Sunday, March 3, 2013

A Running Shoe Shopping Guide

There's a reason why my co-workers at Maine Running Company refer to me as Bing, Shoe Rain Man, Doc (hey, that one's actually true), and a few other random terms: I have a running encyclopedia stored somewhere in the depths of my poor brain.

That being said, as (allegedly) good I am at my job, I am only one part of the running shoe equation. I joke that my job is one part rocket science and one part kindergarten; I have the hard part in terms of analyzing a customer's biomechanics. But that being said, it is imperative that the person coming through the door come on in armed with a decent amount of knowledge as well. Luckily, though, that knowledge is not technical. It's personal: it is a knowledge of yourself.

So, with that in mind, here come the ultimate "do's" and "don'ts" of your shoe buying experience:

Do: Go to an independent running retail shop to purchase your running shoes.
Why make the hassle to go to an independent running shop, when, as you compare our shops on price and convenience to online stores, we lose every single time? Because you are buying for the support of your local racing community; more of your dollars stay in your local economy; and perhaps more importantly, you are putting a face to the interaction that you are having.

It is infinitely easier, if something is to go wrong with your purchase, to deal with the same person throughout the process rather than going through a buffet of customer service representatives when attempting to process your return or exchange. Instead, talk with the same person; chances are, they will do everything within their power to do something right. (Our return policy: if it doesn't work, bring it back. Doesn't matter where you wore it. We don't put a time limit on it, either. It's not abused, either. Honesty really is the best policy.) And if they don't? Well, then, that just goes to show that there are some independent shops that are simply not worth saving, either.

For a listing of the Top 50 Running Stores in America, head here. And try to shop there. There's a reason why they're listed there: a combination of vendor scores, community involvement, and customer interaction.

Don't: Come into the store talking on your phone.
This is one of my larger pet peeves. If you are coming into an independent running shop, odds are you are coming to us for some type of customer service.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to do that if you are having a conversation with someone else about what your plans are for that evening. In fact, I don't want to approach you while on your phone, in fear of interrupting your conversation. I'd rather be able to talk to you on a one-on-one basis to figure out what you need.

Do: Come in with a rudimentary knowledge of what you're doing, and what your training goals are.
You should expect the following questions to come up during the course of a conversation with a running store guru:

  • How much running are you doing?
  • Have you had any current injuries?
  • Any injuries in the past?
  • Do you use orthotics?
  • What goals do you have with your running?
  • Have you had any brands that you have had success with in the past?
  • Do you have any preferences on the way a shoe should feel?
Answers to these questions are imperative to the fitting process. Of these, the injury question is probably the most important; prior and current injury issues are going to be telltale signs of what direction we need to be headed in for footwear categories.

Don't: Think that running shoes alone are going to be the magic cure for all that ails you.
Unfortunately, at the end of the day, shoes are only one part of the equation. Runners will buy 2.2 pairs of shoes before seeing a medical professional about an injury. Most of the time, the problem has less to do with the shoes. It is the first thing we tend to think about, but in fact, most things tend to come from somewhere else in the kinetic chain. This leads me to my next point...

Do: Expect a gait analysis and sizing analysis to be performed.
During a gait analysis, we can spot a difference between a skeletal relationship issue and a muscular relationship issue.

Confused? Well, we're going to butcher some medical terms in the process of this, but here goes nothing:

Everyone, during the course of their gait, is supposed to pronate and supinate. Pronation is the rate of the collapse of the foot as the result of the slide of the heel in the subtalar joint. The rate here is where the terms "overpronation," "neutral," and "supination" or "underpronation" come from in the footwear industry. On the medical side, you'd instead be talking about varus and valgas. Supination, on the other hand, is the foot locking and moving into the propulsive phase of the gait cycle.

Now that we have that all out of the way...

There's a difference between a foot "overpronating" due to a skeletal relationship issue, and a foot "overpronating" due to a muscular recruitment/imbalance issue. During a gait analysis, a well-trained footwear employee will be able to spot these differences, or be able to ask enough questions to assess this.

Also imperative: shoe sizing. Make sure your foot is measured on an athletic Brannock device. You know, one of these:

There are three measurements that comprise your running shoe size: physical foot length, arch length, and width. You first determine numerical shoe size by averaging the physical foot length measurement and arch length measurement. You then take width off of that corresponding numerical shoe size.

This will result in a larger shoe size than your street shoe size; in fact, a difference of 1.5 sizes is not all that uncommon. Of all the measurements, the arch length is most important; it will make sure that the support system is in the correct place; the arch is in the correct place; and that the shoe engages your foot properly.

Don't: Be concerned if your heel slips on the initial fit in this new size, or if the shoe feels "roomy" in the forefoot.
For the latter point first: if we have learned one thing from the barefoot running craze, it is that the metatarsals want to spread out. Think of your foot as a tripod: you have wide metatarsals, and a narrow heel. The wide those front legs can spread out (get your mind out of the gutter), the more stable the tripod is.

Now, as for heel slip: ever notice that every pair of running shoes comes laced to a top eyelet, but that there is an extra eyelet even further back that is unlaced?

Yeah, there's that extra eyelet. The one a little lower and further back. (Image courtesy of Pearl Izumi).
That eyelet is because most of us have longer arch lengths than physical foot lengths. We might have a size 11 length foot, but are in a size 12 because of arch length. But we're not a size 12 from heel-to-tongue on the shoe, so we use that eyelet to snug the fit up.

Do: Decide on comfort.
Comfort is king. The shoe that feels the best, for one reason or another, is most likely to give you success. This is that kindergarten part of the concept: you just need to tell us what feel you like!

Don't: Overthink it.
Referring back; decide on comfort. This is important. Don't think about which shoe is lighter; often times, the shoe that you think is lighter is actually heavier. But weight doesn't equal efficiency in running shoes, either; weight only matters if your foot is working to maximum efficiency in both shoes. 

Don't think about features, or cushioning systems, or hype. Decide on what feels best to you. This is often why I won't answer the question as to what shoe I run in; it's too personal of a question! I can only tell you what I like in a shoe; I can't tell you what you should like in a shoe.

Furthermore, don't worry if you feel like you're being picky about feel. In fact, I encourage it. You are providing us valuable information about fit. Now, sometimes you're not going to get the "perfect" pair of shoes. I went a whole year without a perfect pair; but instead, I found things that I liked about everything I ran in. Instead, look for what you like the best out of the shoes available in your category.

Do: Keep an open mind.
Probably most important on this list; we might experiment with types of shoes. Heck, we might tell you to try a manufacturer that you've never had success with. But there's a reason why: shoe designers trade brands frequently. They take their signature fits and feels with them. As an example, one designer used to work at Brooks and designed one shoe; she now designs the New Balance competitor. I have watched numerous wearers of the Brooks shoe switch to the New Balance. Why? They like her signatures fits and feels.

So it isn't all that uncommon for you to wind up bouncing around manufacturers from year-to-year. This is why you should always try on a couple of things every time you come on for a new pair, unless you are within a month of a priority race and your model has not updated yet; then, go back to the well.

Do: Have a reasonable expectation on shoe lifespan.
Look, shoes don't last forever. In fact, it tends to be a mileage dependent inquiry. As a general rule of thumb:

Running under 20 miles per week: every 6 months.
20-30 miles per week: every 4 months
30-40 miles per week: every 3 months
40-60 miles per week: every 8-10 weeks
60+ MPW: 6-8 weeks

Your results can and will vary. Some people will get no more than 300 miles out of a pair of shoes; others, 1000 miles. When to replace? Your body is an amazing feedback tool, so long as you're willing to pay attention. If you go 4 months without injury, then something starts to ache, look at your mileage per week: somewhere in that range? Oh, I've been going 35 MPW...guess I should replace the shoes.

You can do things to help extend the life of shoes: have multiple pairs going at once to ensure recovery time; don't run on treadmills (shearing force reduces life of the shoe); make sure you are wearing non-cotton socks (cotton is rotten when it comes to athletic materials, and will tear out the interior of your shoe).

Do: Have fun.
Come in with a smile. We want to get to you know you; we want to help you succeed at your goals in sport, whether it's blistering Boston or making it through your first 5K. We're here for you.

Did I miss anything? Have any suggestions? Let me know!

1 comment:

Joel said...

Great no nonsense advice. I had no idea that contraption had a name...Brannock