinvara 12 and Skechers MaxRoad 5; which is actually classified as a maximal trainer, but is light enough for most of my 5+-mile outings)
3) a cushioned trainer (Saucony Triumph 20; very soft and cushy) for slow recovery runs and long, relaxed runs.
Also keep in mind: if you particularly like a certain shoe, you should get at least one more pair, and gradually work that into your routine, so when the older one is worn out, you can use the second pair without having to break them in anew.
There are a lot of different midsoles out there now (the usually-white stuff that gives shoes their cushion and bounce). How you react to them is highly personal, and only the truly nerdiest of us need to research their makeup and properties. Most shoe brands have two or three different types of foams (some are not technically foams), so just because you like the “bounce” of one Nike shoe, for example, does not mean you’ll like another. Generally speaking, cushioning is measured in millimeters of foam under your foot. The more cushioning, the more protected from impact your body will be. The less cushioning, the lighter and “faster” the shoe will tend to be. in the last year, however, shoe manufacturers have recognized that they might have overdone it and many of their lightweight/racing shoes have been redesigned to weigh a bit more than last year’s versions. Even they realize there is no such thing as a perfect shoe, and they are constantly tweaking to find a sweet spot to sell a particular model to as many runners as possible.
Today, there is a bigger range in amount of cushioning in running shoes than perhaps ever in history. Though there are very few racing flats on the market (with 10 or less mm. of cushioning) today, there are some monstro-shoes that have over 45 mm. of cushioning. At both extremes, it’s important to be very careful and transition to them gradually. Too little cushioning is very hard on your body; too much cushioning can put more stress on your joints, from your ankles to your knees to your hips.
Dropping the Drop
Conventional wisdom keeps changing here, too, so it’s important for you to pay attention to what works for you. Five or ten years ago, the average shoe had a heel-toe drop (the amount of cushioning in the heel of the shoe vs. the amount under the forefoot) of 12 mm. The minimalist movement aimed for a zero drop (like the Newton shoes and any other “barefoot” shoes). There’s a long story behind this one, and a lot of it has to do with what we as shoe-wearing creatures, have gotten used to. That is, we’re used to walking heel-toe. Doctors generally recognize that this is not natural for our body (watch a baby learning to walk, and notice that they step with their whole foot on the ground at once: what we call midfoot striking).
Currently, shoe manufacturers generally recognize that there is a sweet spot somewhere in between the 12 mm. and 0 mm. drop, so most shoes are likely to have between a 6 mm. and 8 mm. drop. Again, if you get to know how you stride (heel striking first, mid-foot striking, or even forefoot striking), then it’s probably essential for you to pay attention to the drop of your shoe. THIS being said, running experts in the medical field continue to encourage heel-strikers to move toward midfoot striking by using shoes that have less drop than the traditional 12 mm. drop. This means you, Joe. I was actually much more of a heel striker when I got back into running about a dozen years ago, but gradually have moved toward that middle-ground, and most of my shoes have 4-6 mm. drops (though I do have to say, the larger drop of the aforementioned Brooks shoe does move me forward well in short races). As a brand, Mizuno has some of the largest heel drops in the industry, but there are many other models that still encourage heel striking (the Nike Pegasus is probably the most famous example of this).
Supershoes at a Super Cost
There is really no one way to clarify the ever-more-complicated running shoe market. One can really find an enormous range of foams, cushions, drops, stability elements, and names for all the above. Many shoes incorporating the newest technologies are being called “supershoes,” but don’t assume they are automatically better (while we’re at it, superfoods aren’t really very super, either). Usually the reason for the term supershoe involves very lightweight construction, the addition of plates into the midsole of shoes, and the latest midsole foam technology. As such, these shoes are ridiculously expensive, preying upon consumers who believe, “If it costs $250 it must be a better shoe.”
Right now, the sexy element underfoot is the carbon fiber plate, but you should give them a full test ride for a while yourself before determining if it works for you. (DoctorsofRunning.com, by the way, does the most detailed analysis of shoes, and they continue to assert that there is no data that yet proves any advantage to carbon fiber plating). Mizuno has been using plastic plates for almost 20 years, without runners flocking to them, so it’s interesting how the concept of “space-age carbon fiber” has suddenly attracted a lot of runners. Most shoe brands now have at least one carbon-plated shoe in their stable, which works kind of like a slingshot for your foot. In short, every time your foot bends, the plate is stretched, until at a certain point in your stride, the plate builds up so much tension that it snaps back, propelling you (in theory) more quickly forward than your body would be able to do.
These shoes tend to be very stiff underfoot, so if you like that feel, it might be something to look for. If you have any kind of foot (plantar fascia), ankle, or Achilles issues, it might be something to be wary of. If you don’t want to spend close to $200-$300, you might be wary of these shoes, also. Some brands, like Saucony, for example, have a vinyl-plated shoe that many runners, including myself, prefer to the stiffer carbon fiber plate (the Endorphin Speed is vinyl, while the Endorphin Pro is carbon, and is around $50 cheaper).
All this being said, for my races and speedwork, I have been using shoes that are classified supershoes, but only because I like the bounce of the midsole foam that is essentially identical in every brand (don't be fooled). What I have also found, however, is that the Skechers and New Balance supershoes I have used all wore out within 100 miles, likely because they aim to be as lightweight as possible, rather than to last long. My New Balance Rebel v2 shoes also contributed to a foot issue that has affected me for the past 9 months (shout out to podiatrist Dr. Rico Visperas, Dr. George Scordilis, and my exercise therapist Tyler Petersen for getting me almost entirely fixed!).
Well, I was hoping to keep this short, but as I always discover, talking about running shoes is always more complicated than we might want it to be. To sum up: get and keep three pair of different types of running shoes, and use each one for what it’s designed for. Each time you do, pay attention to how you feel during the runs, and afterward, too. Keep notes, and adjust your shoe rotation if you find any nagging issues from one shoe or another. Wearing too many different shoes is always better than wearing the same ones every day.
See you in the middle of the pack.
Jim Nicosia is a teacher, author and children’s literacy advocate. He has participated in races from the mile to the marathon, proudly finishing in the top half of most of those races. He is a Rutgers University-certified coach for children, and earned his first victory in his age group in a race at the age of 50. He placed second in the USATF New Jersey Mini-2 championship, and first in the Mini-3 championship for 2019. In 2022, he placed third overall in his age group for the New Jersey USATF Grand Prix.
His website is www.JimNicosia.com.