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It is not uncommon for a pair of shoes to feel great in the shop or straight out of the box but then after a couple of runs they start rubbing or feel uncomfortable.
There is so much choice on offer with a vast variety of lengths, widths and styles to choose between that picking the right pair can sometimes feel like finding a needle in a hay stack. And while a gait analysis may go some way towards telling you how you run and the type of shoe that may suit you best, it won’t tell you how it should fit.
In fact three quarters of runners tested were wearing the wrong sized shoes which can lead to problems such as blackened or missing toenails, blisters, toe ligament damage and even stress fractures in the metatarsals.
So just how do you know if your running shoe fits well and if it will cope with the demands of the road or trail?
Start with the heel
It can help to start at the back of the shoe because this is the part we tend to notice first as we slip our foot into a new piece of footwear. The heel counter is the supportive material at the back of the shoe which is designed to stabilise the heel and fits around the Achilles tendon. These can be high or low, firm or soft and sometimes include an integrated sock.
Try walking in the shoe first and if possible test it out on a treadmill. Consider whether your heel is slipping or whether the counter presses into your heel too much. You need to find the right balance between the shoe feeling secure at the back but not so tight that it could cause blisters.
Fitness goes out the window when pain begins so you want to avoid skin rubbing at all costs. Fitness might get an ultrarunner through 100 miles but one blister can stop their race altogether.
Be aware that if you have a wider forefoot and a narrow heel, which is particularly common for women, it may be tricky to find a shoe that fits properly at the back. If this is the case then try wearing a thicker pair of socks and see if this alleviates the problem.
Take out the insole
This can be a real gamechanger for runners. Taking out the sockliner (another term for the insole) allows you to see, rather than simply feel, how a shoe fits.
It is perfectly reasonable to ask to do this in a shop, and is one of the reasons why it is advantageous to visit a specialist running shop instead of buying shoes online to save a few pounds. It will save you time and money in the long run if it leads to buying a pair of running shoes that fit.
Once you take the liner out place it on the floor and stand on it. If you can do this barefoot then that is preferable, but otherwise wear running socks.
Start by looking at the length of the liner in comparison to your foot. Check where your longest toes are (this might not necessarily be your big toe) and how far away from the end of the liner it is. There should be a finger-width distance between the end of the longest toe and the end of the liner.
It is important to have this room because as you run your feet flatten and lengthen, taking up more space in the shoe. Also the longer distance you run the more your feet swell causing your toes to become fatter. If there is not enough room at the end of the liner this means your toes could butt up against the end of the shoe, causing microtraumas. This will create changes in the nail increasing their thickness and leading to the common runner’s complaint of deformed, black or lost toenails.
Conversely if your shoes are too long your feet will slide back and forth too much, creating blisters and bruised toes as your foot repeatedly bangs into the front of the shoe.
Once you have assessed the length of your feet against the liner, check the width. Your toes should not overhand the side of the liner because if they do this will cause them to become squashed whilst running again leading to blisters, bruised toe nails and in grown nails.
Over time your feet may also become numb and repeat wearing could damage the metatarsals.
What you are aiming for is a liner which reflects the shape of your foot. Many modern running shoes taper towards the end so if you need more room in the width then look at brands like Altra and Scott that make squarer shaped shoes.
We all know that we need a larger size in running shoes, right? But you may need to go larger still. Never buy the same size running shoe as your normal shoe size because you will always need extra room. Not only will your feet elongate as you run but they will also swell the more activity you do.
Going half a size up may not be enough so consider trying a full size larger than your normal shoe size. Again this is where going to a running shop and trying on a range of sizes can be really useful.
Remember that just like clothes, sizes will vary between brands and even within the same brand between different models.
Re-lace your shoes
Shoes are laced by retailers to look attractive not for practical use. When trying on a new pair of running shoes take out the laces and re-lace them yourself. Adjust the tightness to suit you and use the extra hole at the top which has a heel lock mechanism to help secure your foot in the shoe.
Think about changing the type of laces if you have a personal preference. For example runners with high foot arches may find elasticated laces work best. Ultimately it is only through trial and error that you will learn what is the best types of laces for your feet.
Ditch brand loyalty
Many runners have a preferred brand and like to stick to what they know. But each shoe and model can fit completely differently so it is important to buy on comfort rather than brand loyalty.
Having a variety of shoes from different brands will also help prevent repetitive strain injuries because each shoe will activate muscles in a slightly different way.
You also need to consider the types of socks that you wear as these can be just as important as the shoe itself. Sweat wicking socks which dry quickly will help to reduce blistering particularly over long distances.
And remember to factor in running conditions and external considerations. Are you training in a hot environment where your feet are likely to swell more? Do you take medication that causes greater fluid retention in the limbs? And where are you on your menstrual cycle because this can also affect swelling.
And finally, take your time. Never feel pressured into making a quick decision or buying a pair of shoes because they look good. Getting the right fit will always be worth it.