Buying Your First Pair of Running Shoes: How to Be Smart
Buying your first pair of running shoes can either be an exciting endeavor or your worst nightmare. Upon entering the strange world that is the running store, you see what seem like billions of brightly-colored, psychedelically-patterned shoes lining the walls and shelves of other curious gizmos such as anti-chafing sticks, tubes of edible goo and belts made out of water bottles. Much more than you bargained for.
You snap out of your daze as the perky salesperson approaches. “What can I help you find?” Um…shoes…that fit…?
For the novice runner, it’s almost impossible to know where to start. As someone who’s taken quite a few friends to buy their first pair of running shoes, I know the situation all too well. Fortunately, I also know that by being equipped with well-informed guidelines and knowing how to spot the red flags, a running shoe newbie can, in fact, make it out alive…with shoes that work.
Where to start
First of all, if you’re shopping for running shoes at Amazon.com, or worse, at Walmart, stop right now. Attempting to buy your first pair by yourself is assuming that the shoes you choose will, by chance, be ideal for your feet and running form. And we all remember what our parents said about assuming.
The first thing you should do is locate a specialty running store. Unlike a department or even general sports store, a specialty running store will increase your chances of being helped by an experienced runner who can tell you exactly what you need. You wouldn’t want to buy the luxury sports car you’ve been saving for since you were a toddler with Hot Wheels from a 17-year-old trucker, right? Same thing.
What to look for
When you locate a specialty store, enter knowing your purpose for being there. Obviously you want to buy shoes, but why? Are you training for a specific race? Are you planning on running mostly on a treadmill, flat roads, rocky trails or all of the above? About how many miles are you planning on running per week? By knowing the answers to at least some of these questions, you will be able to have a starting point and provide the salesperson’s inquiry with an answer more intelligent than, “Um…shoes…that fit.”
That is not to say that the fit of the shoe is unimportant. Quite the opposite. Running in shoes that don’t fit properly can result in blisters, feet going numb or the unpleasant surprise of waking up one day to find nine toenails instead of 10. When the salesperson brings out a few pairs of shoes to try on, he or she should ask you to stand and proceed to feel how the shoes fit. Do not be alarmed if the salesperson says that you should try on running shoes that are a whole size larger than your regular shoe size. When we run, our feet expand, so extra wiggle room is important if you don’t want your friends to scream in horror at the sight of your toe deformities. After the salesperson helps narrow down the search to a few pairs of shoes that fit properly, you should look for a pair that essentially feels like an extension of your foot. You should not feel as though you need to “break them in.” After--and only after--you find the match of proper fit and comfort, should you take into consideration the shoes’ pretty colors and patterns. This might go without saying, but ideally you’ll want something that won’t make you want to vomit every time you look down at your feet.
Salespeople: good versus evil
If the person helping you out does not take the time to properly fit you or examine your running form, flee the scene. An apathetic salesperson is the quickest route to discomfort and doubt, and worse, injury. And even though you are in a specialty running store, evil salespeople sometimes manage to slip through the cracks.
A good salesperson will ask you to run either outside or on a treadmill while he or she observes. Many specialty stores today have cameras and screens hooked up to a treadmill so you can watch your own feet as the salesperson explains what he or she is looking for. The main purpose for this observation is to determine what’s called pronation and supination. In a nutshell, when we walk, our feet normally flatten out when they hit the ground and rolls to the inside—this inward rolling of the foot is called pronation. Many people, however, pronate too much—called over-pronation—or not enough—called under-pronation or supination. Explanation: Both over-pronation and supination causes excessive movement and stress on certain areas of the foot and leg, which, if not compensated for by the running shoe, will most likely result in injuries, including Achilles tendinitis or plantar fasciitis. If you are an over-pronator, the salesperson will guide you towards motion-control or stability shoes that have control features that limit pronation. He or she may also recommend you wear orthotics or arch supports. If you are an under-pronator, or supinator, the salesperson will guide you towards relatively lightweight, flexible shoes that allow increased foot motion.
Good salespeople will also ask you about past and current injuries in order to rule out shoes that may add to the problem. If they don’t ask, consider them evil and flee.
Knowledge is power
Another reason to avoid evil salespeople: They will fill your brain with incorrect information or no information at all. Part of the fun of buying your first pair of running shoes is that you begin to gain knowledge that you can use to inform future running decisions and purchases and perhaps one day pass on to other young grasshoppers. So tap into the knowledge of the person helping you. What’s the difference among shoes made by Nike, Brooks, Saucony, Mizuno and Asics? What is it called when certain shoes feel more squishy than others? Will the store allow you to take the shoes out for a test run around the block? Does it matter what socks I wear? How long should I wait before buying new shoes? You’ll never know unless you ask, and a good salesperson will be able to provide an answer.
One question definitely worth asking is what the store’s return and exchange policy is. Some running stores provide customers with a 30-day trial period, during which they can decide whether to keep the shoes or exchange them at no additional cost. Sometimes, after taking your new purchase for a spin, the shoes don’t feel quite as right as they did at the store. This could be due to various factors, including terrain, weather or something I recently discovered—the way you tie your shoes. And even though you hopefully won’t need to return or exchange your new shoes, the bottom line is that you want to know what you’re getting into before you commit to your new running relationship.
And just in case this all seems way more complicated than it did before, here is a quick review of the steps you should take:
- Choose a specialty running store.
- Enter store with a purpose.
- Proper fit plus comfort equals magic.
- Find a good salesperson and never let him/her go.
- Ask questions.
- Get out there and have fun!