If, and only if, the shoe fits: Getting professional advice on your running footwear

You absolutely, 100% must get your gait analyzed if you’re going to be a runner. We’re concerned about the health of your feet, ankles, and knees, dude.

Photo by: mezzoblue

So you’ve done it. You’ve signed up for that inescapable Richmond springtime ritual–the Ukrop’s Monument Avenue 10k;1 caved to the peer pressure. After all, your sister’s done it, your best friend has done it, your ex has done it, eight of your coworkers have done it, your barista has done it, your roommate did it dressed up like a Heineken. Heck, even your 85-year-old grandmother and her posse have done it.

Or maybe you’ve just decided that it’s time to join that weird cult of people who wake up really early, tape their nipples, and eat a lot. You know: runners.

Congratulations, and let me be the first to welcome you to the club! Now, before you head out on that first run, I ask you to take a minute to consider your footwear.

I know that they always say that running is the cheapest sport; the one with the lowest barriers to participation. Haven’t you seen that shirt that says, “Running is cheaper than therapy”? I have, about 5,253 times, and every time, it makes me chuckle to myself when I think about the ridiculous sums of money that I’ve spent maintaining my own running habit.

But I digress.

Back to shoes

The truth is, when you take up running, the first thing that you should do–whether you are starting for the first time or coming back after some time off–is go get properly fitted for a pair of new running shoes.

I know, I know. You’ve got a perfectly good pair of barely used shoes that have been sitting in your closet gathering dust for years. Buying new ones seems like not only an expensive proposition, but a confusing one too. But believe me, it is one of the most important things you can do to not only avoid injury, but to make your training at least a little bit easier.

Don’t just dash off to Dick’s and pull a pair of sale shoes off the shelf either and call it a day. If you’re serious about your training, then the best thing to do is head to a local running shop (we’re lucky to have quite a few in Richmond) and be properly fitted. There are a lot of myths about how to find your best running shoe match along with quizzes and home tests (here is a hint: taking a quiz on the Internet and being led to your “perfect fit” is usually not entirely accurate) but in the end, putting yourself into the hands of a real live human being who does this for a living is a much smarter decision.

To get the lowdown on what to expect when you hit up one of our local running shops, I turned to Jeff Van Horn, the owner of Lucky Foot/Lucky Road Run Shop. An accomplished runner himself with a background in sports medicine and years of experience, Jeff will get you into the right ride–and you might even learn something too.

First things first – why is it so bad to just pull those old shoes out and hit the streets? The answer is simple: just like those Christmas cookies that are still hanging out in your pantry, running shoes go stale. They might look OK on the outsides, but the cushioning and materials that make up the inner part of the shoe (the important part) have been quietly disintegrating, losing their bounce and shock absorption properties, over the months.

Other factors to consider: did you originally buy the shoes for running? Have you been using them to things other than running? Have you ever had a gait analysis? If you didn’t buy them for running, have been using them to mow the lawn, or just picked them because they were on the clearance rack or you liked the color, then it is not a bad idea to get fitted for some new kicks.

Now that you’re convinced, what exactly does getting fitted for shoes entail?

The process is relatively painless if not slightly awkward, unless running around in a store while people watch you is your thing. Jeff suggests that you allow 30 to 45 minutes to go through the process, especially if this is your first time. “It’s important for us to take time talking to the customer, getting some background information about their experience, their goals, and any injuries or pain that they might have experienced or are experiencing during their runs,” he told me. Be ready to answer the barrage of questions and even point to where it hurts; all of this information is a piece of the puzzle that leads to the perfect pair of shoes.

Bringing along the shoes that you have been running in is a good idea, along with the socks that you use. Wearing running tights or shorts will also help the fit specialist you are working with be able to get an unobstructed view of your feet, ankles, and lower legs during the gait analysis phase.

The what?

“Gait analysis is the most important of what we do,” explains Jeff. “Watching exactly what is happening when you are running is the best way to find out what you need in a shoe. A lot of people come in and say ‘Oh I’ve been told I have pronate’ or they’ve taken a water blot test that shows they have a high arch, so they think they know what they need, but the only way to really know what’s going on when you’re running is to watch you do it.”

Simply put–gait analysis is simply being observed by Jeff or one of his trained store associates as you run. All are trained to be watching for specific movements and cues that make up your running fingerprint; things like where your foot strikes the ground, how it moves once it hits the ground, what your ankles are doing.

After your Q&A session, your fit specialist will either ask you to put on your shoes or bring you a pair, then ask you to run for a few yards while they watch closely. It feels really awkward at first, but try to act natural and not imagine how weird you think you look when you run. They aren’t really looking at you anyway–just at your feet.

Now comes the fun part

Armed with all of this data about your running blueprint, you’ll get to try on all kinds of shoes to find the one that is best for you, under the watchful eye of your specialist. The best thing to do during this phase is keep an open mind. You might think that Nikes are your one true loves or can’t stand the color combination on that pair of Sauconys, but try your best to not let those things cloud your judgment. It is harder than it sounds; I myself admit to being very vain when it comes to running gear and have not wanted to try on shoes because they were ugly. Of course in the end, that pair ended up being the best choice for me. (Hopefully you won’t have the same dumb luck.) Similarly, I love the way Mizunos look but I also know that they just never work out for me, so I have to admire them from afar and sigh sadly.

Sometimes it can be a tough choice, especially when you are about to make an investment in the $100 range. It can feel like a big risk but rest assured – when you go through the trouble of going through the fitting process, most of our local stores guarantee that the shoe will work for you and have excellent return policies.

“We want our customers to feel good in the shoes that they are fitted for. If we go through the process and select a shoe that we recommend but it doesn’t work out for some reason, the customer has 47 days to bring the shoes back,” says Van Horn. I myself have been in this situation–toughed it out in a pair of shoes that just weren’t working for me and on day 45, Jeff took them back and we ended up finding a pair that has been my perfect match.

Hit the road, carefully

After you walk out with your brand spanking new shoes, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, you’re going to want to break them in slowly. Don’t buy a new pair and leave the store for a long run. It’s a bad idea. This is especially important if you go with a new brand or model.

Second, make sure you untie your shoes before you take them off. Not doing so is not only something your mom would probably yell at you for, but it damages the upper and stretches the shoe in ways that aren’t good.

Third, if your shoes get wet or dirty, do NOT toss them in the dryer. The heat could damage the insoles. Stuff them with newspaper and leave them to air dry. Jeff told me an amusing story about a kid at running camp who decided that maybe putting his drenched shoes in the oven was a good idea. Let’s just say that didn’t work out so well either.

Fourth, keep in mind that shoes do wear out. Some people like to track the mileage that they put on each pair and there are a slew of apps that can help you with that (MapMyRun, RunKeeper) or you can just go old school and keep a spreadsheet. When you buy your shoes, ask how many miles you can expect to get out of them, as it varies by model. You can also just go by feel. Personally, I know that when my feet start to ache, my shoes are on their way out and once my knee starts to hurt it is definitely time to retire and get a fresh pair.

Finally, it’s a good idea to go through the process of fitting every once in a while. Losing weight can change your gait. So can an injury or even just the aging process. New goals might require a different kind of fit.

Or, if you’re like me, you just become a shoe freak and love to go test out all the latest and greatest fads and models. One of these days, I’ll find the ones that make me as fast as Shalane Flanagan. I just know it.

  1. Want to win a spot on the YMCA 10k training team (it includes an entry to the Monument Avenue 10k)? Want to learn more about the 10k in general? Peep this, friend
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Kathryn Pullam

When not running, Kathryn can most often be found in the vicinity of donuts, live music, or a comfy porch swing.

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