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Running shoes demystified: Seeing beyond the brand.

                                                                                      

What do you see when you look at this picture?

I bet when you look at the shoe wall you, like most people, you see the columns defined by each brand of running shoe sold at this running specialty shop: Brooks, Saucony, Asics, New Balance, Nike, Hoka One One, Adidas and Mizuno. It is entirely understandable why you may want to sort the shoes in this manner, but I want to open your eyes to something different: another, different way of viewing this shoe wall.

When I view the shoe wall I see rows. Aside from separating shoes by brand you can sort shoes by their type of stability and support. In fact there are many different types of running shoes. The most common types found are as follows: minimal/barefoot, neutral shoes, moderate stability (light stability), high stability and motion control.

What are the differences between all of these subcategories of shoes? From flexibility to weight to structure throughout the arch- there are many differences. 

My goal for this article is to have you begin to see beyond the brands on the wall. While one brand may have worked for you in the past it’s possible that several shoes of the same level of support across various brands could work for you.

So for the next few minutes let’s look beyond the brand and learn about the different type of running shoes on the market today.

Four Categories of Shoes

Given this information it is time to discuss four basic categories of running shoes: minimal, neutral, stability and motion control (pictured from top to bottom).

The Minimalist Debate

There is a huge debate in the running community about whether or not standard running shoes are even necessary for runners.

Some runners believe that since we humans were born walk without wearing  shoes that running shoes are the root cause of injury. Many minimalists believe that running shoes obstruct the natural movement of the foot while running, and THIS is what causes injury. Those who believe in the minimalist movement often wear lighter shoes with less structure and some actually do run completely barefoot. In general minimalists tend to wear shoes with a lower heel to toe drop (the amount in millimeters that the heel is raised above the ball of the foot). While traditional shoes have a 10-12 mm offset, minimal shoes have a 6 mm offset or less.

On the other hand most people have been walking in shoes since infancy. It is argued that the muscles in our legs have become accustomed to the foreign objects strapped to our feet that get us from point A to point B, thus causing a dependency on them. Many customers who have tried to go barefoot/minimalist often return to the store with injuries ranging from a pulled Achilles, plantar fasciitis, or pulled calf muscles.

I believe that that the average runner will fare best in a standard running shoe with a higher heel-to-toe drop rather than a light-weight minimalist shoe with a lower heel-to-toe drop. If the body has been trained to walk in a standard shoe since birth, then that is what it will run best in (for now!). However I believe you can retrain your body and the muscles in your legs over time to run in a minimalist shoe.

Unique features

  • VERY light weight
  • Flexible
  • Often cheaper pricepoint ($100 or less)  à often a little less durable/ get fewer miles out of them
  • Lower heel-to-toe drop that often stresses Achilles, calves and plantar fascia  

                                                                                         

Neutral Shoe

Every shoe company creates a shoe in this category. Runners with a neutral gate strike the ground and toe off without over-pronating, meaning that their ankle does not roll in more than 15%. 

Many shoe companies (i.e. Brooks, Saucony, New Balance, Nike and Asics) use their own unique blend of EVA foam to create the midsole of the shoe. The midsole represents the meat of the shoe as it is the layer of foam that cushions the impact of your body’s weight with each stride (the blue and part of yellow strips of foam shown above in the Brooks Ghost). In a neutral shoe there is only one density of foam present in the midsole because the runner evenly distributes his/her weight across the entire base of the shoe on landing through toe off.

These runners have the gait that we strive for and can wear standard shoes like the Brooks Ghost and Asics Gel-Nimbus.

Unique features

  • A very traditional sneaker
  • A more structured shoe than those in minimal category without being too structured and overbearing
  • Often (but not always) used for longer distances over minimalist shoes
  • Retains some flexibility but with more arch support than minimal shoes
  • Often a minimum of $120 price point

                                                                                  

Stability Shoes

About 80% of runners over-pronate. If a runner’s arch collapses and his/her ankle severely rocks inward in when running, her body isn’t efficiently absorbing the shock of her body weight, thus risking injury to the shins, knees and even hips.

Shoe companies have responded to this “condition” by creating a dual density midsole (designed to resist pronation) in their stability shoes. Stability shoes can often be identified by a gray bar of dense foam and a piece of plastic posting in the arch of each shoe. When the runner lands the denser foam and plastic posting are designed to prop the foot upright into a neutral stance.

Unique features:

  • Weigh a little bit more than neutral and minimal shoes
  • Controls for foot/ankle movement through the stride
  • Has a firm heel counter in back of shoe making this a very structured shoe
  • Less flexible than previous two categories; very structured shoe
  • Often experienced as “a little more shoe” by customer and sometimes even “bulky”
  • $120 standard price point (or higher)

                                                                                     

                                                                                                  

Motion Control Shoes

Motion control shoes are crafted for runners with severe over-pronation; these shoes provide maximal support in the arch and midfoot provided typically by a wider surface area on the base of the shoe, as well as a dense foam and large plastic posting pictured below.

The typical runner does not need the significant amount of posting provided by this shoe category. Customers seeking this shoe have typically been instructed by their podiatrist or general doctor to use these shoes as they ease back into exercise when recovering from surgery or individuals with a strong history of knee and ankle injuries who are embarking on a new weight loss endeavor.

Motion control shoes: Brooks Ariel (pictured above)/ Brooks Beast (men’s version), Saucony Omni, Mizuno Wave Renegade, New Balance 1011 etc.

Cushioning

Of course the running companies don’t differentiate shoes by their categories of stability and support (that would be too easy!). Shoes also have varying levels of cushioning and are separated into shoes with standard cushioning and high cushion. While cushioning may be related to keeping an athlete injury free that completely depends on the individual athlete, his/her weight, unique stride and history of injury. It is safe to say that athletes need to research various shoes that could work best for them.

I myself wear the Saucony Guide and Brooks Ravenna (moderate stability shoes with light cushioning).  Why? Because I like a firmer shoe on the road, plain and simple. You never want to feel too comfortable while running ;). But seriously, I simply like a firmer shoe and that’s that.

  

Minimal (lower heel to toe drop)

Neutral

Moderate Stability

Stability

Motion Control

Standard cushioning

Brooks Pure Flow

Sauucony Kinvara*

NB Fresh Foam Zante

Brooks Ghost

Saucony Ride

Asics Gel-Cumulus

Mizuno Wave Rider

Brooks Ravenna

Saucony Guide

Mizuno Wave Inspire

Saucony Mirage (lighter weight)

Brooks Adrenaline

Asics GT-2000

Nike Structure

Adidas Sequence Boost

Brooks Beast/Ariel

Saucony Omni

NB Renegade

High cushioning

Brooks Launch

Saucony Zealot

Hoka Clayton

Hoka Clifton

Brooks Glycerin

Saucony Triumph

Asics Gel-Nimbus

Mizuno Wave Creation

NB Boracay

Hoka Bondi

Saucony Hurricane

Asics Gel-Kayano

Nike Lunar Glide

 *Some would describe the Kinvara as a cushioned shoe

It is very likely that more than one brand could work for you! Once you determine what level of support works best for your body you can try various shoes within each category.

Bear in mind that some runners also prefer to run in shoes in two different categories: a heavier shoe for training and a lighter shoe for racing and/or speed work. We’ll address that in the next article!



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