My first job was at a running store. I was 16, I was in love with track, and I wanted to be closer to all things running. The owner was an accomplished marathoner, and since the thing we sold in greatest quantity was footwear, he taught me some basics about feet and running shoes. I’ve since gathered my own information, both from the good ole internet and from my recent doctor’s appointment. Here are the vital details:
Pronation and supination are normal actions of the foot. Pronation occurs as your foot hits the ground and the arch collapses slightly to absorb shock. Supination occurs as you roll forward and push off of the ground. Both are required components of a healthy gait. These two actions become problematic when, like many things, they are done in excess.
People (myself included) will talk about pronation as a bad thing when I really mean overpronation. Overpronation occurs when the foot either collapses too much, and/or it continues the collapse when it should be supinating. Underpronation, or excessive supination, occurs when the foot rolls almost immediately to the outside edge of the foot, all but skipping the shock-absorbing pronation phase.
Both overpronation and underpronation put undue stress on rest of the leg. Overpronators often struggle with issues relating to the inner/medial side of the leg, like shin splints or plantar fasciitis; underpronators tend to have issues on the outside/lateral side of the leg. This is exactly what has happened with me, as both the IT band and the peroneal tendon run along the lateral part of the leg and foot, respectively.
Here are three videos of overpronation, underpronation, and neutral running. I have to say that these are great videos, except that they describe heel-striking as a part of pronation in every case. Not everyone heel strikes, and you can have pronation issues (like I do) even if you don’t heel strike. Also, the neutral runner’s right foot is cocked slightly to the outside which is typical of overpronators, but the two do not always occur together. My left foot is slightly cocked to the outside, and it is my better foot in terms of pronation.
The actual movement of overpronation and underpronation are pretty standard from person to person, but their causes can vary. For example, one person may underpronate due to an inherent rigidness or tightness of the feet, and another person may underpronate because they have tight or weak hip muscles. Generally, overpronation is associated with low to flat arches and underpronation with high arches, but these differences in the causes of over/underpronation account for why this is only a general trend and not a fixed rule. There are undoubtedly flat-footed runners with perfect gaits, and runners with high arches that overpronate, etcetera.
Running shoes are made to help correct gait issues, and fall into the four following categories: Motion Control, Stability, Cushioning/Neutral, and Minimalist. I’ve included pictures of each, and I’m showing only Brooks shoes for consistency reasons. On the whole, most running shoe companies (like Mizuno, Asics, Nike, Adidas, New Balance, etc.) make all four types; additionally, a few brands have come out that specialize in minimalist shoes (like Vibram and Newton).
Motion Control: These shoes are made for extreme overpronators. The have a very beefed-up medial section, which aims to minimize the angle of pronation.
Stability: This type of shoe aims to correct moderate overpronation. The medial edge of the shoe has some support, but not as much as a motion control shoe. As a result, these are also lighter. Some neutral runners will buy a pair of stability shoes for long runs if they know they start to pronate more on long runs.
Cushioning/Neutral: These are the traditional shoes for people with a neutral gait or for those that underpronate. For people with these two gait types, no inhibition of pronation is needed, so the medial support is minimal. As you would expect, these are lighter in weight than both the motion control and the stability shoes.
Minimalist: Lastly, we have minimalist shoes that are geared toward strictly mid-foot strikers, who tend to run neutrally or who underpronate. The photo below is still the view of the medial side of the shoe (despite facing the other way), and you can see that there is basically nothing there that would inhibit overpronation to any degree. What’s even more notable, however, is the pronounced lack of heel cushioning. This is the biggest difference between a traditional neutral/cushioning shoe and a minimalist shoe. Mid-foot strikers do not need much cushioning from their shoes because the flexion of their ankle upon landing absorbs the shock.
Here’s the thing about running shoes though: within each genre of shoe, there is a wide range of ‘feel’ features. Running shoes are rated by weight, flexibility, heel cushioning, forefoot cushioning, and responsiveness. Within any single genre of shoe, these five characteristics can vary greatly from shoe to shoe. Certain brands, like Mizuno, are notorious for making lighter, more rigid shoes. Asics, on the other hand, are known for their cushion. A stability shoe made my Mizuno will feel very different from one made by Asics, even though they both will help with moderate pronation.
In terms of buying new running shoes, I have the following suggestions:
1) Have a sports medicine doctor, a physical therapist, a podiatrist, or, AS A MINIMUM, a shoe salesman evaluate your gait. This means running in shoes on the ground or on a treadmill, and/or walking around barefoot as he or she watches you. You need to know before buying shoes whether you overpronate, underpronate, or have a neutral gait. If you go to a shoe store and no one checks or has checked your gait, don’t buy shoes. Period.
2) Go to a shoe store that sells running shoes, specifically. Running shoes, walking shoes, tennis shoes, and general trainers are all different things, so if you are at all serious about running, you need to get shoes specific to your sport.
3) Spend LOTS of time trying on shoes. If you need stability shoes, try on every type of stability shoe they have and walk or run around in each of them. Also, try on a half or full size larger than regular shoes. I normally wear 8 – 8.5, but my running shoes are always 9’s.
4) Expect to pay $100-$140 on new running shoes. Like cars, running shoes are updated on a yearly basis, and buying the latest version will cost you. I recommend buying whatever feels best first, and once you find a brand/style/size that works, you can look for those same shoes on sale.
And with that, I bid you happy shopping and even happier running!