Running Shoes for Newer Runners
“What should my first pair of real running shoes be?”
During the nearly twenty years I spent working and managing a running store, I often heard the same question quite often: “What shoes should I get if I’ve never really had running shoes before?” It was always a tough question, because each individual is so different and has different needs when it comes to how much cushion or support they could benefit from. With that said—with any sport, there is always a universal need to learn HOW to do the sport properly and have the right equipment that encourages proper technique. In fact, in some sports, beginners are often given pieces of equipment that are training tools that over-emphasize proper form or expedite the learning process.
Unfortunately, the running world hasn’t seemed to have caught on to this yet. In fact, running is probably the only sport we spend virtually no time teaching new-comers how to properly do the sport and just tell them to “go run”. No wonder the injury rate is so high! This is equivalent to taking a kid and throwing him in the pool and just saying “go swim”, or giving a kid a basketball and saying “go shoot!” Sure, you’ll get better over time, but it will be slow and painful, you’ll likely get injured over time, and you’ll most likely have to unlearn some bad habits as you progress.
Additionally, running is probably the only sport where our equipment typically works against us and encourages less than ideal technique. Indeed, most running shoes encourage beginning runners—and all runners—to run WRONG! The vast majority of running shoes contain cushioning that is twice as heavy and twice as thick in the heel as it is in the front of the shoe. This additional weight and height in the heel of the shoe causes a runner to land more out in front of their body, and more on their heels. Simply put, most traditional running shoes encourage a runner to run with higher impact, inefficient form than they otherwise would.
If you are having a hard time believing this, simply film yourself running for 5 minutes in traditional running shoes, and then film yourself for 5 minutes running barefoot or in a shoe that is very thin or perfectly flat. Watch the last minute of each video. The changes in landing (foot strike), knee angle, overall posture, and stride rate (cadence) are incredible! With that said, I’m not advocating barefoot for beginners—unless they are VERY patient people and want to start barefoot—for a variety of reasons. More on this later.
Running is also likely the only sport where our main piece of equipment puts our body in a less than ideal position for balance, stability, and power. The ability of the foot to naturally spread out on landing, stabilize the body further by engaging the big toe, and powerfully push off from this position is a critical piece of being able to run efficiently and injury free. Simply put, the foot should be able to spread out upon landing and therefore 1) absorb impact, 2) naturally stabilize, and 3) push off the ground efficiently. As the foot hits the ground and spreads out into its widest position, it is naturally more powerful and more stable. Think of the wide, low stance of a sports car or trying to do push-ups with your fingers together versus spread apart.
Unfortunately, although feet are naturally widest at the toes, most running shoes feature tapered toe boxes that are shaped more like torpedoes than they are like healthy human feet. X-ray images show that tapered toe boxes cause significantly more bone stress in the feet, which is a precursor to stress fractures. This tapered shape inhibits the body’s ability to naturally spread out the foot to absorb impact, stabilize, and push off the ground powerfully. To drive the point home, the majority of people buy shoes too narrow for their feet. In fact, the width of the average female shoe sold is nearly 2 sizes narrower than the average female foot. No wonder 73% of Americans report foot pain as compared to only a 3% incidence in non-shoe wearing populations! Take a look at your foot in a non-constricting sock and compare that shape to the shape of your shoe and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. If you’ve been wearing shoes that are too narrow for many years, your feet may be starting to look more like the shoes you wear than actual feet, which is a precursor to many foot problems, and only gets worse with age. If this is you, I recommend something called Correct Toes to help get your feet back to a naturally functioning & healthy shape.
Now ultimately, a beginning runner can also benefit from some degree of cushioning and support to protect the feet from man-made surfaces and allow them to progress faster than they would otherwise.
So ultimately, in my opinion, and the opinion of the American College of Sports Medicine, the ideal running shoe for a beginning runner would not contain the heavy, elevated heel that teaches poor, high impact technique. The ideal running shoe for a newer runner would also not feature a traditional tapered toe box which ultimately inhibits impact absorption and is responsible for so many common foot maladies. A great running shoe for a beginner would also have just enough cushioning to allow them to be comfortable and allow them to progress and add mileage on a variety of surfaces. An important consideration should be made that some newer runners may have weak feet, and could benefit from using a very soft, lightweight arch support until their feet become strong enough to go without it.
For these reasons, I believe newer runners are best off in a shoe that is cushioned but Zero Drop, and shaped like a healthy human foot. These things will allow the foot to function properly and the body to run with efficient, low impact running technique. In short, a cushioned, Zero Drop, Foot-shaped shoe like Altra will help a beginning runner learn good habits from the start and possibly reduce many injuries instead of the status quo. As with all things, I recommend trying things out first to make sure it works for you, as each of us is an individual with unique needs. Happy Running!
-K. Golden Harper
Golden graduated with a degree in Exercise Science and did his collegiate studies on running technique & running injuries. He grew up working in his family’s running store and holds a world-best for a 12-year old in the marathon at 2:45:34.