How to Buy Your First Running Shoes

A former footwear associate teaches you the ins and outs of running-shoe shopping.

A Former Footwear Associate Spills the Beans

Many times during my stint in the footwear department, I was faced with the running-newbie customer who wants this question answered once and for all:

Which is the best running shoe?

Warning: If you ask this of a salesperson and they automatically point to a specific shoe without even trying to ask you more questions, do not buy anything from the store! The correct answer usually starts with "Depends..." And I know that doesn't sound satisfying or confident, but a knowledgable salesperson who knows how to fit you with the right kind of shoe should realize what it takes (i.e. lots of good questions) to get the job done.

1) Find the right store, and not just the one with bargain-bin sales. Price should not be the main factor of how you choose to handle the pounding on your feet and knees. It's an orthopedic puzzle that needs specialized support.

Warning #2: If they sell handbags and/or toys alongside the shoes, leave immediately. You can come back there for the handbags later. Not only will they have a poor selection of shoes, but the staff will likely be untrained to help you pick the right one.

The best move is going to small store devoted to running, and little else. Not only are the staff trained specialists in the merchandise, they are almost invariably runners themselves. And smaller stores will have more time to devote to helping you.

The second best move is to go to a large sporting goods retailer such as a Sports Authority (formerly SportMart) or a Sport Chalet. The staff and managers go through extensive training in running shoes, and they have a pretty good selection.

2) Comfort is king - Keep this in mind when your eye is caught by a flashy, battery-operated shoe with GPS, MP3, and endorsed by a celebrity. You are looking first and foremost for an essential workout tool, not a showpiece. I have had professional trainers toss aside the better-fitting shoe in favor of a looker: a brand they (not to mention their clients and friends) recognize.

For comfort, I am a big fan of mesh in the "upper" of the shoe, where it wraps around your foot. Too much vinyl and leather will be inflexible, heavy, and not breathe enough on those long runs. Not to mention you will have the logo of a section of the harder stuff rubbing against your foot every time you move. In the long run, lack of breathability is also what leads to bad foot odor and bacterial infections. Remember - the more mesh, the more comfortable it feels, and the better your skin breathes.

3) Know your pronation style - From the upper, we move to the midsole of the shoe (the thick white cushion visible under your feet), which handles your pronation. Some physical trainers may even call this "inversion", although the former is more commonly heard in running stores. Check the bottoms of your old pair, and note where the black outsole has been worn out. Another test is to step on the bathroom floor with wet feet, and note the shape of the footprints. You will probably fall into a combination of the following:

Overpronators will find wear-patterns near the big toe and along the inside arch. The footprint will tend towards being more flat-footed. In my experience, most (but not all) westerners fall into this category. New Balance is one company that makes shoes well-suited for overpronators; it's a good place to start.

Underpronators have wear-patterns towards the pinky-toe, along the outside of the foot. The footprint shows more pressure on the outside of the foot, with almost nothing in the arch. Most Asians I find are more likely to be underpronators. Start with the Reeboks and Asics.

Neutral pronators are perfectly between the two previous varieties. Try the Asics anyway.

Where do the Nike's fall? To be honest, each company tries to make a shoe for each type, but they tend to sell more (and therefore make more) of a certain shoe. Nike shoes do tend toward neutral, but I have always tried to dissuade the customer who insists on just Nike's because that is the only brand they have heard of.

One very frequent complaint we heard is that Nike makes shoes too narrow and expensive, and this deliberately forces customers to go a size higher than they should. This results in millions of people having ill-fitting, overpriced shoes.

4) Try many shoes on. And run in each one. That's what they are for. Don't just go for the first pair they hand you. When you actually run in a shoe, you will discover for yourself things you can't tell by looking - if there is too much rubbing in the heel, or the way your foot hits the ground feels too unnatural for you, or if the 'lightweight' shoe doesn't cushion you well enough. You might be in for an awakening when you realize, say, the unfamiliar Asics work better for you than your usual Saucony.

A good store will let you at least run around the store inthe shoes. You wouldn't buy a car without test-driving it, would you?

And try different sizes on to get the best fit. Here's an interesting fact: Women's sizes are roughly equivalent to the Men's shoe, but the size is marked 1.5 sizes lower. So if you wear a 9.5 women's shoe but it's not available in the store, you can try on an 8 in Men's. Believe me, none of your friends will notice unless they sell athletic shoes for a living.

5) Ask about a return policy. Many stores have an extremely lenient policy, as long as 90 days with a receipt. But usually you will find out for sure within a week if you try to run in the wrong shoe for you, and it is in your best interest (and the store's) to exchange for a better shoe.

Remember - The most expensive shoe is the one you cannot use.