Do You Really Need Separate Road Racing Shoes?
In track and field, there are many different options for event-specific footwear—sprinting spikes, mid-distance and distance spikes, racing flats, and shoes for throwers, jumpers, and vaulters. Each has features tailored to the needs of the competitor and physical requirements for the event.
For instance, shoes for those who throw shot put or discus, have soles that facilitate the rotation required for the event. Sprinters’ shoes, which have spikes on the forefoot, accommodate a sprinter’s foot strike and help provide traction on the track surface. In contrast, high jump shoes have spikes on both the forefoot and the heel to help with traction, planting the foot and lift off.
Given all of the event-specific footwear available, should you really run a road race in your training shoes?
The differences between training and racing shoes
As you know, shoe types and trends ebb and flow. Prior to the minimalist shoe movement, many shoe companies offered a wide variety of shoes that were considered racing flats. As more and more companies offered minimalist shoes with less cushioning and so less weight, the need for lightweight racing shoes waned. Although they can still be found, they aren’t as prevalent as they used to be.
Racing flats are extremely lightweight—some weigh as little as three ounces—without a lot of cushioning or support. Their uppers are made of lighter materials and without all of the stabilizing components of a typical training shoe. What foam and cushioning there is tends to be made of materials that will provide a greater amount of rebound during each foot strike.
Some foam and cushioning are important though as the asphalt of road races is less forgiving than the relatively cushy surface of a track.
Among racing shoes, those geared toward shorter races like a 5K or 10K will be lighter than those made for half and full marathons.
Do lighter shoes really make that big of a difference on race day?
Research suggests that lighter racing shoes do make a difference up to a point.
In a 1984 study, Nike director of research E.C. Frederick found that for every 100 grams of weight per shoe, athletes experience a 1% increase in aerobic demand. But, the study also found that too little cushioning in a racing shoe can cause the athlete’s foot and leg muscles to absorb more of the shock of pounding on the pavement, thus canceling out any increase in running economy.
A more recent study, the findings of which were published in the April 2018 issue of Sports Medicine, concluded that a new type of shoe, specifically designed for marathon racing, decreased the energetic cost of running compared with two other types of already available marathon racing shoes.
The prototype shoe, which featured a very conforming and resilient midsole with a hard plate embedded between layers of foam, required 4.01% and 4.16% less energy cost than the other two shoes tested. All three shoes were of equal weight.
So you should run out and buy racing shoes, right?
Not so fast. Some minimalist training shoes may be just as light as a pair of racing flats, so you may not actually need a pair of shoes solely for racing, especially if you do only occasional road races and they are on the shorter side.
Those who race frequently and at longer distances might find it worthwhile to invest in a pair of racing shoes, if for no other reason than to give your training shoes some time off. If you train in shoes that are on the heavier side, a racing shoe can make you feel lighter and speedier on race day.
Some runners should steer clear of racing shoes altogether or limit their use to shorter races at least. Those who require a neutral shoe because of pronation or supination will find that racing shoes don’t offer the same stability that training shoes do. Racing in them for a 5K or a 10K might not cause any problems but wearing them for a half or full marathon might.
If you require a lot of cushioning in your training shoes, racing shoes aren’t for you. Racing shoes typically have much less cushioning than training shoes. If you are used to running in cushy shoes, racing shoes won’t offer the same shock absorption you are used to.
Bigger, heavier runners who typically require more cushioning and stabilization should eschew racing shoes and continue to race in training shoes. There are a number of lighter training shoes on the market that offer good cushioning and stabilization that could be used as racing shoes. Heavier runners may want to explore one of those options.
If you have muscle pain or soreness, avoid racing shoes at least until the pain and soreness resolve. Training shoes will provide more support and minimize additional muscle damage. If you are recovering from an injury or running through an injury, you will want to skip the racing shoes on race day. Training shoes are a better bet because of the additional cushioning and stability.
How to choose a racing shoe
As mentioned earlier, some minimalist—and even some maximalist—training shoes are light enough to race in. It may be enough to just get a second pair of lightweight training shoes, especially if you have any of the issues enumerated above.
If you have decided to add a pair of racing shoes to your closet, keep in mind the following.
Obviously, comfort and fit are the most important things to consider when choosing a racing shoe. Racing shoes should have a “barely there” feel to them like they are actually part of your foot. They should fit snugly but not too tightly. A snug fit will prevent your foot from sliding around in the shoe but a shoe that is too tight can cause blisters.
Weight is important but you will want to find a good balance between a lightweight shoe and an appropriate amount of cushioning. You want at least a little cushioning to absorb some of the shock of the pavement and even a little more cushioning if a half or full marathon is on your calendar.
The racing shoe should also feel responsive like it is returning the same amount of energy you are expending on each foot strike. To gauge responsiveness, you will need to shop in a store that has a treadmill so you can give the shoes a test run.
No matter which you choose—racing shoes or a pair of lightweight training shoes—make sure you go for a few runs in them before race day. Running in them beforehand will loosen them up a bit, give them the chance to mold to your foot a bit, and also give you the opportunity to make any lacing adjustments before race day.
- A Comparison of the Energetic Cost of Running in Marathon Racing Shoes, website ,
- The Race to Design the World’s Fastest Running Shoe, website ,
- Physiological and ergonomics factors in running shoe design, website ,
- Racing Shoes: Pros And Cons, website ,
- Do You Need Different Shoes For Training and For Racing?, website ,