Comfort Is King

Only one question matters in running shoe selection: How does it feel? Photo: Nils Nilsen

Only one question matters in running shoe selection: How does it feel?

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

Your body is smart. When it feels exhausted, it is exhausted. When it makes you thirsty, you need water. And when it tells you that one pair of running shoes is more comfortable than another, it’s because the more comfortable pair fits better and allows you to run more efficiently and with lower injury risk. Yes, your body is that smart.

We’re accustomed to using the mind-body connection to our advantage in all kinds of ways as runners. We use it to pace ourselves in races. How do you know you’re running at the right pace—that is, the fastest pace you can sustain to the finish line without bonking—when you’re one mile into a 10K race? Because it feels right. We also use the mind-body connection to take unplanned days off or modify scheduled workouts when we feel unexpectedly rundown from recent training. (Or at least we should!)

But we’ve always been taught not to use our mind-body connection in choosing the shoes we wear for running. Instead we’re supposed to allow our shoes to be chosen for us based on our foot structure and gait mechanics. However, recent research has shown that we’d be better off using our mind-body connection, and using it specifically to choose the shoes we find most comfortable.

For example, in a 2009 study, Benno Nigg of the University of Calgary and colleagues brought 13 male subjects into their lab. Each was given five pairs of running shoes in his size to try on and rate for comfort. Then the subjects ran on a treadmill in each pair at a fixed pace while their oxygen consumption was measured. This allowed the researchers to determine whether the subjects’ running economy was affected by the different shoes. A lower rate of oxygen consumption at the same pace would indicate better economy.

You know where this is heading. Nigg found that, on average, the subjects were 0.7 percent more economical in the most comfortable shoes than in the least comfortable shoes. That doesn’t sound like much, but it is both statistically and practically significant. A lifetime of training won’t improve running economy more than a few percent.

Nigg has also led similar studies on the effects of shoe comfort on injury risk, with similar results. Runners are less likely to get injured when they wear the shoes they find most comfortable. Contrast these results to the findings of studies in which shoes have been prescribed based on runners’ arch height (the standard method), where injury risk has proven to be the same as when all runners are given the same shoe or when shoes are distributed randomly.

But is comfort predictable? In other words, can we pinpoint which types of runners are most likely to find a given type of shoe most comfortable? This line of research is just beginning. In an interesting new study, researchers from the University of Texas-El Paso recruited 41 men and women to rate the comfort of three different types of running shoes (cushioned, lightweight, and stability) when walking and running in them.

For running, 41 percent of the runners preferred the cushioned shoe, exactly the same percentage preferred the lightweight shoe, and 17 percent preferred the stability shoe. Twenty-nine of the 41 subjects preferred the same shoes for walking and running. But 12 did not, so let that be a lesson to you: never buy a pair of running shoes you haven’t tried running in! And there were gender differences in preferences. Women tended to prefer the lightweight shoes, while men gravitated toward the cushioned and stability models.

So many different factors affect running shoe comfort that there will never be a substitute for trying them on and testing them out. But you can make the process more organized and efficient by using Competitor’s Fit, Feel, Ride system for shoe selection. Happy shopping!


Check out Matt’s latest book, RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel.

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