Ready to hit the road, track, or trail? Before you lace up and take off, there’s a crucial decision to make. What shoes to wear? Just like choosing the right tool for a job, selecting the perfect pair of running shoes can greatly impact your performance and comfort. From cushioned giants that eat up the miles to featherlight speed demons built for bursts of velocity, the world of running shoes is as varied as the terrains they conquer.
As companies continue to diversify their selections, fit and style may not be the most useful of metrics anymore. Today, I’ll dive into some of the nuts and bolts of modern shoe design and, hopefully, provide you with a bit of clarity you can take to your local shop in order to make a more informed choice.
First a breakdown of the shoe itself for clarity going forward. The fabric part covering your foot is the “Upper”. The Foam padding attached to the upper is the “Midsole” and is measured as a shoe’s “Stack Height” in mm, ex: ‘24mm stack’. This is usually followed by separate measures comparing the heel’s stack to that in the forefoot which is known as “the Drop”. The hardened rubber covering on the very bottom is known as the “Outsole”.
Let’s start with the most obvious shoe type in that you can immediately see coming your way….the Max Cushion set. These are best known by the Hoka brand, being one of the original innovators of max cushion shoes. A few common brands in this category are On, New Balance, and Sketchers.
Characterized by a really wide and tall foam midsole these shoes are designed to lessen the impact forces traveling up your legs and to your knees and hips. They focus on absorption of your weight at foot-strike, and roll you through and forward to the step off. Very long distance runners, heavier/taller runners, and those concerned about foot injuries may like these types of shoes as they are meant to be more forgiving.
One potential downside is that they can be difficult to run quickly in. Generally, the midsole here is of a softer consistency to provide maximum absorption. As there is little rebounding energy given back from the shoe, quicker paces may feel harder than what you might be used to. So if you are trying to land a personal record, these probably aren’t the shoes for you.
Daily Trainers – A daily trainer generally refers to a good all round shoe that fits many different types and styles of running needs. Here the midsoles generally are less than a max cushion but a bit more than a faster and lighter shoe. The main characteristics here center around things like the “Ride” or the feel of the shoe as you move through the contact phase of the gait cycle. This is the part from ground contact through to toe off.
While stability shoes can also be in the max cushion category, most models will fall into this daily trainer area. A stability shoe is one meant to help assist your foot in rolling through the contact phase limiting the amount of inward collapse of the ankle known as Pronation. High levels of pronation may lead to issues in the ankle, knee, and hip as time and distance increase.
Getting a good daily trainer is a great option for newer runners who may not know exactly what needs they have just yet. Also, because they can cover a variety of needs, purchasing additional shoes is less necessary.
Speedier shoes – For those looking at shorter distances and/or quicker paces and times, this category generally consists of lower midsole foam thickness or “Stack Height”. Depending on your preferences they can often be stiffer than the other types leading to greater ground reaction energy return. To increase this ground force action, many companies have turned to inserting a carbon fiber or similar plate, or a set of rods sandwiched between two layers of midsole foam. These super rigid structures resist flexion and absorption of your body’s weight and instead transfer these ground contact forces back up into the runner in an attempt to assist them with forward motion.
Being on the opposite end of the cushioning scale however, these light and speedy shoes won’t provide much in the way of support or softness. Plus, the carbon plated shoes are very expensive and tend to be mostly used in race events. Many of these users have separate shoes entirely for their training runs not only to save the shoe wear, but also the wear and tear they can have on your feet.
A word about Drop. A shoe’s drop difference can usually affect how it will “ride” for you. A greater heel to toe drop will favor runners who tend to strike the ground first with their heels (which isn’t necessarily bad but that’s a different blog altogether). It will also promote a faster roll through to the toeing off phase, which can help you turn your legs over quicker.
Those who tend to strike the ground mid or forefoot first will probably dislike these higher drop shoes and prefer those with lower ones, with some close to zero difference between heel and forefoot. These runners rely more heavily on the inherent mechanics of the muscles in the lower leg and foot to absorb contact and propel them forward. These shoes tend to provide less stability and may not be the best choice for runners with pronation issues. If a lower drop is something you’re interested in, some popular brands are Altra and Topo.
Always looking to innovate, many companies have taken all three of these broad categories and applied them to trail running shoes as well. You will find these have more rugged uppers, and the outsoles will also have improved durability providing a wide selection of tread styles or “Lugs”.
It’s always good to know exactly what you want to train for when it comes to selecting a shoe. Event distances and your available training time will help narrow your choices. Working with your own specific health and history can also guide you towards something that will suit your own individual body.