Who the hell can I trust to give me reliable advice about running shoes? And which goddamn shoes should I buy?
October 19, 2010 9:23 PM   Subscribe

Ok, seriously: Is there any reliable information on running shoes out there? Who the hell can I trust? Every source of information seems either fraught with bias or complete fluff. What's a critical thinker to do? And more importantly, what goddamn shoes should I buy?

I read Born to Run, and I thought it was awful. McDougall takes the flimsiest of evidence -- interviews with two scientists, an old hippie, and an ultramarathoner or two -- and spins it out into incredibly broad, totally unwarranted conclusions that just happen to be exactly what people want to hear.

On the other hand, the running shoe industry has done perhaps the best job in history of injecting their "research" into the public discussion, to the extent that Runner's World's shoe reviews read like a list of shoe company press releases. I certainly understand the argument that cushioning and stability shoes are largely a creation of the shoe industry.

On top of that, nearly every article I've read on the barefoot running fad -- and yes, while it certainly has a lot to recommend it, it's definitely a fad -- is an airheaded trend piece that cheerleads barefoot running because that's what everyone else is doing. The few I've read that take a more measured approach generally just split the difference, resulting in recommendations like "Barefoot running might not be right for everyone! But maybe it's right for some people. So maybe just run barefoot on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays? I don't know."

Finally, everyone on MeFi always recommends going to your local running specialty shop. That's great advice, except that the last time I did that (at JackRabbit here in NYC), they stuck me on a treadmill for ninety seconds, told me I was pronating, and put me in a tank of a stability shoe that, I'm realizing a year later, was way more than I needed, considering that I've never been injured or experienced any muscle pain. And now a lot of these specialty shops are selling Vibrams just because that's what's hot now. So I have a hard time trusting them either.

So here's where I am: I think the barefoot running craze has a lot to recommend it, and I think a more minimal shoe sounds like a good idea. At the same time, I don't believe the Vibram hype. Who the hell can I trust to give me good advice on what shoes to buy?

Frankly, what it comes down to is that I trust you guys more than anyone. So: I've been running for three years. I run 12-15 miles a week, but I also occasionally run half marathons, and will be training the NYC Marathon next year. I'm a slow runner, but I'm a serious runner. I like the idea of strengthening my feet, but I'm not ready to go all-out Vibram. I also can't afford to buy more than one pair of shoes. What goddamn shoes should I buy?
posted by tweebiscuit to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
The first time I had help buying running shoes was a revelation for me. I tried on many, many pairs. I found one pair that was perfect when I put them on. They felt like I'd been wearing them for ages and fit my feet. That was 11 years ago. I have been buying the same shoes year after year and after year (3-4 pairs a year, usually). Nine marathons, countless half marathons (currently about 4 per year) and currently 40 miles per week. That shoe lady really knew her stuff. :)

I'm sure there are good running shoe stores in NYC. I suggest you go into one, and be sure you take your current shoes with you, and tell them you want some help picking out shoes. If there are running clubs in your area, you could call or email and ask for their suggestions on a good store to go into. Get a few suggestions, in case you don't like the first one.
posted by AllieTessKipp at 9:31 PM on October 19, 2010

And obviously you'll want to skip that store you went to before. And if you want the minimalist shoes or foot covers or whatever those crazy barefoot people wear (my feet are so ticklish that I can't even sleep barefoot comfortably), be sure you mention that to the club you ask about stores so that you can be sure to get an open-minded one.
posted by AllieTessKipp at 9:34 PM on October 19, 2010

put me in a tank of a stability shoe that, I'm realizing a year later, was way more than I needed

How do you know that it's more than you needed? But if you think that the shoes you bought give way to much overcompensation for any overpronating you do, then buy the "next level down."

Or, alternately, start with a shoe with minimal support, and if that gives you knee trouble, get shoes with more support.

Here's the thing: those specialty stores aren't falsely claiming you're overpronating because they're trying to sell you something more expensive-- the whole range of running shoes all costs pretty much the same. It's just possible that they got it wrong, and you can choose a running shoe (or ask the salesperson for one) that has a little bit of stability support but not the overwhelming amount that your current shoe has.
posted by deanc at 9:53 PM on October 19, 2010

I went 100% vibram for 6 months. Ran several half marathons. Trained for a marathon after all that, and wound up with stress injury in my foot. I like the barefoot sensation, but I don't go 100% vibram anymore. I think it has it's place, maybe once a week.

For shoes, I literally tried on 5-10 pairs at a running store one day. Their recommendation were awful (RoadRunner) but I found some I liked. I tend to look at the weight of a shoe before anything. Preferable under 10oz. I want a shoe to protect, but not hinder. I liked the nike free's, although the older ones were better. I also enjoyed running in the nike lunar series. They are very light for what they offer.

I guess it all comes down to your own experience. Find a local store that takes returns for credit. (many do) Test drive several pairs and walk away with 1 or 2 that felt the best.
posted by ShootTheMoon at 9:57 PM on October 19, 2010

Go to a shoe store. Try everything on. Buy the shoe that feels the best. Don't try to out-think yourself or talk yourself into anything else, but don't stop looking if you find something you like. As ShootTheMoon said, try to find a store with a generous return policy.

Consider the suggestions of the salespeople, but do not follow their advice blindly. They are not shoe gods, they cannot feel what you feel, and they only really know as much as you tell them. They can help narrow your choices, but they can't make the decision.

I sell running shoes, and I have some starting points that I'd be glad to share with you (NB: I am in the running shoe industry and I have my own biases). Are they the right goddamn shoes? Maybe, maybe not. It's your money, they're your feet, it's your choice.
posted by clorox at 10:36 PM on October 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Don't go to a shoe store.

Get a reccomendation for a local podiatrist from a running forum (in Australia, Cool Running Forum for example).

See the podiatrist, get a proper recommendation, they will probably give you 3 or 4 types of shoes that will suit you.

Then go to a shoe store and try some shoes and see what you like. Some running stores are great, some are bad, but all podiatrists have a real degree, and if you work with one who has experience with runners you will get the recommendation you need.

PS (after about 500km barefoot [well, racing flats, based on barefoot], I got capsultitis from a lack of support that plagues me today. Approach the barefoot koolaid with trepidation. It's not for everyone.)
posted by smoke at 10:55 PM on October 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've been running exclusively on Vibrams for five months, and only in the past few weeks have I been able to run more than 8 miles with out tightness in the calves--tightness that ranges from slight twinges to searing, crippling, hobble-to-the-finish-line agony. I've also experienced downsides of Vibrams, including their propensity to soak up minute amounts of water on the road. Start running in drizzly weather, and within minutes your feet (and Injinji socks) are wet. Also, none of my times have improved a single iota. I haven't grown a pair of wings on my feet.

But you know what? I love these motherfucking Vibrams.

I really don't know why. Part of it is due to the absence of soreness in my knees and quads, which originally prompted my to experiment with the Vibrams in the first place. I'm no longer pronating; I no longer have that wobbly sensation with heel-strike shoes in which you can sense the pronation when your heel encounters the ground. I feel stronger on hills, due to the lightness of the Vibrams in comparison to conventional running shoes. And at the end of long, 13 mile runs, I have a sense of stamina that's entirely new to me. I think that also comes from not schlepping heavy shoes on my feet.

But the main reason I love the Vibrams is because they seem closer to the true essence, the "Zen" if you will, of running. I feel much more grounded while running, in both the physical and spiritual senses of the word. The midfoot plant and short gait seem more in tune with the physical engineering of our bodies, with the way our muscles, ligaments and skeleton are put together. Running in Vibrams reminds me of when I first test-drove a Lexus. After years of driving shitty VWs, suddenly I was in a car whose drivetrain, transmission, and suspension seemed perfectly engineered to harmonize with each other.

Here's where we cue the "your mileage may vary" part. I have a small frame, relatively low body fat (thanks to diet tips on Mefi) and a low center of gravity, so that may be why I'm doing well with the Vibrams. Larger, bulkier runners might have problems. It's quite possible that Vibrams are a total sham, and that ten years from now we'll see research proving the effectiveness of traditional heel-strike shoes. We're in new territory here. Most of all, the OP is a competitive runner training for NY, and it's probably a bad idea to screw around with the process while approaching a marathon.

But some people might be like me. In the last analysis, I don't give a fuck about the health and weight-control benefits of running, about the increased longevity and the like. I just like to run. Running makes me feel alive. If I don't run, I feel like shit, I get jittery, and I can't sleep at night.

For me, Vibrams have amped up the pleasure aspect of running manyfold. After several miles, you're no longer aware of them--it seems like you're running barefoot. There's just you, and the road, and the wind. It's pure, orgasmic pleasure.
posted by Gordion Knott at 2:59 AM on October 20, 2010 [5 favorites]

To be honest, if you run regularly, I think replacing your shoes every 4 or 5 months is more important than fit or brand. Especially if you're prone to stress injuries. I use a pair of insoles from Superfeet and buy the cheapest pair of New Balances that feel comfortable.
posted by emd3737 at 4:35 AM on October 20, 2010

Just as a further data point - for various reasons I decided I wanted to try out barefoot style running. I tried actual bare feet, but I could only do very short distances, and even small objects on the ground - stones for instance - could really hurt my feet in ways I didn't like (and which seemed likely to lead to injuries that would stop me running).

Long story short, I started running in my Converse All Stars - thin, flat sole, very flexible. And, pretty cheap if you want to experiment without shelling out for Vibrams or Nike Frees.

I had the same problems with my calves as Gordion Knott did, but now they seem to have stretched out I am finding a similar increase in the pleasure I get from running, and my knees are happier. Caveat: I also started trying to practice Chi Running technique at the same time, so I'm not sure what effects to attribute to which cause. Basically, the combination is working for me, but there was an initial step back in distance and speed while I converted to the new "lightweight" style.

So I'd say get running shop advice for your main shoe purchase, and if you want to experiment, just get a cheap pair of Converse or similar and give it a go. Or wait till after the marathon and then play around with barefoot style then.
posted by crocomancer at 4:51 AM on October 20, 2010

I don't think there's one answer to your question, like "Go minimalist" or "Go Bowerman" or even "Go with what your podiatrist says." I think you need to take in all the info you get from trusted sources, sync it up with your own experience and preferences, and make the best guess you can.

I have been struggling with this same question on and off since I started running. The only conclusion I have really come to is that you just have to try a bunch of different sneaks until you find what works for you. I think this is like anything else--there's tons of science (as well as "science") on all sides but in the end you need to make a decision based on what your own body wants and responds to.

The evangelism about either conventional sneakered running and minimalist/barefoot is overwrought on both sides. Everyone has different body types, strides, physical peculiarities, etc. So, some people might experience pain-free runs for the first time in their lives once they get into Vibrams. Yet there are plenty of other lifelong runners who hit the pavement for dozens of miles, week after week and experience few, if any, nagging injuries. I really think you just need to find what works for you. The hype around barefoot/minimalist running is in itself offputting. Then again, if people are having great results like less pain, more stamina, and more Zen when they run in Vibrams--fuckin' awesome!

I do believe in going to a good runners' shoe shop--not just to get a quick fit, buy your sneaks and bounce, though. I linger and chat, listen to more experienced runners talking up the salespeople (small city, small running community, etc.), I ask tons and tons of questions. I have been to podiatrists, physical therapists, orthopaedic sports medicine doctors, etc. and truly some of the best training advice I've gotten is from a guy that works at my local shop and coaches college cross country.

If you don't like the shop you went to last time, either go to a new place or go back to the old place with the update about what you didn't like about their recommendation. If they're serious about running and sneakers, they should be more than happy to take a lot of time to talk you through your purchase. Like other posters, I have tried on 5 to 10 pairs of sneakers, run around in the parking lot in them (encouraged to do so by the staff) and asked a bazillion questions. Also, any shoe shop worth its salt will encourage you to try them out in store and on your runs and return them for a full refund within a reasonable period of time.
posted by Rudy Gerner at 5:18 AM on October 20, 2010

You've never been injured or experienced any muscle pain. This includes a year in shoes you find uncomfortable. Similarly, I've never had any shoe related injuries. I've done 3 marathons and a lot of halfs. I stopped worrying about it at some point and run in just anything or nothing. I've even run (granted it was only a mile) in flip-flops. So, unless you have a big race coming up on a date that's uncomfortably close so that you don't want to experiment, run in whatever you feel like.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:40 AM on October 20, 2010

How do you know that store gave you the wrong shoes? What's your evidence that the shoe is too much?

If you don't trust running stores, you might want to visit 3or 4 and see if you get similar recommendations. That might add some validity.

Or, find a shoe that you find comfortable and run until you get hurt, if you get hurt. Between your stride, injury, and shoe, there'd be enough data points to point you in the right direction. I have has nothing but fantastic experiences at.my local running store - try to find one you trust.
posted by PFL at 6:49 AM on October 20, 2010

I run in Vibrams because if I don't, knee pain knocks me out. No double-blind studies there or anything, they're just the only thing that have worked (including $40 orthotics and super-arch-support shoes because I, too, pronate.)
posted by restless_nomad at 7:22 AM on October 20, 2010

I am nowhere near as much of a runner as you, but I was too chicken to blow $80 on Vibrams in case I hated the between my toes thing. I was running in socks on the treadmill and in cheap New Balance shoes outside and was WAY happier in socks. I bought $5 aquasock type things and haven't put the New Balance shoes back on since. The aquasocks are very very flexible, but have enough of a sole that rocks on the running track or tree roots in the grass don't bother me at all. And I don't look like some kind of gecko.
posted by artychoke at 7:39 AM on October 20, 2010

Key advice from marathoners is to have a shoe rotation. Run exclusively on any one shoe and you're asking for injury.

The barefoot running craze is actually much better established than just in the Born to Run book. Chi Running, a technique that's been around for 15 years and focuses on mid-foot rather than heal-based running, is proven to reduce all kinds of injuries, especially things like knee and hip problems. I understand your reaction, because the Barefoot stuff recently has exploded, but I think it's here to stay. Nike, Asics, Brooks...everyone is releasing simpler shoes.

I'd echo other people who have said that having a Vibram or other thin-soled shoe is great in rotation, and helps build important stabilizer muscles in your leg and foot, and beyond that just find a running shoe that is comfortable. Doesn't have to be expensive. $60 New Balance will be just fine for shorter (read sub-10 mile) distances.
posted by kryptonik at 7:57 AM on October 20, 2010

I think you can do better at a running store. If they don't ask you about your personal preferences and running goals and if they act like they know what shoe is right for you just by watching you run, you are in the wrong store.

I got great service at Marathon Sports in Boston, to the point where, even though I've now moved a couple of hours away and live near other running stores, I'm planning to go back there for my next pair of shoes (not suggesting you go to Boston to buy shoes, just saying that good stores do exist and are worth seeking out).
posted by mskyle at 8:13 AM on October 20, 2010

As you suggested, there's a lot of cultish bullshit out there about shoes. For objective, impartial data I'd start with "Consumer Reports" and then add your own experience and preferences.
Good luck.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 8:15 AM on October 20, 2010

Unrepentant barefoot-cultist here. I've been running for four years, over 40 miles a week. You have two options: Either a cross country spike, or some sort of running sandal. Vibrams are overpriced for what they are by a company that is trying to market off of this barefoot fad. Don't bother.

A cross country spike will provide a bit more support than the Vibrams, but you will save a lot of money. I recommend the Saucony Kilkenny X3. They're a great spike that is universally recommended for races, is minimal, and for the past year or so I have noticed has been selling for about $15. I train, race, and walk in them.

On the other hand, if you want even less support, which I still recommend, then look into making some sort of running sandal. At the most, purchase some sort of kit from Barefoot Ted at lunasandals.com or some other place. Ideally, just purchase the materials yourself and make it for even less.

If you want, I can send you some materials that have scientifically dealt with barefoot running.
posted by SollosQ at 9:03 AM on October 20, 2010

Finally, everyone on MeFi always recommends going to your local running specialty shop. That's great advice, except that the last time I did that (at JackRabbit here in NYC), they stuck me on a treadmill for ninety seconds, told me I was pronating, and put me in a tank of a stability shoe that, I'm realizing a year later, was way more than I needed, considering that I've never been injured or experienced any muscle pain. And now a lot of these specialty shops are selling Vibrams just because that's what's hot now. So I have a hard time trusting them either.

I feel the same way--lots of those guys get it wrong, and they don't have enough training. You should find the shoe that works for you--I'm a pronator and I was saddled with Brooks Beast shoes. They made it worse, if anything. I've tried many more since, and have ended up with the fairly simple Asics 2150, a shoe worn by lots and lots of runners. I have 350 miles on my current pair and am very happy.

I think the barefoot craze is ideal for some people, but not all people. If it works for you, fantastic. But not everyone should be doing it. Knee doctors have seen a lot of patients who tried to follow the fad. I'm not saying it will inherently injure you, but it must be done right.
posted by Kafkaesque at 10:19 AM on October 20, 2010

It's true that barefoot doesn't work for everyone. If you're lived in arch support since you started walking, or if you actually have some severe deformity of your gait, then don't bother. Though, if you call millions of years of distance running interrupted by forty years of Nike marketing a fad, then I guess it's a fad.

Experiment as much as you can. A running store jammed me into some moon boot running shoes when I first started. I had no gait abnormalities or anything and I didn't like it so i started running in plain old Sambas. I liked the flexibility and flatness of the sole and the lighter shoe, so I made the jump to Vibrams and haven't looked back. Maybe I haven't been exposed to the fad somehow, but it seems to me that relatively few actually run in them compared to how many just like to walk around in them at the mall and answer questions about them.

And to build on what Kafkaesque points out if you go barefoot, running will become a much more technical exercise. Your gait and maintaining it will become number one and your mile times will follow how well you do on that front. You can't get away with a heel strike in Vibrams for a hundred yards, let alone an actual run.
posted by cmoj at 10:30 AM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

The biggest thing I have taken away from my following of the research and the hype is that people will basically adjust to any kind of shoe you put them in. If you wear a cushy shoe that starts to wear out? Your body adjusts to the decrease in cushion. So really, it seems to me that the biggest part of your decision should be whether you want to do heel-strike running or more barefoot/pose-style midfoot-strike. If you are going to keep doing heel-strike running, don’t buy vibrams or other barefoot-esque shoes. Frankly, I would just go to the store and try on several pairs until you find one that feels really good (and do a little test run around the store in them), and buy them. 12-15 miles a week is not enough to obsess over the PERFECT running shoe, and you’re gonna be buying new shoes at least once more before you start serious marathon training so this decision is not life-or-death.

If you think you might want to try barefoot-style running, but not jump fully into vibrams, you can probably find some thin-soled running shoes (like the saucony bullet) at DSW for cheap, especially if you have a coupon. They aren’t the full experience, but they will do to keep you off your heels, and give you a feel for that running style.
posted by ch1x0r at 4:53 PM on October 20, 2010

Hated Born to Run for the weird prose and the ethno-fetishism. Hated Chi Running for the style of Capitalizing every bit of advice like Lean Forward and do a Body Scan (like, every other sentence feels like it should have (TM) after it). But, these fads are fad reactions to the fad of having big puffy balloons around our feet, so I think some approach to more "natural" running is very welcome. And both these bad books have inspired me to change how I run. (Disclaimer: I run like some of y'all walk, so this is totally an non-expert opinion).

I have never been a happier runner than running in my vibrams. That said, even though I started extremely gradually, I still may have gotten a stress fracture after a 12k trail run this weekend. I think I need to follow the ChiRunning principle of GradualProgress(TM) even more strictly. The best point in Chi Running, IMO, is that we should make running a Practice (sorry for the caps), which means not being so invested in goals (like speed and times) and instead focusing on what it means to us to run.

[FWIW, I used to say that Vibrams are to running as recumbant bikes are to cycling, but now that I've also changed my OS I think there's a Linux reference to be worked in there.]
posted by Mngo at 6:21 PM on October 20, 2010

have a gait analysis done by a sports doctor, not the guy at the running store who is working for minimum wage + commish.

find out the types of shoes that you should be buying (minimalist, for pronators, for supinators, for heavy runners - for example) and then shop at a store where you can return the shoes after less than a month's usage.

join a running group to start, get a running coach if you are serious, listen to advice - and sort through that advice. Keep what works for you, throw out the other advice away.

You have a reasonable goal ahead of you (NYC 2011) and you are building up your mileage. I am assuming by your note that you don't have overuse injuries at this time (some of us are blessed this way - like you I am a slower runner with lots of determination with six ultras under my belt). Keep up the training and the careful monitoring of any overuse injuries while working up to 30 - 50 miles a week by summer's end in 2011. Listen to your body *carefully*.

But back to the shoes - see that sports doc. Get some shoe recommendations from this person, and try out a few brands. If your budget allows, buy a few pair and rotate them.
posted by seawallrunner at 9:48 PM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Go to a non-chain "running store". Ask your salesperson how much they run, look around for hints that the store supports the "scene" like sign up cards for the next big race in your area, etc.

Let them take you through the whole pitch, which should include jogging while they watch, etc. Get their recommendations, then say 'thank you very much', and leave.

run what they said by a podiatrist. If she calls bullshit, try another store. If she doesn't, go back and buy from them, because they've done you right.

This is how I ended up running in Vibrams, actually, but YMMV
posted by markovitch at 6:31 AM on October 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

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