Wednesday, April 15, 2009

What Running Shoes Do You Recommend?

Thanks to everyone for the positive emails about me starting the blog. Randy Gorman let me know his training for a triathlon in May is going great, but he's wondering if I have any recommendations for running shoes. This is another one of those questions I hear a lot and I've done a lot of trial and error with so here's my experience and opinion on the topic....

To begin, my general opinion is that the shoe manufacturer's have done the running community a disservice by promoting shoes with way too much cushion and support. They've conjured up a ton of hype and technical terms to convince runners they need to buy fancy $100+ shoes to correct their running stride, save their knees, etc. The shoes feel great...like driving a Cadillac, but in my opinion, they do more harm than good. Reason why is they put a bunch of distance and cushion between the runners foot and the running surface, which results in the runner's body/brain losing touch with how their foot/leg is positioned when it strikes and how hard it is actually hitting.

I should note that during the process of figuring out the right shoes, you also need to consider your running form and work on your stride. Running is one of those sports where people just do it and most never think of getting a coach or taking lessons. If you think about it, pretty much every sport you have ever done you read a book, took a lesson, or practiced in some way. With running, people tend to just slap on their shoes and go pound the pavement. I have learned that shoes get in the way and cause us to not pay attention which leads to poor running form. ChiRunning is a great book on running form and Matt Fitzgerald's Brain Training for Runners also has some very good tips to help improve your stride.

Perhaps the best exercise you can do in order to experience better running form is to go to a park and run barefoot in the grass. Remember when you were a kid? Running around at the park or chasing a friend across a large grass field...running barefoot? It was natural and you never complained about your feet hurting. If your chase required you to run down a concrete sidewalk, you didn't stop...you continued the pursuit, running with ease and no pain. If you look at history and pay close attention to the shoes, you will see that runners used to train and race in shoes that had no cushion at all. They were essentially a flat leather sole or thin rubber material in place to protect the foot from sharp objects. Those runners ran as though they were running barefoot. They had to or they would bruise their feet. For new runners, going to the park and running barefoot once a week would be great way to get the feel down then try and retain that same form/feeling when running on hard surface with running shoes.

If you look at today's elite marathon runners, their shoes have more cushion than say 30 years ago, but not much. The shoes these runners use are very light weight and often referred to as racing flats. When you study their form, the first part of their foot to hit the ground is the forefoot (ball of their foot) just like you did as a kid when you ran barefoot. By landing on the forefoot instead of the heel, their body is able to use the calf and soleus muscles along with the achilles tendon and other tendons/ligaments as a system to absorb the shock. Better yet, this system actually loads itself with energy during the stance phase that results in more explosive push off...and done correctly...helps propel the runner forward (more on running stride in future post).

Using one of the top selling running shoes promoted by the major manufacturers, it is virtually impossible to run with good form. The large amount of material built to keep you from pronating gets in the way causing heel to strike first and all the cushion squishes down to absorb the shock for you so you miss out on that build up of energy in your lower leg that significantly improves running economy. Resulting in your running requiring more effort to cover the same amount of ground...and a feeling of slogging it out to get your body down the street.

I started out with a pair of shoes that had all kinds of bells and whistles because I had calf muscle issues and was concerned about the wear and tear on my body. After reading a similar article, I decided to try some lighter shoes and immediately noticed an improvement. Even the weight of the shoes was a big improvement allowing my legs to run more freely without being encumbered by heavy running shoes.

Eventually I found a shoe from Saucony called the Fastwitch 3. I've used that shoe for all 4 of my marathons and all of my training the past year up until about 3 weeks ago. The Fastwitch 3 weighs in at about 7.3 ounces and has pretty minimal support. It is billed as a race shoe for 10K up to marathon distances. I think it is a great shoe for people in transition because it still has a fairly substantial heel cushion for heel striking which you will need until your lower legs get strong enough to maintain forefoot running the whole distance of your long runs.

Recently I tried out the new Asics Gel-Hyperspeed 3 running shoes. They were released to the market in January this year and boy was I impressed. Weight wise they are similar to the Saucony Fastwitch 3's coming in at 7.1 ounces. However, the shoe is substantially different in design whereas it is intended to be worn by forefoot runners only. The heel is noticeably smaller and does not get in the way. Interestingly, the thickness of the shoe in forefoot area is more than the Fastwitch 3's, yet the material is so dense that it doesn't interfere. I have now run quite a few training runs with these shoes including a 21 miler last weekend and am happy to report they are awesome. For what its worth, these shoes also happen to be the ones currently being worn by American marathon runners Deena Kastor and Ryan Hall so they've got great endorsements by America's elite distance runners.

The first time I ran in them I noticed it was easier to run landing on my forefoot. It felt more like barefoot running. I had all the protection I needed and the shoes were so light it was as if I was running barefoot. I also noticed some changes in my stride and believe the change has resulted in an improvement in running speed.

So...the bottom line is you need to choose your shoes wisely. Some people will have no choice due to physical limitations, but most people can and should experiment with less cushioned shoes that allow them to get back in touch with the road. Road Runner Sports is a great place to shop during this process. I have no affiliation with the company. I just like their return policy, which is a no questions asked 60 day period where you can buy, try, return, buy, try, return...over and over until you find the perfect shoe. Unlike other stores, RRS lets you actually run in the shoes and return them dirty. My suggestion is to buy a couple pairs of different shoes from RRS and make sure you sign up for their annual membership as that is required to get the 60 day return program. Then go for several 3 to 6 mile runs in them. If anything strange pops up, take them back and try different ones.

Be sure to look at the shoes with minimal support. They refer to these as "natural". Nike has a good one called the Luna Trainer and also the LunaRacer. Super light, but amazingly comfy. Asics has the Gel-Bandito and the Hyperspeed 3's. Saucony has the Fastwitch 3 and the Grid Type A2's. Once you look at those shoes, you will see all the other majors like Adidas have their own lightweight racers and you can try them on too.

Another quick note is sizing. You want the shoe to be snug, but you also need to make sure you have enough room at the toe. I have found the best fit to be where my foot has no movement side to side...the shoe is quite snug around my foot...and I have about an inch between end of my toe and tip of shoe. Anything less and I get black toenails and blisters on my toes. I normally wear a size 11, but my running shoes are size 12.5 or 13 depending on the manufacturer so make sure you size up when buying running shoes.

In summary, finding the right shoes is personal and requires a lot of experimenting. You also need to take into consideration "how" you run and focus on improving your running stride. Together, the right shoes and improved running stride will result in more efficient running that is faster and pain free. Hope this helps. Good luck and enjoy the process.

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