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Racing shoes and training shoes used to be a high-priced specialty item. They are no longer a specialty item, but they are, for the most part, still high-priced.

When it comes to choosing running shoes, it's fit first and price last

Ken Murdock, a financial analyst in Odessa, Texas, has run three marathons and four shorter races in the last three months. His favorite training shoes? A $23 pair of Champion racing shoes he bought at WalMart.

"I run better in simple shoes," Murdock said, "When you pay more for shoes, you usually get a lot features you just don't need."

Many other runners have the same experience. For most consumer purchases, the more you pay, the better quality you get. For running shoes, however, that's usually not the case.

A history of high prices in the running shoes industry 

The reason for the lack of a relationship between price and quality in running shoes may have to do with the history of the sport. Thirty-five years ago, in 1975, very few people ran marathons, just 25,000 in the USA. In 2009, in contrast, nearly 500,000 people participated in marathon races in the United States alone.

Shoe features that just don't work

 And the features shoe manufacturers add to justify their prices usually don't do runners any good. In 2007 a Scottish study tested arch support in racing shoes in three price categories ranging from $80 to $150. The Scottish researchers found that lower-priced shoes cushioned feet just as well as higher-priced shoes, and sometimes better.

Dr. Rami J. Abboud, director of the director of the Institute of Motion Analysis and Research at the TORT Centre of the University of Dundee in Scotland, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "The perception is that if you pay more, you will get better shoes. Our study did not show that." The New York Times also reports that Abboud and colleagues will publish a second study next year confirming their 2007 study's results.

Microprocessors, cushioning gel pods, and thrust enhancers don't actually protect runners' feet. In fact, they may even increase the risk of injury. Some researchers have found that when runners put on "protective" shoes, they fail to pay attention to good form, and incur more injuries. Runners tend to put too much faith in technologies that don't really work in their shoes.

Getting the right fit for your feet 

So how can runners make sure they get the right fit? It is very important to get the first pair of running shoes right, since athletes tend to buy the same kind of gear, with minor innovations, over and over.

For that first pair of running shoes, see a shoe salesman who has training in analyzing your gait and correcting problems with form. If you tend to point your toes outward, for example, you can save yourself future injuries just by buying a slightly more expensive brand of shoes with motion control. If you don't realize you point your toes outward, or you land on your heels or your toes, or you have an early case of plantar fasciitis, of course, you won't buy the right shoes. That's why a trained salesperson is essential to running well.
It's also important to buy shoes by fit, not by size. Since most shoes are mass-produced with minimal attention to quality, your shoe size may not only vary from brand to brand, but you may even learn that the same shoe size from the same company may be looser or tighter on your feet. Never buy running shoes without trying them on.

Of course, there is one way to avoid any problems from choosing the wrong shoes: Run barefoot. You will put less strain on your ankles, knees, and hips, and you will be at lower risk for stress injuries to the soles of your feet. Just be sure to introduce barefoot running into your training routine gradually, on safe surfaces.

  • Clinghan R, Arnold GP, Drew TS, Cochrane LA, Abboud RJ. Do you get value for money when you buy an expensive pair of running shoes? Br J Sports Med. 2008 Mar,42(3):189-93. Epub 2007 Oct 11
  • Kerr R, Arnold GP, Drew TS, Cochrane LA, Abboud RJ. Shoes influence lower limb muscle activity and may predispose the wearer to lateral ankle ligament injury. J Orthop Res. 2009 Mar,27(3):318-24