Who'd a thunk that something that goes on your feet could be so technical and have become such a huge industry—about $4 billion a year in America. Buying new running shoes can be fun, exciting, frustrating, and expensive—especially for newcomers. Once you start looking for a pair, you quickly get bombarded with terms like, overpronator, supinator, motion-control, neutral, semi-curved last, curved last, midsole, yada, yada, yada. So how do you know which shoe is right for you?
First, let's take a look at the anatomy of a running shoe. We've come a long way since the high-top Chuck Taylors I wore in elementary school. Runner's World breaks the shoe down into the following 12 parts:
1. Colar: the inside back portion of the shoe that provides comfort around the ankle
2. Dual-Density Midsole: a mechanism, most often a firmer wedge of foam, on the inner side of the shoe, used to correct excessive pronation
3. Eyelets: the holes that the shoelaces run through
4. Heel Counter: an internal support feature in the rear of the shoe that conforms to the shape of your heel
5. Heel Tab: the part of the shoe that surrounds the Achilles tendon and helps lock the shoe around the heel
6. Midsole: the material (usually EVA or polyurethane foam) that sits below the upper and above the outsole, providing protection from the impact forces and oftentimes encasing nonfoam technologies, such as GEL or air, to increase durability and protection
7. Outsole: the durable part of the shoe that makes contact with the ground, providing traction
8. Overlays: reinforcing strips at key stress points that help give the shoe structure
9. Quarter Panel: the material that makes up the sides of the shoe
10. Sock Liner: a removable insert that sits just below the foot and helps the shoe better fit the foot
11. Tongue: soft elongated flap that fits overtop of the foot to protect the tendons and blood vessels from pressure caused by the laces
12. Upper: the part of the shoe that encases the foot
Okay, so now we know the parts of a running shoe, but it really doesn't help in buying the right shoe for you. In order to do that you need to know a little about your foot type. There's a really simple test you can do to determine this. All you need is a brown paper grocery bag, a cotton ball, and some cooking oil. No really. Lay the bag flat on the floor. Using a cotton ball, spread a thin layer of cooking oil on the bottom of both feet (bare). Next, carefully step onto the bag to make a set of footprints. Now examine your prints and compare them to the illustration. If you have a solid print, you're what is known as an overpronator. If you have a slight curve to the center of your prints, you're referred to as neutral. And, if you have a large curve to the center of your print, almost separating it into a top and bottom half, you're an underpronator (or a supinator). Basically, underpronators have high arches, neutral runners have normal arches, and overpronators have flat feet (see chart).
Okay, so now you know about the parts of a running shoe and what type of foot you have but this still doesn't help you pick out a shoe. These general rules-of-thumb may help. Overpronators should typically choose a shoe with a straight shape that provides some type of motion control. Underpronators should choose a shoe with a curved shape and that provides some cushioning; and runners with neutral feel should choose a shoe with a semi-curved shape that is neutral and/or provides some stability.
Now having said all of that, not everyone fits perfectly into a category. For example, I have a neutral gate, but because I have hardly any natural cushioning in my heels, I have to find neutral shoes (I don't need the stability) that have some cushioning. These are hard to find, so I usually replace the original insole with a cushioned insole. Voila! A neutral shoe with cushioning. Many local running stores as well as sports medicine doctors can examine your gate and help you determine the best running shoe for you.
Once you've determined your specific needs and you're ready to try on some shoes, be sure you do it in the afternoon, after you've been on your feet all day. You'd be surprised how much difference there is in your feet from the beginning of the day to the end. If you buy shoes in the morning you may be surprised that they feel too tight when you go for your afternoon run the next day. Also, make sure your shoes fit snugly in the heel and give you enough room in the toe box. Buying a shoe is often a lot of trial and error, but hopefully this information will help you get the shoe just right for you.