The Comfort of a Running Shoe
There are several crucial factors to consider when choosing the best running shoe for you. For most runners, durability, support, and comfort rank the highest. Durability and support are both shoe characteristics more easily quantified and qualified by warranties, trusted user reviews, and by features that are specific to, say, arch support. Comfort, on the other hand, is highly individual depending on the person, and for that reason, it’s definitely something worth trying out yourself before purchasing. Whether that means borrowing a friend’s pair of shoes to try out (if you’re lucky enough to have a friend with both the same size shoe and the type of shoe you’re thinking of purchasing), spending an afternoon trying on different shoes (and taking them for a little test run around the store), or taking the leap after your research and purchasing your shoes online (make sure there is a good return policy just in case)… the important thing is that YOU are the only one who can decide which running shoe is most comfortable for you.
Some runners prefer a minimalist approach to the buffer between their feet and the ground, either choosing a lightweight shoe with the least padding or going so far as to run with a “barefoot shoe” or even just barefoot. Most runners go the standard route, choosing an average amount of padding or support that they find works best for them. And many others swing to the other side of the spectrum, selecting a densely padded shoe and/or orthotic inserts. This last group is often catering to an old injury, to older joints and muscles that require minimal impact, or they simply enjoy the feel of a more comfortable shoe.
Keeping all of that in mind, it’s handy to know a few things about the structure of a shoe before you make your decision. Armed with the knowledge of the different components of footwear that will greatly affect comfort levels will only make your shopping experience that much easier.
The outsole, often referred to simply as the “sole” of a running shoe, is the outer part of your shoe that physically makes contact with the surface you are running on. In most running shoes, this material is made of rubber. Some brands have trademarked their own special type of rubbers, for example, a mix of rubbers formulated to offer durability and protection from the elements while still maximizing comfort by supplying extra cushioning in certain areas of the shoe. When shopping for comfort, you are looking for a thick but flexible, almost springy rubber outsole. If you’ve ever seen anyone holding a shoe in their hands and trying to bend it in half to see if it’s flexible, this is why.
The midsole of a running shoe is the layer in between the outsole (outer layer) and insole (inner layer), and its main role is to provide shock absorbance. Running shoes typically have a thicker midsole than other shoes because of the constant impact and rebound of running. Here the road to comfort diverges, depending on why you are looking for a comfortable shoe. If you simply want to feel like you’re running on clouds with maximum shock absorption, or if you have an injury that needs this type of minimal impact (like certain types of shin splints), then a softer midsole is right for you. The only downside to the lighter weight soft midsoles is that they wear out more quickly. On the other hand if you suffer from plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis or excess pronation, or prefer a heavier shoe, then your best bet is to opt for a harder midsole. Generally speaking, midsoles are often made of a material called ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA), and it helps to know that most gray-colored midsoles will be firmer and most white midsoles will be softer.
The insole of a running shoe is the part directly underneath the thin shoe liner your foot is resting on. This is where your comfort levels will not necessarily rise with more padding, even though that seems sensible. Soft, cushy insoles have their place, but it’s not always in a running shoe. Here, you will more often get the most comfort out of a firmer material that will provide the best stability and support that you need while running.
The upper of a running shoe is the rest of the shoe that is covering your foot, from the sole up. A few things to keep an eye out for here are thicker stitching (in this part of the shoe that can sometimes cause irritation), a fabric that will conform to your foot to provide the best stability and comfort, and any type of mesh that will give your foot the breathability you’ll need on a long sweaty run. A great option if available is seamless stitching.
A few other shoe technology features that can make a big difference in the comfortability of your running shoe are gel inserts (placed inside the structure of the shoe by the manufacturer), prescription orthotic or non-prescription sports inserts, flexibility, and arch support. And of course, don’t forget to choose the right sock!