Beginner's Guide to Buying Running Shoes - Pronation and Support
Whether you’re a fair weather jogger or an adventure racer, running shoes are the most important, and personal bit of kit you’ll have to pick up. Because of the immense stresses that running places on the biomechanical wonders that are your feet - and in turn your legs, hips and back - a poorly fitting pair of running shoes will cause pain and can lead to injury. Running shoes are very much designed with your gait and pronation type in mind and this adds a slightly more complicated aspect to selecting a pair than you’ll find with walking boots and shoes.
In this guide we’ll take a quick look at how you can get a good idea of what sort of support you’re going to benefit from.
Disclaimer: We’d always recommend that if you’re new to running or not confident in what sort of running shoe you need, you try and seek advice at a specialist running store (and we do mean a ‘proper’ one) where experienced staff can analyse your gait via machines and well trained eyes. Of course this isn’t always an option, so in this guide we’ll cover the basics of working out what sort of running shoe you’ll need via some simple tests, but bear in mind that it’s intended as a basic guide and not a replacement for a decent professional opinion.
What is pronation?
Pronation basically refers to the natural rolling motion of the foot during the walking or running cycle. It's the body's way of spreading impact and powering up to lift back off again.
During a normal 'neutral' walking or running stride the heel will strike (usually towards the outer side), then the foot rolls forwards and inwards until the entire foot is flat on the ground. After this the heel will lift and the foot will start to push itself from the ball/toes area. This natural action is designed to provide shock-absorption and power on every step and is a wonderful biomechanical function! Of course not everyone shares this pattern or else I wouldn't be writing this guide and it's really not uncommon to deviate from this; so don't worry.
Generally speaking most people will fall into one of the following three patterns, although to varying degrees of severity.
After heel strike, the foot rolls too much to the inside across the front and can cause overuse injuries.
|Neutral ‘normal’ pronation|
The foot will strike with the outside of the heel, before flattening evenly across its width as the ball impacts.
|Underpronation (or supination)|
After heel strike, the foot then doesn’t flatten out across the ball and most of the impact is absorbed on the outer side.
Why is it important to know?
All running shoes are designed for a specific type of motion. They'll either be neutral and simply there for cushioning the natural impact; they may be designed for motion control or stability (there isn't a standard definition so far, but most manufacturers will make it obvious) which helps reduce the inward roll of overpronators with more supportive midsoles; or they may be cushioned and curved to help spread the extra impacts that underpronators experience along the outsides of their feet.
The reason it's important to make sure that you're in the correct shoes for your type is simply that they won't help you much if they're not, and could even make things pretty uncomfortable if they attempt to interfere with your natural rhythm! Don't forget that other than not helping your feet they won't do your ankles, knees, or hips any good either.
How to test yourself at home
There are two easy-to-do tests to see which category you fall into, although anyone unsure, or with known foot problems should always seek professional advice.
Test 1 - Look at your old shoes
A simple test really, but these will generally show where you’ve worn them down, and thus which cycle you fall into. Simply turn them over and inspect the soles, or place them on the ground and look at them from behind.
|Shoes lean in / wear on the inside |
You likely overpronate and should benefit from a shoe which helps with motion control and stability, with firmer midsoles to give support.
|Shoes don’t lean / worn equally |
You have neutral feet and should choose neutral shoes.
|Shoes lean out / wear on the outside.|
You likely underpronate and might be best in neutral but cushioned shoes, with a curved shape to help absorb and spread impact forces.
Be aware that you don’t need to look at the heel wear; this is caused by the impact and not related.
Test 2 – The Footprint Test
You’ll need more time, and a bit of equipment to do this, although it’s probably more fun and you can always frame the results! Of course you could use a tiled bathroom floor (just follow step 3 and then analyse quickly) but where’s the fun in that?
- Tape a large sheet of paper to the floor
- Add some food colouring to a bowl of water
- Wet the bottom of your feet and stand on the paper or tiles briefly and naturally (repeat if you don't get a good impression)
Once you’ve got a nice clear impression of your foot (trace around the imprint if it helps make it more obvious, but don’t trace around your actual foot) you’ll want to pay attention to the arch area between the heel and the ball.
A large band which shows almost the entire foot.
This usually indicates low or collapsed arches and overpronation, and you’d probably be best off in a shoe designed to provide stability and motion control.
A broad, clearly defined and gently curving band which is around half the width of the ball.
This means you’re usually neutral and should choose a neutral shoe.
A very thin band or no band at all joining heel and ball on the outside.
This means you likely have high arches and you’re most likely an underpronator (supinator) and should choose neutral but cushioning shoes.
Between these two tests you’ll now get a good idea of what sort of support or stability you need from your running footwear, although again, we’d emphasis that if you’re unsure or have existing foot problems, that you seek in store advice at a decent local running shop.
Pick styles suitable for end use
Another tip we’d offer straightaway when choosing running shoes is that it’s important to know what you want to do in them; you may need a pair for light evening jogs, marathons or off-road running, and unfortunately not all running shoes will provide the best in terms of support or grip for every activity.
We’d also recommend that even if you’re running for the first time, you don’t just splurge on the cheapest pair from a sports fashion retailer (or even the most expensive and feature-laden)…you could do yourself some mischief and that’ll probably put you off running for good. As an example I got lazy and decided to use some shoes I knew were utterly inappropriate for half marathon training on roads (more idiotically is that I did it more than once even though I felt the beginnings of injury)...I fairly quickly ended up with crippling foot, knee and hip pain.
So now know what sort of support you need from them, and what sort of running you'll be doing...read part 2 (coming soon) of our guide for tips on getting the perfect fit.