Every which way but shoes

Under normal circumstances, I understand shoes. Left shoe goes on left foot, right goes on right. Wearing cowboy boots and spurs to a job interview will usually raise concerns, unless the job you’re going for is the job of cowboy or Jon Bon Jovi.

Shoes are easy.

Running shoes are hard.

For a runner, shoes are quite important*, although not quite as important as wearing shorts or trousers. I won’t be allowed back in that park again anytime soon. But with literally thousands to choose from, how do you know which are the right ones for you? In my case, with great difficulty and plenty of headaches. Trail or road shoes? Mens or Ladies? Oh if only it were that simple. As my mileage started to creep up I knew that the wrong shoes could easily lead to injury, and with my current ones approaching the end of their natural life** it was time to do some homework.

And that’s when it started to get silly. It turns out that running shoes have their own language and their own branch of science, and it just got more baffling the more I looked into it. Strange new phrases flew up at me from my computer screen and from my dog-eared copies of Runners World, Men’s Running and Amateur Battenburg Enthusiast (admittedly not as useful, that last one), each vying for the limited space in my brain and each more baffling than the last. Pronation, Suppination, Motion Control, Orthotics, laces. This was hard work – up until a week ago I thought that Overpronator was one of the decepticons. I was advised to do a something called a wet paper test to determine what sort of arches I had, but was disappointed that the results would either be “flat”, “medium” or “high” – why couldn’t it just say “nice”?

I then had to consider whether I was a forefoot, midfoot , heel or extreme striker? Honestly, for all I know I could be a bloody puffin. After several torturous minutes, I decided that the wise option was to throw myself at the mercy of the experts. It’s worth mentioning that when purchasing my first proper pair of running shoes around 10 months ago I had an even briefer stab at getting my head around this shoe minefield. I carefully considered my particular biomechanical make-up and unique (ahem) running style, and tried to work out which type of shoe I needed: stability, motion control or cushioned. In the end I went for option D: “white with green bits”, choosing a pair that looked supportive, inoffensive and within my price range. I got lucky that time, and they turned out to be the right shoes for me, carrying me through my first clumsy steps in the world of running without a twinge.

I pulled up outside and my heart leapt when I saw that not only was it a specialist running shop, but also a branch of Costa. Running and coffee – two of my favourite things in the world! It’s just a good job they didn’t also sell boobs and giant robots, otherwise there’s a very good chance I’d still be there now. I’d chosen this particular shop because I’d heard that they provided a gait analysis service. I walked through the front doors with visions of being wired up to all manner of diagnostic computer gadgetry, like a shorter and more amiable version of Ivan Drago during the training montage of Rocky IV. After hours of testing by a team of white-coat wearing clipboard-wielding boffins I’d be fitted with a pair of running shoes so perfectly attuned to me that anyone else trying to put them on would automatically be throttled by the shoelaces. I was wearing my faithful old nags because from what I’d read about gait analysis it was likely they’d want to have a look at my usual running style before they even thought about bringing out some potential new candidates from the stockroom. Sure enough, as I crossed the sales floor I spotted the array of treadmills and computer screens, eying them hungrily like an 11 year-old science geek who’s eaten his own bodyweight in sherbet and then found himself locked in NASA Mission Control after everyone else has gone home.

Five minutes passed, and it was all done. No treadmills, no sticky brain sensor things, no clipboards, no being connected to the Calibrate-o-Tron 7000 with crocodile clips. Just new shoes, very similar to my old ones. When I realised that my gait analysis was just going to consist of a couple of simple questions followed by me being asked to walk up and down for all of ten seconds, I have to admit to feeling a little bit cheated. I was practically pointing at the treadmills and computers while mouthing “but… buuuuuut… the MACHIIIIINES!”

As they put my new purchase through the till, I toyed with the idea of throwing myself to the floor and holding my breath until I got my own way, but quickly discarded the notion when I remembered that my ID was in my wallet, and they’d probably just phone my mum to come and get me. Minutes later as I sat brooding over my consolatory skinny latte, common sense kicked in (as it sometimes does at this time of year) and I began to see why they hadn’t found it necessary to hook me up to all manner of analytical thingamajigs.  I’d come in wearing running shoes that had clearly seen a good few miles (and waded ankle deep through the occasional cow field) and one of the only questions I’d been asked was “have you had any problems with these shoes”. Thinking of it like that, there really wasn’t any need to assess my gait in minute detail. Why tinker with something that clearly wasn’t broken? Well, to assuage the neediness of a stats-obsessed customer who feels the need to quantify everything perhaps, but that’s not a proper reason.

Of course, buying the shoes was the easy bit. I hadn’t realised how used to my old ones I’d become, and even though the new shoes were blindingly similar in appearance, that first tentative run in them felt like I had canoes strapped to my feet.

I didn’t.

Y’know… in case you were wondering.

…About the canoes, I mean.

Finally, I’d like to say that the fact that it’s considered vitally important to have the correct running shoes only heightened my shame at a recent parkrun, when I was very nearly lapped by someone wearing espadrilles.




*Unless you’re one of those crazy barefoot running types, but they tend to run so fast their feet probably don’t touch the floor much anyway

**This isn’t strictly true. It’s generally accepted within the running community that a pair of shoes will last around 500 miles or until torn apart by angry bears, whichever is soonest. In my case however, my shoes still had at least another hundred miles in them, but I’d just been given some money for my birthday (which a year ago would have been quickly blown on sweets and comics) and had to spend it on shiny running stuff before magical elves spirited it away.


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