The Right Tools for the Job

Jul 3rd 2011

How many shoes are in your regular rotation? A lot of beginner runners typically own one pair of running shoes but quickly find one pair isn’t enough. More experienced runners usually have several shoes in their quiver, but sometimes those of us who have been running for a long time don’t have the right tool for the job. Running in a variety of shoes can help avoid overuse injuries because they all stress and strengthen muscles and soft tissue differently. (You don’t run with the exact same gait in a lightweight racing flat as you do in a cushioned high-mileage trainer.)

Even though running shoes aren’t cheap, it makes sense to have a shoe specific to every type of running you do. Generally, most of the best training and racing shoes are in the $85-$105 range; a lot of the shoes — but not all — in the $120-$140 range are trumped up with “technology” and flashy elements that don’t add to the performance value of shoes. (That said, we’ve seen the rise of boutique running shoe brands that only have performance-oriented models priced in the $130-$180 range.) However, if you value running, you should consider your shoes an investment in your health and well-being, and having the right pair of the job can help you avoid injuries. Besides, if you have five to seven pairs of shoes in your quiver, you’re not likely wear out any very often.

Don’t think you need more than a half dozen pairs of running shoes? Here’s a checklist of possibilities with specific uses. If you have two pair of several of these categories, it might mean you have 12-15 pairs of shoes in your regular rotation.

1 — Lightweight, cushioned shoe for long, slow distance runs — hopefully neutral or at most, depending on your running gait, maybe a shoe that adds a little stability through firmer form or a wider outsole surface area; (If you’re running in gait-controlling stability or motion control shoes, quit running and instead work on strength and form.)

2 — Lightweight flats for tempo, fartlek and speed sessions;

3 — Lightweight racers for short distances;

4 — Lightweight but slightly more cushioned racers for longer distances;

5 — Lightweight trail shoes for trail training and longer races; (Yes, you can use your road running shoes on smooth trails without any technical features, but even trails that are slightly rugged, wet, muddy or steep will reduce the shelf life or your road shoes.)

6 — Lightweight trail racers for short-distance racing; (Depends on the terrain and the distance, but there are distinct advantages to having a trail racer matched to a specific race.)

7 — Durable, protective and optimally cushioned mountain-oriented trail shoes for jagged, technical trails; (Yes, there is a time and a place for slightly heavier, more built-up shoes.)

8 — Spikes for speed work, track races and cross country races;

9 — Barefoot-style shoes for after-workout drills; (And if you’re very lightweight, nimble on your feet and do a lot of drills and general strength work, then perhaps you can use these for more than just drills.)

10 — And not to be overlooked is a good pair of softly cushioned recovery shoes, slides or mocs that give your feet a break immediately after races and during recovery days.

Of course, barefoot running zealots will say that a runner doesn’t need shoes at all, thus saving what could be $200 to $500 per year. I suppose that works for some, just as running in the same pair of shoes every day works for some, too. To each their own. But I can’t name a single good runner who runs barefoot most of the time or one that owns just one pair of shoes.