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Friday, September 7, 2007

It's all about the shoes!


photo by tuis

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"Oh, I can't run, I've got bad *insert lower body part here*."

I've heard it all...bad knees, bad ankles, bad feet, bum joints, wobbly hips, lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my. Running is a very natural activity and everyone has given it a go at some point, if only to the next light post. But mention running as a form of exercise and you tend to uncover all sorts of maladies that you never knew existed. Most folks who don't run for recreation only have bad middle school and high school P.E. memories to fall back on when thoughts turn to running as a fitness tool. And let's not forget that running is a favorite form of punishment for all of the sadistic coaches out there. Yeah, I'm talking about you Coach Hudson. If you are very unfit, starting a running program can be a daunting physical task. If you've tried running in the past and stopped due to pain or injury, I'm here to tell you that there is an solution. It's all about the shoes!


But first, here's a quick introduction to foot biomechanics as it applies to runners. The main issue at hand is pronation. Pronation is the inward roll of the foot from the point of impact to the point of toe off during each foot strike. Some pronation is important because it provides a natural shock absorption mechanism when running. If you have a "normal" amount of pronation, you are considered a neutral runner.

Some people pronate too much during each step. This means that at the point of highest impact with the ground, the foot turns dramatically inward, collapsing the arch and bending the ankle inward. If this is you, then you are considered an overpronator. Runners who overpronate tend to have pain and injuries from the ankle down. Sprained ankles, stress fractures of the foot, and plantar fasciitis are very common maladies for the overpronator.

The final classification of pronation is underpronation, or supination. This means that your foot does not turn inward enough during each foot strike. The result is a drastic reduction in the natural shock absorption of the foot. Supinators tend to have problems above the ankle. Stress fractures above and below the knee, knee problems, hip pains, etc. The immense forces that are generated when running simply aren't being properly diverted and these excessive forces cause impact-related problems.

Everyone naturally has a differing amount of pronation. It isn't a grouping, so much as it is a continuum. Everyone falls somewhere on the line between severe overpronation and severe underpronation. Here is a graphic which visually demonstrates the difference between the pronation types (image is of the right foot in each case):

Shoe Types

Running shoes come in several flavors intended to correct pronation imbalances in the gait. Companies who produce running shoes typically create shoes in these categories.

Cushioned shoes - these are the shoes for underpronators. Underpronation results in decreased natural cushioning of the foot strike and this class of shoes strives to compensate for that by being extra-cushioned. These shoes also tend to be slip last shoes. The last is the form on which the shoe is constructed and if you look at these shoes from the side, they tend to curve upward from the heel to the toe. This curvature encourages greater pronation, and thus, a greater reduction in impact forces.
  • Specific Cushioned Shoes - Asics Gel Nimbus, Mizuno Wave Rider, Adidas Response
Neutral shoes - these are the shoes for the biomechanically sound runner. These types of shoes don't have excessive stabilizing measures or excessive cushioning. They tend to be very light shoes, at the expense of stabilization structures and cushioning. Neutral trainers have more cushioning than racing flats and are a little heavier. The line between cushioned shoes and neutral shoes is sometimes blurred so if you are a neutral or underpronator, try lots of different brands and models until you find one that works for you.
  • Specific Neutral Shoes - Nike Air Pegasus, Brooks Radius, Saucony Grid Shadow, Asics Gel Cumulus, Mizuno Wave Rider
Stability shoes - these are the shoes for moderate overpronators. These shoes tend to be straight lasted, meaning they discourage pronation by being built to be flat, not curved. Another structural component common to stability shoes is the duel density sole. The foam used to create the front part of the shoe and the heel area is less dense than the foam in the midfoot arch area of the shoe. This results in more give in the front and back of the shoe, while providing stabilization in the arch.
  • Specific Stability Shoes - Mizuno Wave Alchemy, Brooks Adrenaline GTS, Saucony Grid Omni, Asics Gel 1120

Motion Control shoes - these are the shoes for severe overpronators or heavy runners. Shoe companies throw every trick in the pronation-reduction book at these shoes and they tend to be very heavy as a result. In addition to the techniques used for stability shoes, motion control shoes tend to have very wide soles, plastic supports in the arch of the shoe and diagonal roll bars, all in an attempt to minimize pronation. I'm a severe over pronator and these shoes are the only reason that I am able to run the mileage that I do.
  • Specific Motion Control Shoes - Brooks Beast, Saucony Grid Stabil, Asics Gel MC Plus, Mizuno Wave Renegade, New Balance 1122

Find out your gait type

My suggestion is to go to a running-specific shoe store and let them look at the shoes that you currently use to run. Some stores look at the underside of the shoe to determine wear patterns to find the shoe type that you need, but a better way is to find a store that will video tape you running with different pairs of shoes. As I said before, I'm a severe overpronator and the difference in the amount of pronation between a neutral shoe and a motion control shoe for me is dramatic.

The right shoes make all the difference in the world, as do the wrong pair of shoes. Running is a relatively inexpensive sport in which to participate, but don't skimp on the running shoes. The average cost of a good pair of running shoes is about $80-$85 for a cushioned, neutral, or stability shoe. Motion control shoes tend to be more expensive, but if you need them and you want to continue running, the cost of the shoes is cheaper than the cost of getting injured.

Have you ever tried to start running for fitness? What kind of shoes do you wear to run?

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john - from fat to fit said...

I finally bought shoes that fit me properly (I found out I am a EE wide) and the effect on me has been amazing. So much easier to enjoy walking and running when your darn shoes fit properly!

I wrote a little about how I managed this at

Fit Club Scott said...

Comfortable shoes definitely make it easier to get out there and get walking or jogging.