Running Shoe Terminology
Buying a running shoe can be an overwhelming process and with shoes frequently priced over £100 it’s something you want to get right. Here’s a guide explaining commonly used running shoe terms to make the buying process a little clearer.
Trail vs Road
Trail shoes, or off-road running shoes, are designed to help when you’re running on more challenging terrain be that through forests, across beaches or down dirt tracks.
The main benefits of a trail shoe are found on the sole. Here you will find raised treads, called lugs, to aid with gripping the surface you’re running on.
The upper side of a trail shoe also has lots to offer in terms of protection. The meshwork is often tighter to stop dirt, dust and debris getting through to your socks. A firmer area of material also surrounds the toes to reduce injury that could occur from hitting stones or branches on the trails.
Road shoes are effectively the opposite! Their meshwork is lighter and more breathable and they don’t have big lugs or teeth to help with grip. By getting rid of any extra bulk it allows the shoe to be more responsive to the road and often more lightweight.
Drop, or offset, refers to the difference in height between the heels and the toes. When we aren't wearing any shoes our heel and toes are the same distance from the ground meaning the drop is zero. Most shoes place our heel at a higher height than our toes and this height difference is measured in millimetres.
Most running shoes have a drop that’s typically around 6mm. That means there’s 6mm more material under the heel than there is under the toes. This provides extra cushioning under the heel to absorb the impact from running.
A zero drop shoe has no difference in height between the heel and the toe. The amount of material underneath the heel area and the forefoot is the same. Zero drop shoes are designed to be more similar to the natural alignment of your foot. After all, our natural foot has a zero drop. Brands that offer zero drop shoes include Altra and Vibram.
So how do you decide the amount of drop you need?
Selecting a higher drop might be more appropriate if any of the following apply to you:
You're new to running
You land on your heels when running (heel-striker)
On a day-to-day basis you wear shoes with a heel
You suffer with Achilles problems
Selecting a lower drop might be more appropriate if any of the following apply to you:
You land on your mid foot or forefoot when running
You have an interest in barefoot or minimalist running
You’ve previously ran in higher drop shoes and suffered with injuries
You’re willing to take the time to focus on form and technique
There’s no right or wrong when it comes to drop so it’s best to try a few shoes out and see what feels best. If you’re new to running a higher drop might be better as it provides more cushioning and reduces the impact if you land on your heels which a lot of runners do. If you are transitioning from a high drop to a zero drop shoe then do this gradually as your foot will react differently to the different drops and this can lead to muscle soreness if done too quickly.
Cushioning refers to the materials that are used in the sole of a running shoe. The idea is that these materials absorb the shock from hitting the ground. In turn this reduces the vertical ground reaction force which can stress the bones, muscles and tendons and over time lead to injury. The theory is that more cushioning should result in less injury but the evidence for this is actually very limited.
In reality it's a case of trying shoes out and seeing what works. Generally if you’re a new runner then more cushioning is a good thing. A cushioned shoe is also beneficial for runners who underpronate (don’t roll their foot inwards enough) as this rolling process helps with shock absorption. If you underpronate it is useful to get a cushioned shoe to absorb some of the shock for you.
The amount of cushion a shoe has can be described by any of the words below:
Responsive: If a shoe is responsive it means that you feel the interaction between the road and your foot. Effectively the cushioning of the shoe doesn’t get in the way of the interface between the ground and the foot.
Plush: Plush means that the cushioning is very soft. This type of support is ideal for high mileage runners but these shoes won’t be the fastest out there.
Moderate: These shoes are a middle ground, they effectively provide a small amount of soft cushion.
Supportive: This tends to mean that the sole is quite hard, so there’s material there for cushioning but it isn’t super soft.
These shoes are designed to assist runners who over-pronate, meaning their feet roll inwards too much when they run. Features of the shoe might include:
Guide rails along the sides of the shoe to couple the rotation of the hip and knee and effectively keep your foot in the right position.
Medial posts which are wedges of denser foam on the inner side of the shoe that distribute force upon landing.
Neutral shoes do not offer any of the features required to make a shoe stable and limit over-pronation. Generally the focus will instead be on cushioning and comfort.
If you don’t know whether you over-pronate or not then head to a running store for gait analysis. Typically, individuals with a low arch (or flat foot) are more likely to over-pronate.
Beveled Heel: A rounded or curved heel on the shoe. This is most similar to the natural anatomy of the foot and it is thought that this rounded shape helps push your foot forwards as well as reducing impact through the heel.
De-coupled Heel: A split in the heel to help with shock absorption. Effectively the heel is split from the rest of the shoe so that the shock created from landing with a heel strike does not transfer to the mid- and forefoot.
Carbon plates are very popular and are the key feature in shoes such as the Nike Next % and Hoka Carbon X.
These shoes have a carbon-fibre plate which sits in the middle of the shoe and helps to propel the foot forward. The plates act like a spring and minimise energy loss as the big toe bends during take off. These shoes are very responsive to the ground and are designed to improve efficiency thus adding to speed.
Shoes with carbon plates are typically at the upper end of the market in terms of price. They are a great race shoe if you’re looking to achieve a road race personal best but they don’t have as many miles in them compared to typical running shoes so won’t last as long.
Lightweight shoes are ideal for high performance runs. If you are doing a speed session then a lightweight shoe is likely to be more appropriate. These shoes, as the name suggests, are lighter in weight with less cushioning. This avoids the heaviness of a more cushioned shoe which can impact on speed.
These lightweight performance shoes also tend to have a lower drop so that less energy is required to run on the forefoot which again allows for greater speed.
These shoes provide maximum cushioning to protect the body and reduce the impact of each foot-strike. These shoes tend to be a bulkier shoe. Although brands will try to make the extra support and cushioning as light as possible these maximalist shoes will undoubtedly carry more weight. These shoes are a great option if you’re doing high mileage week after week. But, even if you’re focussed on speedy 5k’s, these shoes could still be beneficial as they can help minimise the risk of injury due to the support they offer.
Some brands also offer the option to pick a wide fit shoe. These shoes offer more space where your toes sit in the shoe (the toe box). Wide shoes are a good option if:
You’ve got wide feet
You have bunions
Your toes rub together when running
The edges of your feet push up against the fabric of your shoe
Not everyone with wide feet needs to buy wide fit shoes, but they are certainly worth trying. Wide shoes should allow the toes to spread out and make for a more comfortable run with less chaffing, blisters and rubbing.
The last of a shoe refers to the shape of the shoe. Last can be described as being curved, straight or semi-curved.
Curved shoes tend to be lighter and offer less support so racing or speed shoes are typically curved.
Straight shoes are heavier and offer more support. This shape is not as common as curved shoes. A straight last is almost always found in stability shoes.
Semi-curved shoes are, as the name suggests, somewhere in between. The semi-curved shape provides support under the arch without being as heavy as straight shoes. Most running shoes are semi-curved.
This is a way of measuring how much bounce is in your shoe. When we run we want to get maximum energy out of each stride instead of just losing this energy into the shoe. When you land the amount of bounce, or energy back, is measured as a percentage. The higher the percentage, the bouncier the shoe and the more energy coming out of each stride.
Energy return is affected by the type of foam in the cushioning but typically most shoes have about 60% energy return. This means when you run you land on your shoe and the cushioning is compressed, then around 60% of the energy comes back in the rebound.
Theoretically the higher the energy return the more bounce there is pushing you forward, improving your running efficiency. Unfortunately it’s not as straightforward as this as there are multiple factors at play. The extra energy won’t necessarily be used to drive you forward so energy return is probably a feature that most runners don't need to worry about!
Buying running shoes can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be! The most important thing is that the shoe is comfortable and works for you. If you don't know what you want then head to a running store so you can try lots of designs and seek advice.
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