The tech in running shoes can be mind-boggling: we find out how they can make you run better, and how to choose the right ones for you
Words by Tina Chantrey.
The technology incorporated into today’s running shoe is dramatically di erent to shoes of only 10 years ago. Marathon runners of the 1980s would be amazed to bounce along in a modern-day shoe, with uber-cushioning and integrated tongues. But what do all these advancements really mean? And what does each part do?
Glossary of running shoe terms
Upper: the fabric, usually mesh, that covers the top and sides of the shoe and holds your foot in place.
Heel counter: wraps around the heel of your foot to lock it in place.
Heel collar (or cuff): the soft material that supports your heel.
Toebox: the section where your toes spread out when your foot hits the ground.
Tongue: the padded strip that sits on the top of your foot under the laces.
Sockliner (or insole): the removable layer of foam your foot sits on top of.
Lasting (or last): Underneath the sockliner, the last is how the upper is attached to the midsole.
Midsole: the section in-between the upper and the outsole, which provides cushioning.
Outsole: the outermost layer of the sole that touches the ground, with varying traction and grip.
Lugs: thick spikes on the outsole to grip through mud.
Medial post: in the midsole, but a harder density than normal midsole material. It usually sits under the arch to provide extra support for overpronators.
Cushioning: material to absorb shock; will vary depending on type and terrain –and how many miles the shoe has done.
All of a running shoe’s components work seamlessly together to deliver a specific running experience. Generally however, there are three regions we refer to in a running shoe: the upper, the midsole and the outsole.
The upper is the top part of your shoe that you insert your foot into. It incorporates the heel counter and collar, the eyelets and laces, the tongue and the sockliner. They all work together to hold your foot in place. Most of these are made of breathable materials, while some are also waterproof.
The midsole is designed to provide cushioning, stability and shock absorption. Long distance running shoes have a thick midsole, whereas racing flats, which are designed to be lightweight, have a thin midsole. Midsoles are typically made of a foam called ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA). Firm midsoles may help conditions related to excessive pronation. So midsoles can be helpful for shin splints.
The outsole is the bottom of the shoe, and this provides grip, hopefully for both dry and wet surfaces. Trail shoes tend to have distinctive lugs (like thick spikes) to gain traction in mud.
Make your shoes work for you
Knowledge is power and knowing what your shoe does helps you to make the most informed decision when parting with your hard earned dosh (and let’s be honest, trainers can be a pretty considerable investment in your running).
What else do you need to know? “Road running shoes can generally be split into three groups,” advises Louise Stirk from Pure Sports Medicine, who has a degree in podiatry and a master’s degree in sports medicine. “There are motion control, stability, and neutral/cushioned shoes. Historically we have been told there are three main foot types: flat (or pronated), normal (or neutral), and high arched (or supinated).
“However, research doesn’t support the belief that assigning shoes based on foot type will reduce injury risk,” says Louise. “In fact there is so much varied research on this issue, that you can almost do whatever you want and find a paper to support it.”
Louise believes that if someone is new to running, has no injury (or history of injury), cares little about their performance/times (initially at least), is applying good principles of load management, and is dedicating some time to strength training: “then perhaps your best approach is to buy two pairs of different stability shoes which they find very comfortable.”
Choose your terrain
Don’t limit yourself to running around the block. Think about where you want to run, as different landscapes and terrain offer such varied running experiences. “If you choose to run off-road you’ll require more grip from the outsole and I would advise investing in a trail shoe,” says Louise.
Nick Newman, manager at Runners Need Camden, expands: “Road shoes have a atter outsole in order to get more traction on the ground. Trail shoes have a more aggressive outsole to help with traction on uneven, muddy surfaces, and they also tend to have a more robust upper to be more durable on rugged terrain.”
Other factors to keep in consideration are the distances you are aiming for. Louise says: “Short sprints should be done in racing flats (which tend to have a low midsole stack and are minimalistic in nature), whereas with longer distances such as a marathon, a runner may want a slightly more stable shoe as it may help with fatigue.”
In-store or online?
For your first pair of shoes, Nick doesn’t suggest you buy online. “Ultimately I would discourage people buying their first shoe online and try to make the effort to go to a shop where they can get a gait analysis done and can try on various different brands,” he says. Eventually you will start to become aware of which brands come up bigger/smaller in size and which ones are a good match for your feet.
In a specialist running shop, you should be able to get a gait analysis, to show what category of shoe would be most suited to you. “It’s when trying the shoes on where we can use our knowledge to help aid this choice,” adds Nick. “For example, if you have Achilles issues we would look for a shoe with a higher heel drop, to help reduce the loading through the tendon.”
He also advises bringing in your favourite socks when you’re trying on new shoes. “It’s always best to try on shoes with the socks you’ll use when running,” he says.
There are some basic points that can help marry you up with the best shoe for you. Take your old running shoes in to the store, so the wear pattern on the outsole can be seen. Make sure you trying on both shoes as most people’s feet are different sizes. “At Runner’s Need we’d advise accommodating the bigger foot,” says Nick. “Also, get up and walk (or even better run on the shop treadmill) in the shoes, as your feet spread out when standing and take up more room than when you’re sitting down.”
If you use orthotics, take these with you when buying, as some brands will accommodate them better. And try to avoid trying on shoes when wearing tights: “They’re generally thinner than most socks, which could affect fit,” adds Nick.
Try various brands on to find which one fits the shape of your foot better. It’s very common to go up a full size bigger from your everyday shoes or other lifestyle trainers. “Comfort is king,” stresses Nick.
As is choosing function over fashion, believes Louise. “Like all things, it often takes a little trial and error to find the ‘right’ shoe. But once you’ve found what works for you then don’t change it. Ultimately your decision should be based on one main factor: comfort. “Comfort has been linked to injury frequency reduction and is thought to be the most important variable for sports shoes. If you’re still not sure though, make an appointment with your local sports podiatrist.” Good luck, and happy running!
What to look for if you have a specific condition
- Morton’s neuroma (nerve entrapment in the forefoot): Go for a wide toebox: it’s worth checking out the extra-width fitting from New Balance or getting a pair of Altras.
- Tibialis posterior tendinopathy: You’ll need more rearfoot control and support: try Adidas SuperNova, Brooks Adrenaline GTS, New Balance 860 or Nike Air Zoom Structure.
- Achilles tendinopathy: You’ll need a high heel drop: go for at least 1cm, if not more.