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Finding the Most Comfortable Running Shoe for You

Posted on February 08 2014

Saucony A5It seems that one of the almost universally accepted maxims about finding the best running shoe for you is to choose the one that feels most comfortable on your feet for the type of running you intend to use it for. Another way this is often phrased is to choose the shoe that disappears on you feet when you run. If you don’t notice the shoe, then it’s doing its job.

This philosophy was summed up well by fellow blogger Harold Shaw in a recent post on his site, A Runnah’s Story:

“BE COMFORTABLE – this is the most important thing, find a shoe that you run comfortably in – one that you put on and forget about. Get beyond brand marketing, the salesperson’s prejudices or preconceptions, the running store’s limited selection and find the pair of running shoes that feel comfortable to you when you are running. No, this is not easy, yes you will try many running shoes and spend lots of money, before you find the style of running shoes that allow you to run comfortably. Notice that I say style, not brand.”

Comfort is a term that can easily be misunderstood in reference to a running shoe. By comfort we don’t necessarily mean soft and pillowy, like the step-in comfort people might feel when putting a shoe on in the store (and that the cynic in me feels drives some aspects of shoe design).

Comfort with regard to running shoes has to do with how the shoe feels when you actually run in it. And not just on a short jaunt on a store treadmill. Comfort is how a shoe feels when you are out on the road or trail doing what you usually do in your training. Comfort might be different at mile 18 of a marathon. Comfort may change when you’re running a tempo vs. intervals vs. an easy recovery run. Comfort is why you may need more than one shoe in your quiver to use in different circumstances.

Having run in well over a hundred different shoes in the past few years, my experience syncs very well with what Harold wrote in his post. I’ve found that the shoes that I like best are the those that I notice the least. A shoe that disappears on my foot is a beautiful thing. I recently had an experience with a shoe like this – I planned to go out for an easy five miles with my dog and wound up going longer and much faster than intended (not sure Jack appreciated the impromptu 7-miles at nearly half-marathon pace!). When you are wearing a shoe that is a perfect match for you, it makes you want to keep running. Running becomes effortless.

The challenge for most runners is that finding the most comfortable shoe can be expensive (as Harold rightly points out). You have to try a variety of shoes and get a sense of what works and what does not. I’ve come to the realization that in a training shoe I generally like something sub-10oz with a soft heel and a firm forefoot. Drop is not as important to me if a shoe meets those requirements (though I still prefer a shoe under 10mm, and 4-6mm seems to be my sweet spot). For a speed shoe I like 6mm drop or less, stiff sole, low stack, and firm throughout. I took me a lot of experimentation in a lot of shoes to figure this out, but it makes it easy for me now to peg a shoe that will be a good match. It also makes it easy for me to read reviews written by friends with similar tastes and know that if they like a shoe I probably will too (for example, if John Schrup likes a shoe, I need it on my feet).

What determines shoe comfort? Some people are quick to dismiss the numbers/specs when it comes to running shoes. Others may rely on them so much that they may miss out on a great match. I would say that the specs are what determine comfort for a given runner, but that no single spec in isolation is the sole determinant of shoe comfort.

Stack height, heel-forefoot drop, sole durometer in the heel and forefoot, sole flare, sidewall geometry, forefoot width, heel lockdown, arch height, flexibility – all of these things weave together in complex ways to give a shoe the feel it has when you run. And because of this complexity I’m wary of firm categorizations of footwear by brands and retailers, as well as studies that use a single shoe to represent such categories. Each shoe is unique in its own way. Yes there are some broad similarities within categories, but there is also an awful lot of variation.

To give you an example, a few weeks ago I bought a pair of the Nike Pegasus 29 for a consulting project I’m working on. I’m not normally one to wear a 12-13mm drop shoe, but I put them on at the Nike outlet and immediately noticed how soft the heel was. I know that really soft heels tend to work for me, so I took them out for 5 miles on the road. By and large the shoe felt great, but I got a long hot spot along the ball behind my big toe. After doing some filming it was clear that my foot seemed to be caving the medial forefoot cushion a bit too much as I pronated, and that excessive movement might have created friction in that area and thus the hot spot. So the forefoot was just not quite firm enough for my stride.

In contrast, the slightly lower drop, lighter weight Mizuno Sayonara, which based on specs would seem more in line with my taste, did not work for me because the heel was way too firm and stiff. Put the Pegasus heel on the Sayonara and I’d probably have a workhorse of a shoe that could eat up miles.

I want to end this post with some advice on finding the most comfortable shoe for you.

1. Run in a shoe to determine comfort! Don’t base your feelings on step in comfort walking around the store. Some shoes feel great while standing still or walking but suck on the run, and some feel awful walking (for me, Newtons and the original Skechers GoRun are good examples) but feel great out on the road.

2. Go to a specialty shop staffed by open-minded shoe geeks who will help you try a variety of shoes and will have a conversation with you about your injury history, training habits, experience in previous shoes, etc. A shoe geek is a connoisseur who has run in a ton of shoes and can tell you exactly how shoe A differs from shoe B without spouting marketing BS from the brands. If all the shop does is look at your arch height and pronation to give you a shoe then walk out the door. If they try and sell you on the latest technology being pushed by a brand, be wary. If you’re not familiar with local shops, ask friends for recommendations.

3. If you don’t have a shop nearby, order online from a retailer who accepts returns of shoes that don’t work out.

4. Identify what you like and don’t like about the shoe(s) you currently wear. Chances are if there are things you don’t like there is a shoe that will work out better. Ask other runners for advice.

5. Don’t be afraid to experiment! Trying out different shoes can be incredibly fun (I’ve made a living out of it!), and need not be risky as long as you are careful. Don’t take a new shoe on a 20 mile run. If things feel off, stop. I recently had this experience in the Nike Lunarglide 5 – shooting arch pain halfway into my run in them, but no lasting damage done since it wasn’t a long run. I’m not going to risk running in them again.

6. Shop clearance to experiment. Get a few older model shoes at an outlet, TJ Maxx, Marshall’s (yes, they have name brand stuff super cheap), or in the clearance shop of an online retailer. You local specialty store might also have past-year models on sale for cheap.

7. If a shoe doesn’t work out and money is a concern, sell it on Ebay to minimize the financial loss. I’ve done this several times for shoes that I’ve purchased that have not worked out for me. I won’t sell free media samples (I give those away to other runners or send them to Soles for Souls), but if I bought it myself I‘ve found that I can often get 50-75% of the cost back in an Ebay sale if the shoe has only a few runs on it.

If you have any other tips to add to this list, feel free to leave a comment!

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