Every sport, hobby, and pursuit has its gear, and every piece of gear has its desired brand, new-and-improved models, and latest technological advancements. For long distance runners, the gear is shoes and the options are confusingly numerous.
Brand names aside, there are shoes with lots of cushioning, shoes with minimal cushioning, shoes with springs, shoes with air pumps, and even shoes that look like socks on your feet.
So, what is the best running shoe to buy? Professor John Mercer has an answer.
Partnering science with passion
Mercer is a running man. Active in sports throughout his youth, Mercer ran his first 10K race during high school and has amassed a case full of medals, ribbons, and T-shirts from the multitude of marathons, triathlons, and ironman competitions he completed.
But running helped him cross more than finish lines. It also became a path for his research.
After completing his undergraduate degree, Mercer participated as a subject in a research project evaluating sports drinks. He pedaled a stationary bicycle and drank a variety of brands and flavors. The concept amazed him—someone was being paid to find out if sports drinks would help a bicycle rider pedal faster for longer distances.
He maintained contact with the study’s primary investigator and attended an exercise physiology lecture about VO2 max testing. By the end of the class, Mercer knew he wanted to become a researcher. And his topic: running.
The pendulum of shoe production
Mercer explained the shoe industry has a pendulum production cycle. What they recommend to runners is what they make available.
Back in the 60s and 70s, runners were wearing leather shoes without soles or shoes with minimal cushioning. These were minimalist years, when shoes provided so little support and protection that you were practically running barefoot.
During the 80s and 90s, shoes contained more material to create a sensation of running on soft surfaces. These were the cushion years.
During the early 2000s, minimalist shoes returned. And today, companies are making and promoting heavily cushioned running shoes.
Breaking down shoes
Mercer and his students have examined many styles of shoes during the past few decades. What they explore is how the shoe influences the physiological and biomechanical responses during running. For example, they research how the shoe contributes to or reduces a person’s running economy, or the amount of oxygen and calories needed to run a specific distance.
Weight of the shoe is one factor. Additional ounces or pounds may require the body to exert extra energy, thereby reducing running economy. However, people using the lightest shoes or opt for barefoot running may be trading less shoe weight for less management of impact during running.
Participants in Mercer’s studies wear different styles of similar shoe types (minimalist, neutral, or heavy cushion) and run on a treadmill for specific durations of time. The person’s running economy is tracked after each run, and surveys are taken to assess comfort, discomfort, and other observations. Mercer also has a machine that will simulate the impact of a run to evaluate how well the shoe’s construction will handle the stress.
What is the best running shoe to buy? The answer is not a one-size-fits-all. In addition to running economy, Mercer and his teams also consider the injuries runners incur. Looking at the many varieties of shoes, one type does not increase or reduce the risk of injury. In fact, the injury rate now compared to the past 20 and 30 years has remained constant.
So why do manufactures continue their pendulum production cycles? Mercer believes the cycle serves the wider range of people who have taken up running during the past few decades. Many more people are running now because of the plethora of available shoe types.
So, again, what is the best running shoe to buy? The answer is unique to each individual, and that takes some shopping. Based on his years of research, Mercer recommends the following tips:
- Avoid a purchase because of brand recognition—company size or popularity does not equate to the perfect shoe for you.
- Go to stores that allow you to run on a treadmill or outside to test the feel of the shoe—a shoe that fits nicely while standing or pacing may not feel the same during a run.
- If you have a history of running injuries, consider switching shoe brands/models, as well as size of shoe.
- When you need a new pair, test the same brand and model again because the manufacturer may make slight adjustments that reduce your comfort when running.
One other recommendation is to buy multiple pairs of the same shoe that fits best.
While the axiom, “If the shoe fits, wear it,” may be a common buying mantra, Mercer’s research and personal experience indicates that test runs are a better strategy when purchasing running shoes.