Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The Shoe Thing

Well my recent knee mishap down in Devon looks like it's going to keep me out of action for a bit longer than I'd planned; no use fretting about it, I'll just do what I can do, be patient, and if I have to miss an event or two that's life. We're so fortunate to be able to do what we do that the odd setback isn't too important in the overall scheme of things. I'll be back sometime. But the natural consequence of not getting out so much is to spend more time finding out what other people are doing and in particular reading the contributions to the Facebook groups a bit more than I usually do.

A topic that seems to come back time and again is shoes.  Give me some advice about shoes. And then of course the enquirer gets as many different opinions as people who choose to answer and so, I guess, learns nothing. I've mused about shoes a a bit a couple of times before in these pages but never altogether comprehensively, so this time I'll try to cover the subject as well as I can.

A couple of things before we start (well, four actually).

First the usual health warning. I'm not a coach, nor an equipment manufacturer or seller, nor even a particularly competent runner. I just get interested in the things that make up our sport. What you get here is just my opinions, based on what I've experienced and what I see around me. I would be surprised if you agreed with everything I said, less surprised if you agreed with nothing. All comments are always welcome.

Second, in case this spreads wider than the usual group of friends who know me and my wanderings, you might ask who is this guy and what gives him the right to launch out into a topic than he can clearly have only an amateur competence in. Well nothing really. I'm just a runner like, I assume, most people reading this. I started running ultras about ten years ago when I was 58 and since then I've done around 70 of them, ranging from the 35 mile nice morning out ones to some of the 200 mile adventures like the Northern Traverse and the Tor des Geants.  I've sometimes worked hard for my better times (it's all relative of course!), sneaking under 10 hours for both the Lakeland 50 and the Highland Fling and with a just about respectable 22 hours odd for the West Highland Way, but more often I've gone out simply to complete the course and enjoy the trip. For many of us I think that's enough. But I think I've learned a bit along the way and as an engineer by profession I like to reason out what's happening and put it into context so I can improve both my performance and the experience  -  at my age you tend to accept any edge you can get.

Third, those who have followed my technical ramblings before will know that they don't end up with any advice. What I'm trying to do is to tease out down and understand all the factors that govern choice. I'm convinced that the best way for all of us is to understand what's going on and how it affects us, then to make our own choices based on what we want to get out of the game, rather than following specific advice which may have worked well for the adviser but may not for us. But if you pick up just one thing here that helps you make a better shoe choice it will have been worthwhile the few minutes you spent reading it.

And finally, this won't be a short trip, so if you're going to stay the course then pour the G&T or whatever and settle down for the journey.

The Off-road Shoe Marketplace

The diversity we see in the market now is a fairly recent thing. When I started 10 years ago the choice was fairly limited. Fell running had been an established sport for many years but it takes a hardy soul to wear a fell shoe for 24 hours solid.  One or two "trail shoes" were starting to appear but they had their limitations. I completed my first West Highland Way and Lakeland 100 races in road shoes, they seemed the best bet for me at the time.  But there weren't so many people at the races then either. I entered my first UTMB about three weeks after entries opened and there were still plenty of places left. Waiting lists and ballots were generally unheard of. The marketplace explosion in shoes was created by the explosion in race participation  -  manufacturers follow the money  - so now we have hundreds of options to choose from, all offering something slightly different, something slightly better or worse; and that's why we 're here  -  how to make the choice?

The best place to start is to ask yourself one or two (!) questions about what you want your shoes to do; what is your personal specification?

What do I want from my shoes ?

What shape are my feet ?
How old am I ?
How heavy am I?
What is my running style ?
What surface(s) do I want to run on ?
What surfaces am I confident/ nervous on ?
How far do I want to run ?
How fast do I want to run ?
Am I happy to have different shoes for different events ?
How much am I prepared to pay (say, each year) for shoes ?

There will be more questions and we don't have to answer any of them just yet; the point is, if you and another runner answer any of these differently, then probably the same shoes won't suit you both.

But keeping these questions in mind, let's go on to look at some of the properties that shoes have, and how they affect us.

Shape and Fit

Whatever else a shoe may be able to do, if it doesn't fit your foot shape it's likely to be bad news. All blisters come from relative movement between shoe and foot; there is no other cause. Some shoes are wider than others, some are higher or lower in the toebox, some allow more or less tightening via the lacing system over the instep. So however strong the recommendation of a particular brand or model from other users, if they don't get at least somewhere near fitting your feet properly then forget them. For most general situations I prefer a snug fit around the heel and instep but with maybe a centimeter clear at the toe and a few millimeters along either side of the forefoot. This allows a bit of toe wiggle room and space for feet to swell a bit over a longer distance, prevents overheating and stops my toes banging into the front of the shoe on descents. The only time I will change my choice is if the run involves significant amounts of seriously technical ground. In terrain like the Glyders and Snowdon Hoseshoe in Wales, or the Scafell and Pillar sections of the BGR, your foot is as likely to be landing on a sideways-sloping surface as on the level and under these conditions any play in the forefoot causes side movement inside the shoe, with a risk of both blisters and ankle turning, so on this type of ground I like to have a snug fit throughout.

So if the run involves both technical and easier ground we are already into a compromise, and that will be a feature of this post. You have to make a judgement on the individual event. I may decide that there is sufficient technical ground to need the better control so I'll put up with a bit of discomfort on the easy ground. For me, an event like the Lakes 10 Peaks would come into this category. Conversely, in a race like the Lakeland 100 which has miles and miles of fairly comfortable trail interspersed with short sections of technical ground I would go for a more comfortable fit and take things a bit more carefully when the ground dictated. Another runner might make a completely different judgement, but hopefully would do so in full knowledge of the possible consequences.

But however you choose to compromise, it is likely that for every runner there are many shoe designs on the market that he or she should never wear.

One last thing about fit. On your feet you have a system of shoes, socks and maybe tape, lubrication and so on. Everything you change affects fit. Shoes that fit perfectly when they're dry may be a problem when wet.  Different socks can put you up a whole shoe size. Feet swell over the course of a long race. You have to plan what you're going to do.


Why do you need cushioning? Well, maybe you don't. But every time your foot lands it experiences a force several times your weight as it hits the floor, and that force has to be absorbed somewhere. The heavier you are, the bigger the force. If you land with a slightly bent knee you can absorb a lot into your muscles as your leg bends ready for the next take-off, but most of us aren't perfect and some of it gets absorbed elsewhere, such as in the soft tissue around and between your joints. Cartilege deteriorates and thins with age. I'm an inch shorter now than when I was at my tallest which is a result of spine compression. A similar thing is happening in knees and ankles, etc, so a 50 year old runner can absorb far less in his joints than a 30 year old, all other things equal. When the capacity you have to absorb the force is not enough, something starts to hurt. The damage you do is cumulative. The more times your foot lands, the more times that force has to be absorbed. Most of us could run a mile along a beach barefoot; 100 miles, maybe not.

So to start with, all other things being equal, older and heavier runners need more cushioning in their shoes than younger and lighter ones.

When I started ultras, you could basically buy road shoes with cushioning or trail shoes without. Some trail shoes had rock plates in the sole to spread the load from sharp stones and prevent bruising, but not cushioning as we know it now. I was good for 30 miles or so in trail shoes, after that the continual battering would get my feet and reduce me to a hobble. I had several bouts of plantar fasciitis which I could have done without. The only way I could complete longer races was in road shoes. Then came Hokas. It all became much more comfortable; the only problem was that you had these great unmanoeverable clown feet which meant that on technical ground you had to be very careful (and often very slow). After a year or two of ridicule and debate, the rest of the business had to admit that Hoka were on to something. Other manufacturers started to produce cushioned shoes, and Hoka offered models which progressively backed off from extreme cushioning to get back some control, so we now have a marketplace spectrum to provide as much cushioning as you want or need.

I was personally drawn to Hokas as soon as they came out. Their original designs, the Bondi and the Mafate were a poor fit on my foot  -  too broad in the forefoot and too low in the toebox - but I was prepared to live with this for the comfort they gave over long distances. Stony tracks 80 miles into a race, such as the Lairig Mhor on the West Highland Way or Longsleddale and Garburn on the Lakeland, became a pleasant cruise rather than a teeth-gritting slog. But Hokas got narrower with the Stinson then the Rapa Nui (and now the Speedgoat) and Skechers produced their GoRun Ultra, so I had more choice and have stuck with these still heavily cushioned shoes for all my long events to the present time.

But even if you find a perfectly fitting model, the inescapable compromise you have to make is cushioning versus control. Cushioning means that the height at which the sole of your foot sits relative to the ground goes up (cushioning means a thicker shoe base). On uneven ground there will be sideways forces transmitted from the ground at the base of the shoe sole which are counteracted by forces you put into your foot by your muscles. Because these are separated by the thickness of the sole it creates a twisting force on your foot, and the thicker the sole the greater this force becomes. The likelihood of turning an ankle on uneven ground increases dramatically as you increase sole thickness  -   so on uneven ground in cushioned shoes you have to run much more carefully!


Now here we're going to get a bit technical and you may not agree with my interpretations, but here they are anyway. We originally spent most of our time on all fours and our back legs took their share of the weight on the forefoot and toes. Then over a few thousand years we learned to stand on just two legs. Over the years our lives got easier to the point where the predominant form of motion for humans was walking rather than running. If you walk, even with bare feet, the natural gait is to land on your heels (try walking on your toes or forefoot, it doesn't feel right).  Walking is easier with a bit of a pad under the heel (less strain on calves and Achilles, etc) so nowadays almost every street shoe you see will have some degree of heel. When you stand in a shoe, the height that your forefoot is below your heel is known as the drop  - yes, I know everyone knows that already but I think it's worth refocussing on for a minute or two.

When many people rediscover running as an adult, they speed up their walking gait until both feet are in the air at the same time (definition of running) but still land on their heels. Road shoe manufacturers recognised this many years ago and were happy to produce shoes with heels that had plenty of cushioning in the heel to soften the in blow, and so maintained a high "drop" similar to our street shoes. I started road running about three years before drifting into trail ultras and was a typical case. My shoe of choice was the Asics Nimbus -  lots of cushion and a big drop (currently 10mm but used to be more).  Over my first few years on the trails I tried various off road shoes; I found all of them painful once I'd gone  beyond 30 miles or so but the ones that seemed to work best were Salomon Speedcross  -  rather unsurprisingly a shoe with a slightly cushioned heel and a significant drop.  I know many runners still swear by these for races as long as the Spine, but they either have a more efficient style than me or maybe a bit more soft tissue left in their joints.

There is another way to run, and that is to land on your mid to forefoot. It was promoted heavily by the barefoot running fraternity for a while following (or maybe just alongside) Chris McDougall's book "Born to Run". The extreme forms of this, running actually barefoot, in thin rubber skin-tight shoes or sandals, still have a following but never really hit the mainstream, but landing further forward than your heel certainly has. And if you run like this, you don't need a specifically cushioned heel; in fact, if you run like this too higher drop simply gets in the way, especially when descending.
A lot of modern trail shoes cater for this style, with much lower drops down to 2 or 3mm for some models.

Now I'm not saying here that there is a right way to run, both styles work for lots of runners. But you need to know which you are, and buy shoes accordingly, otherwise something's going to hurt.

Here's a personal experience. As I said, I was a heel-strike runner happy with shoes with a big drop and heel cushioning. Speedcross were good for shorter events, and Asics Nimbus were, with a bit of understanding, OK for the longer ones (I'd completed the Lakeland 100, the West Highland Way, the CCC and plenty of other longish outings in road shoes). But the long distance comfort afforded by Hokas was unbelievable, so I was prepared to make some compromises. One was that the fit wasn't the best for me, but another was that Hokas typically have a 4mm drop. To start with this caused a lot of Achilles discomfort as I stretched them an additional 6mm or so on every single step. But I gradually learned to adjust my posture and land a bit further forward so that I could take full advantage of what the Hokas had to offer. Over a period of maybe 3 or 4 years I gradually became a forefoot runner.

Then, after maybe 4 years of running exclusively in fully cushioned shoes (either Hokas, or more often Skechers, which also have a 4mm drop) I decided I needed something a bit more precise to deal more competently with shorter races on more technical ground. I dug an old pair of Speedcross out of the loft and tried them; they just didn't feel right, too much heel getting in the way. Since then I've played around with one or two other options. Not sure I've found the right one yet but I had an interesting experience with Scott Kinabalus. These are normally felt to be a cushioned shoe (but of course not in the Hoka or Skecher league) with a medium drop. Almost without thinking I committed to a 35 mile outing in them and got back feeling totally comfortable. So my conclusion has to be that landing further forward on your foot has to be a better energy absorber and kinder to your joints and feet than heel striking.


Of all the attributes a shoe has, grip is the one that is possibly closest to the trail or fell runner's heart  -  is it going to keep me upright?

First, to get the engineering understood, there are two mechanisms behind what we refer to as "grip".

If you are running over a smooth, hard surface then the grip you have is by friction. If you put your foot on a large rock which lies at 30 degrees off the horizontal, friction is all you have to stop it sliding off. Now the force you generate from friction depends on a number of things, some of which we'll come to later, but the important ones for now are (a) how much rubber you can get onto the ground, and (b) the coefficient of friction between your shoe and the ground. F1 teams knew all about this light years ago; it took the climbing world a while to cotton on, and now at last the runners are starting to catch up.

How much rubber you can get down depends on the tread pattern. For maximum grip you need no tread at all  - think of racing slick tyres or smooth-soled climbing shoes; but that comes with a penalty - as soon as it rains the F1 guys need some tread to squish the water out of the way   -   and they don't have to contend with wet grass. Simplifying the other property a bit, the coefficient of friction depends on how hard the rubber on the sole is. The softer the rubber, the more it sticks to the rock   -   but the faster it wears out.

So we're already into some compromises, and we haven't considered yet the other type of grip.

When you're contending with a muddy bank or steep wet grass, friction is no use to you, the sort of grip you need here is mechanical interference, that is you want pointy bits on the sole of your shoe to dig in to the surface and provide a "lock" against sliding sideways (or upwards or downwards). Again there are two properties that determine the effectiveness of the grip  - the profile of the pointy bits (are they like needles or thumbs?) and the hardness of the material. Narrower spikes and harder materials dig in easier, but of course as you expect by now there are downsides. Steel spikes may be great for snow or cross country courses but on anything else they won't do your balance or your feet any favours. Narrow rubber lugs dig well into mud, especially if the rubber is hard, but then you won't get a lot of friction from them when you hit the rocks. Another factor I think you need to look for if you're interested in getting the most out of a mechanical interference grip is how well the sole sheds the mud it has been gripping; running with clods of mud on your feet after the first hundred yards is no help to anyone. This again is a compromise between grip and the ability to self-clean. Steep-angled spikes will grip the surface better and give a surer footing, but you need a shallower angle to effectively shed the debris between strides.

On most off-road outings, some footfalls will be mostly secured by friction and some by interference, and some by a combination of both.

The only real conclusion you can draw from this is that if any shoe manufacturer claims that their particular model is the bees knees for grip on all surfaces, then they're being a bit economical with the truth.

Each of us has to make our own compromises guided by the questions I raised at the start -  who are you and what do you want to achieve. For what it's worth, here is my own reasoning (which will suit me and possibly no-one else).  For long runs I put a high premium on comfort, so effective cushioning is my priority. The shoes that come with this comfort may not have a great grip on any surface; I'm prepared to put up with that and go carefully. On shorter races if I know it's predominantly mud/grass, or on the other hand rock/stones, I will choose soles with the appropriate grip. If it's a mix, I always prefer to have security on rock, purely on the basis that falling over on mud or grass is messy but doesn't hurt, whereas getting it wrong on rock does.

A last point about grip. All runners are not equal. A perfomer with good balance, confidence in the surroundings and his ability to deal with them, such that he or she is able to put his feet in the right places and weight all his footfalls correctly, will find grip where less able runners will be struggling, even when wearing the same shoes. Another reason to think twice about recommendations  -  who is doing the recommending?

For interest, here are a range of shoe soles with differing approaches to and strengths/weaknesses on grip. I have experience with all of them except the Innov8's - I tried Innov8 in the past but they don't work as a package for my particular needs, although they are possibly the most popular brand among UK off-road runners.

Hoka Stinson Evo - tiny lugs, OK on hard dry ground,
difficult in mud, useless on steep wet grass

Hoka Speedgoat, a bit better on mud than Stinson, still bad on wet grass

Salomon Speedcross, classic all-rounder, lugs OK on mud and grass, also OK
on rock as rubber is quite soft, but lugs wear down quickly

Scott Kinabalu, quite similar to Speedcross but grip on rock not so good
because rubber is harder.

Skechers GoRun Ultra, great grip on rock due to large lugs and soft
rubber, OK but not as good on mud and grass. I would love to see this sole
on a closer fitting, less cushioned shoe.

Innov8 Roclite, rock grip from large lugs

Innov8 Mudclaw, small sharp lugs for interference grip in mud, lower
surface area compromises rock grip cf Rocklite

Upper toughness

(Millionaire runners don't need to read this section, they can just keep buying new shoes)

A few years back I'd got quite into Hoka Stinsons. They were a good fit for me, the comfort was amazing and the grip on rock wasn't too bad.  I could deal with the odd bit of "technical" ground in them, I had found them absolutely fine on the Lakeland 100. Then I made the mistake of taking them on a trip around the Welsh 3000's. Starting in a nearly new pair, the 30 mile trip ruined them, producing three long gashes in the uppers, just from the casual brushing against rocks and loose scree that this sort of outing gives any shoe. There was a fashion for soft fabric uppers a few years back; thankfully it seems to be receeding now but it's a point I wouldn't have considered before that experience. When considering a new (to me) shoe now I think about what terrain I might use them on and whether the uppers will be up to it. I expect to get at least 500 miles out of a pair of shoes so having the uppers fall apart is just frustrating.

Water Resistance

I'm not talking about waterproofing here, I'm talking about the ability of your shoes do look after your feet in the face of typical conditions in the mountain areas of the UK.  The only other areas I have experience of are the Alps and North America, where the mountains are bigger but paradoxically the conditions are normally kinder. It rains, it stops, it dries out.  Here in Britain we have events where you can guarantee wet ground even in the middle of a dry summer. With one or two exceptions, most of the shoes you see in the marketplace were designed with the North American or Alpine markets as their target - this is where the money is.

In the Lakeland 100 you will get wet feet about 10 miles after the start. In the Dragons Back, you may avoid a shin deep session on Day 1 but you won't on Day 2.  In the Lakes 3 x 3000 you descend the wettest valley in the Lakes well before half way. I could go on but if you're reading this you know these things, you've been there. The key thing is, on many events your shoes get thoroughly wet from total immersion and then they nearly always stay wet until the end of the race. Wet shoes increase in weight (weigh some of your own dry then soaked through!) and the constant wetness increases the chance of blisters and trenchfoot, two common ultra running problems.

But there are nearly always drier sections in between the immersions (not counting the Pennine Way.....) and if your shoes are able to shed the water they have picked up then at least their weight goes down again and you have some chance of getting dry feet again. The key here is to look for uppers made from non-absorbent materials and no more padding than you really need. I find that the padding around the tongue, top edge, and inside the heel tend to become waterlogged in a lot of shoes. The padding feels great when you try the shoe on in the shop but becomes next to useless after immersion. Again it's a personal compromise between padding for comfort and the ability to shed water, but I suspect many of us don't need the padding we're often sold, particularly if the shoe is basically a good fit. I've bever been afraid of cutting some out if I felt it wasn't helpful.

Lacing Systems

This may seem a bit of a trivial point but in my view it's not. So long as you have shoes with a reasonable fit, what is likely to make them wonderful or so-so is the hold on your foot around the arch and instep. Get this too loose and you risk turned ankles on uneven ground and black toenails on descents; get it too tight and you get instep discomfort and bruising before you've realised it's happening. But everyone's foot is slightly different and will need different tightness and ease in different areas.

I've never understood the Salomon quick lacing system. For a company that normally has such well thought out designs it appears to me no more that a gimmick. OK, you can put your shoes on faster, but if you're only going to do that once in a 100 mile race that doesn't seem to me to be a great selling point. You lose the ability to control the tightness separately at different places in the lace system. Your foot maybe happier with tight lacing down near the toe and looser higher up, or vice-versa. You can control this by putting in some intermediate knots as you lace up the shoe. Most shoes nowadays have an extra pair of eyelets to create a lace lock at the top of the lacing as shown in the picture below:

lace lock at top (before tying final knot)

But I personally find if I use this I just get bruising in this area, so I use a similar lock but lower down the laces:

It's clear that you can play around with this fine tuning much better the more eyelets you have. Most shoes seem to have five or six pairs plus the extra top one. Hokas, having started with the Salomon quick lace system, seem a bit measly in only giving you four. I quite like the Speedgoats but I can never get them laced to my satisfaction.

Cost and Purchase

Although it shouldn't, with the cost of a new pair of shoes ranging from around £30 to £140 or more, I'm sure cost plays it's part in most runners' choices. I think I'm fairly typical of a mid to back of pack operator in that I cover about 2000 miles a year. The general wisdom is that most cushioning is losing effectiveness after 500 miles or so, and I find the soles of my shoes have pretty well gone after that sort of mileage anyway, so that adds up to around four pairs a year. That's potentially significant money.

When trying a shoe that I haven't used before I always buy the first pair from a proper running or outdoor shop. At least there you can play around to see if the fit feels initially OK. I always take the socks and insoles that I expect to wear when using the shoes. You also need a place that has a bit of a ramp with various stones on so you can get some idea of what the friction feels like. But that's about all you can do. I find that you can't tell whether a model is going to be a long-term friend or not until you've run a few hundred miles in it including a couple of races.

For shoes that I know that I will buy again I just keep a regular (say once a month) eye on the internet; the deals are around, particularly if you are happy with last year's graphics. I find you have to buy when the best discounts are available (I sometimes buy two or three pairs if the offer is particularly good) rather than waiting until you need the shoes. My average shell out seems to be £50-60 a pair over recent years.

And finally....

So where has all this lot got us?

I'm sure I'm still going to see plenty of Facebook posts saying "I'm going to do the.... (insert race)...can anyone recommend shoes for it?" But I hope I've sown at least a few seeds of doubt that even for a specific event, unless the adviser is somewhere near the same age, ability, fitness, foot shape and running style as the inquirer, then success is by no means assured.

So by all means listen to the advice, but then be clear about what sort of runner you are, what exactly you want to achieve.........the make your own decision!

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