published Thursday, May 17th, 2012

High-end running footwear can stave off injury, improve performance

The New Balance 1080 is an example of a neutral running shoe.
The New Balance 1080 is an example of a neutral running shoe.
Photo by Dan Henry.

BY THE NUMBERS

• 600-1,000 -- average expected treadmill miles in the life-span of a pair of quality running shoes.

• 300-500 -- average life span in road miles.

• 300-700 -- percentage of body weight generated in downward force with each heel strike during running.

• $100-$110 -- average cost runners can expect to pay for quality footwear.

• 6 -- number of months runners should go between replacing their footwear.

SIGNS OF A DEAD SHOE

Running shoes tend to lose their effectiveness suddenly. Here are some signs it's time to pick up a new pair:

• Squeeze the sides of the shoe at their widest point. If the center of the shoe bows outward, the mid-sole has become too compressed and isn't as good at shock absorption.

• Shoes tend to fail suddenly. Any surprise aches or pains that occur without a change to the exercise could be a sign a shoe is past its prime.

• Avoid deals from online storehouses for shoes that are a couple of generations old. The shock-absorption materials in the mid-sole decay over time, so even if unused, these shoes will get far fewer road miles than a new pair.

SOCK IT TO 'EM

After shoes, experts said the most important piece of equipment runners wear is socks. Cotton socks retain sweat or water from puddles, which can cause feet to feel cold in winter and can cause abrasion that results in blisters.

Socks designed for running are made with synthetic wicking fibers that help feet remain dry. They also may provide additional cushioning or lighter-weight materials, based on individual needs.

TYPES OF RUNNING SHOES

Running shoes are designed to address pronation, or how much a runner's foot moves during the stride. Different shoes help moderate pronation to ideal levels.

• Stability shoes -- Provide additional arch support for those with slightly flexible arches to alleviate increased pressure along the inside of the foot. Identifiable by the presence of gray material along the shoe's mid-sole.

• Motion-control shoes -- Add even more rigidity and support along the arch for those with exceptionally flexible arches (also known as flat feet). Identifiable by dark material in interspersed with gray along the mid-sole.

• Neutral shoes -- Additional cushioning provides additional comfort to runners without pronation problems. They also allow for more movement in supinators, those whose feet roll too little, to distribute pressure away from the outside edge of the foot. Identifiable by the uniform color along the shoe's mid-sole.

SIGNS OF A GOOD SHOE

Running-apparel retailers said the following features are hallmarks of a shoe with the appropriate fit:

• Running shoes tend to be sized smaller than other shoes, so it's best to begin with a shoe at least a size larger than one's dress shoe size.

• The toe should not be flush with the end of the shoe. There should be 3/4 to a full inch of room between the toe and the end of the shoe to prevent repetitive impacts while running.

• To prevent unnecessary pressure, the ball of the foot should end in the widest point of the shoe, roughly parallel with the bottom shoelace.

When it comes to running footwear, experts say there's no such thing as the best shoe, just the right one.

Variations in body type mean everyone runs differently. Manufacturers have adjusted their product lines to reflect that, said Joey Howe, the general manager of Fast Break Athletics, a Cherokee Boulevard store that specializes in helping customers choose the right shoe.

"The shoes are built and designed on different types of feet and different types of gaits," Howe said. "We have 100 shoes on the wall, but probably only four or five of those are going to be good for your foot."

When Howe began working in the shoe industry in 1980, the philosophy was different, with manufacturers pushing new technologies as one-size-fits all improvements.

In addition to weighing less and having better shock absorption, contemporary high-end brands such as Asics, K-Swiss and Saucony are mostly created equal, Howe said.

All use the same basic shape and employ similar construction materials, such as moisture-management layering, tire-rubber treads and ethyl vinyl acetate foam for shock absorption. Only minor differences in their designs distinguish each brand.

Within their lines, manufacturers now focus on shoes designed to address issues related to pronation, the rolling of the foot from the outside edge toward the center of the body during a person's stride.

Because runners put intense stress on their feet thousands of time during an event, ensuring pressure is distributed equally along the foot is the key function of quality footwear, said Andrew Dorn, 26, manager of Front Runner Athletics on Hixson Pike.

"Higher-end running shoes are designed to take that repetitive, high impact," he said. "It's critical that you be capable of attenuating the shock to your foot in a healthy manner."

Wearing shoes with improper support or in which the shock-absorbing material has become overly compressed can result in injuries such as shin splints, which eventually can develop into more serious conditions such as stress fractures, Howe said.

When customers arrive at Fast Break, Howe and his staff are trained to help customers find the best fit for their feet, a process that typically takes about 30 minutes.

As with a doctor, they begin by checking the customer's history, such as whether they use an orthotic support or are recovering from surgery.

Next they ask if the customer has a long-standing attachment to a particular brand. Over time, feet can adapt to the slight differences in each brand's shoe geometry, and changing brands can be uncomfortable, Howe said.

Next, the staff member watches the customer walk. By seeing how the foot arch flexes and how the ankle turns during their stride, Howe said he can quickly establish the type of pronation and appropriate level of support.

If a customer wants to estimate their type of pronation at home, Howe said, they can make a wet footprint on paper to check if they have a normal stride (wide at the heel and forefoot, narrower on the arch) or if they need a different degree of support.

Monday, Dan Misch, 26, was shopping at Fast Break, looking to replace the Saucony Ride 4 running shoes he lost before coming to Chattanooga from Seattle earlier this year.

When he bought his first pair of running shoes in Seattle, the staff informed him the foot pain he felt when running was due to having high arches. Even if he was only able to wear them two times before his gym bag was stolen, Misch said he felt an immediate difference wearing the shoes they recommended.

"For me, specifically, having the right shoe for your foot can minimize aches and pains," he said. "You certainly are more confident in your routine in that you can push yourself to the limits without having to worry about the consequences."

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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