Words by: Matt Fitzgerald, Lead PEAR Sports Coach and Pacer.
Buying running shoes can be intimidating. Some of the large stores stock dozens of models in a wide range of categories, from “minimalist” to “motion control.” How do you know which shoe is best for you?
Fortunately, choosing the right running shoe is a lot easier than you might think. The latest biomechanics research has found that comfort is the most reliable guide for shoe selection. The better a shoe feels on your foot when you try it out in the store, the less likely you are to get injured when training in it.
In the past, shoe experts tried to match individual runners with the right shoe based on their foot type. Runners with high arches were put in “cushioned” shoes, runners with normal arches were put in “stability” shoes, and runners with flat feet were put in motion control shoes. But studies have found that this practice has zero effect on injury risk. Runners are no less likely to get injured in the “right” shoe for their foot than they are in the other shoe types.
The results are very different when runners are allowed to select their own shoes by comfort rather than being told by an expert which type of shoe they should wear. Benno Nigg, a retired biomechanist at the University of Calgary, believes that feelings of comfort and discomfort communicate important information. Feeling comfortable in a particular shoe is the body’s way of telling the runner that the shoe is allowing him or her to run naturally, without undo strain on the bones, muscles and joints. Feeling uncomfortable communicates the opposite message. This is why runners are least likely to get injured in the most comfortable shoes.
There’s even a performance advantage associated with choosing running footwear by comfort. In a 2009 study, Nigg brought 13 male subjects into his lab. Each was given five pairs of running shoes in his size to try on and rate for comfort. Then the subjects ran on a treadmill in all five pairs (one at a time!) at a fixed pace while their oxygen consumption was measured. This allowed the researchers to determine whether the subjects’ running economy was affected by the different shoes. A lower rate of oxygen consumption at the same pace would indicate better economy. Nigg found that, on average, the subjects were significantly more economical in the most comfortable shoes than in the least comfortable shoes. What this means for you is that, by choosing comfortable shoes to run in, you will be able to run faster with less effort.
The next time you shop for new running shoes, go to a store with a good selection and try on a wide variety of options. Do a little running in each pair and pick the one that feels most comfortable overall. If you like the colors and style, so much the better!
** Matt Fitzgerald is an acclaimed author, world-class running and triathlon coach, and sports nutritionist. His mission is to inspire, educate, and help athletes and fitness enthusiasts achieve their goals. His books include Racing Weight, Diet Cults, The New Rules of Marathon Nutrition, and many more. He will be the lead pacer at each location of the Lexus LaceUp Running Series presented by Equinox.