Why Shoe Choices (Don’t) Matter

It’s no secret that running is a very simple activity. It’s often romantically stated that all you need to be a runner is a pair of shoes. Like most idealized romantic statements, there is a bit more to being a runner than just owning a pair of shoes, but there is some truth to the idea that shoes really are the only piece of gear needed to run. Many would, of course, argue that you don’t even need shoes to be a runner, and that running barefoot is actually better for you than wearing shoes, but for the sake of this conversation and due to the fact that the vast majority of runners do wear shoes, I will continue under the premise that shoes are generally ‘needed’ to be a runner.

When you compare this to virtually every other sport in the world, running really is unique in its simplicity. Nearly every other sport requires more gear than running, and it’s almost impossible to find a sport in which the gear is as insignificant a part of performance potential as it is in running. Require Kilian to use only products which were in existence 40 years ago and he would certainly still be one of the top runners in the world. It’s hard to think of any other sport in which this is the case. I’m sure there are a handful of examples, but for each of these there are dozens of sports in which you would have no chance of being anywhere near as competitive as you are today if you were forced to use only gear that was available in 1974.

I love running for this dynamic of simplicity. It’s somehow very liberating knowing that anyone could potentially walk into a thrift store and buy a $5 pair of 20-year-old, second-hand sneakers and walk out the door as a ‘runner.’ This could, of course, be said of most any sport. You could just as easily buy a $20 bike in the same thrift store and walk out the door a ‘cyclist.’ The difference, though, is that your 20-year-old, second-hand bike will keep you from being a faster rider than you otherwise could be if you had a newer, more advanced bike. This is not necessarily the case with running shoes. You may not definitively be able to find a pair of shoes in the high-end, specialty store down the street that you could run any faster in than you are able to in the thrift-store shoes.

This all points to the possibility that perhaps it doesn’t really matter what shoes we wear. However, with such little differentiation it becomes, in a way, more important to find the shoes that work best for us as individuals. Because there is no undeniably best shoe, best shoe technology, or best shoe theory, then it becomes much more a matter of what works best for us as individuals, instead of what is the most advanced shoe available. Certainly I am oversimplifying things a little bit to make a general point, but without as much difference or definitive proof of performance benefits between one shoe or another, it becomes harder and also more important to find the right shoe. There is, of course, the option to simply say that shoes really don’t matter enough to put all that much energy into, but most anyone I have ever known to adopt this approach has been able to do so because they have found a shoe that works really well for them.

I have been lucky in this regard, as the shoe I have been most happy with (Montrail Mountain Masochist) has been in production, without significant change, for longer than perhaps any other model in the industry. There are, however, some pretty distinct changes in store for the Mountain Masochist in 2015. This means that, for the first time in more than five years, I will need to find a new ‘favorite shoe.’

On one hand, I’m not overly concerned about this. As I discussed above, running has almost very little to do with the shoes. There are literally dozens of shoes which I could choose and which could likely allow me to be as healthy and capable of a runner as I am now. This said, though, in a subtle way, this lack of differentiation makes it much harder, and perhaps more crucial, to find a pair of shoes which works ‘perfect’ for me. In some ways, I’m looking forward to this process. Who knows, maybe I’ll even find something that I like more than the Mountain Masochist, but to some degree it all seems kind of silly to invest a bunch of time and energy into something which makes such a small difference. As runners, though, this is what we do. We invest a lot of time and energy into figuring out what shoes we prefer because, even though they don’t make a whole lot of difference as compared to gear required for other sports, shoes are the only external thing runners have to tweak. If it weren’t for shoes, we’d likely spend even more energy than we already do trying to figure out how to train more effectively, and likely get even more in the way of that goal than we already do.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What are your thoughts on the simplicity of running? Do you value this fact of our sport?
  • As Geoff points out, for a sport that is so simple, we do have innumerate shoe and gear choices. What are some of those tools that you appreciate most?
  • What is your relationship with shoes? Do you wear just one shoe, year after year, because it continues to work just as well? Or do you cycle through shoe models frequently?

There are 41 comments

  1. MattProv

    I have to agree with Geoff (as I wait expectantly for the delivery of new Patagonia Everlongs and Altra Long Trails later today…) After you find a pair that fit well the shoe doesn't matter as much. This past year I ran most of my trails and two road marathons in the Brooks Pure Grit 2. If they hadn't changed (or changed so much) this year, I probably would stick with them. That said, I have also found the beauty of running in three types of shoes – a fast road shoe, a 4mm'ish drop med build road/trail crossover and a more aggressive trail shoe. I live in the city, so 80% of the time you'll find me in that crossover. But in the end I appreciate some specificity and do like some gear to geek out over.

  2. @WilliamsRunning

    I think a big determining factor as to how much shoes matter is the conditioning of the runner. Take a fit, efficient, relatively healthy, seasoned runner, yea, the shoes might not matter all that much. However, take a new, possibly overweight, or injury prone runner and I think the shoe can play a huge role in their comfort and overall ability to be successful with their running,

  3. Crake70475

    I have to agree with Geoff. _I love about running the fact that you can put a pair of shoes on and just simply go out your door… no other equipment. Conceptually, you could even go running in your house crocks! that simplicity is amazing._My quest is very similar to finding the perfect shoe which works for me. _Years ago, I was running strictly in Asics Cumulus, but after the version #10, it no longer worked. I had to implement a change. I have now found Altra and Hokas which are working great for Road and Inov-8 for trails. I will occasionally try a new shoe to find out whether it works._Too much energy is being misdirected to the shoe consciously or not as we are being influenced by marketing and all the white noise created by all advocates whether on the barefoot, minimalist or fully cushioned, controlled wagon… It is also the easiest thing to control with an immediate result. God forbid, we would have to work consistently on form, right? It's like buying a specific golf driver, spending hundreds in the hope it will fix my hooked swing. _Let's keep things simple.

  4. andymxyz

    Do you REALLY think Kilian would be at the top if he was only using equipment in existence in 1974? What would he be wearing at Hardrock? Nike waffle trainers and a cotton shirt? And what would he have carried his water in?

    On the other hand, give Madison Bumgarner some 1970s cleats and a 1970 mitt, and I'm pretty sure he still would have terrorized the Royals.

        1. rdlandes

          Aunt Jemima bottles had the shape of Aunt Jemima, and though she is curvacious, she's not so ergonomically pleasing to carry for long distances (plus the glass versions are pretty heavy). I prefer the plastic, long-neck, Kroger Value Pancake Syrup bottles myself. Only about $1.00 (in 2008 when I picked mine up). It's gone thousands of miles with me.

    1. grroes

      I agree that baseball is one sport where the gear hasn't changed that much, but in reference to your question about Kilian: yes, i think he could run hardrock pretty near as fast as he did with a cotton shirt and 1974 Nike shoes.

  5. @PatrickKrott

    Geoff, are you still sponsored in some way/shape/form by Montrail? If so, I imagine you'll be sticking with a Montrail? Do you already know enough about the 2014 Masochist to know for sure that you won't stick with that model? I'm curious because I have a few friends that also love the current Masochist.

    1. grroes

      yes, still sponsored by montrail. no, i do not know enough about the 2015 Masochist. hopefully they will still be my favorite shoe, but my understanding is that the new model will be different enough that it will essentially be a new shoe.

  6. garygellin

    I agree to some extent with the basic premise of this article – shoe fit and comfort is more important than adopting new technology for the sake of personal improvements in speed and for injury prevention. But in Geoff's own words, he is oversimplifying. For example, one can find a "comfortable" shoe that has no rock plate and run countless miles on rocky terrain before developing a bone bruise. Another example is a report over at iancorless.org where Ian (I assume the author is Ian) describes being an early adopter and evangelist of a maximally cushioned shoe, only to realize knee and running form problems two years later. It's easy to say "do what works for you", but I think that people need a little more guidance – not just beginners, but experienced athletes as well. I don't buy in to marketing-based science at all, but shoe design features are not wholly unimportant.

    1. @BourryYang

      I agree. I have terrible biomechanics, but ran in a series of different neutral lightweight shoes for the past few years, because that was the cool thing to do. It played havoc with my achilles, and now I'm back in the big old clumpy supportive shoes that are at least a bit kinder to my body.

  7. @PosnerKenneth

    I agree with Gary Gellin, shoes matter a lot. It took me years to find my way from conventional cushioned shoes with orthotics to minimalist, and not to say that's the right route for everyone, but it has made a huge difference for me. Gary's observations about the possible risks associated with super-cushioned shoes on the one hand and light-weight trail shoes without rock plates both resonate with me. I suspect that in our sedentary culture, most people opt for conventional shoes because they are afraid of feeling the ground, and as a result not willing to make the investment in developing proper form. I wouldn't tell anyone what they should do, and I don't have any data to prove anything, but I'd encourage people to tune out the nonsense promoted by shoe manufacturers, retail stores, and orthotics experts, and instead experiment with minimalist and barefoot experiences to see what they can learn.

  8. Max

    Kilian might be able to win hardrock with the finest 1970 nike's, and with one wrist tied to an ankle. But I kinda need all the help I can get. And if someone made a shoe that can bite into scree so I have the confidence to run faster than I can walk on places I rather don't want to fall, I'll wear that shoe to death. With my (rather small) skills, there are places where I can run on a regular basis that would be closed to me if I traded my mountain shoes for say, road flats.

  9. Ben_Nephew

    I only agree in a very general sense that you can run in anything. Mostly, though, I disagree, and this is based on the fact that I appreciate relatively small differences in performance and run on terrain that is at the ends of the spectrum. For those that don't worry about a 1-5% difference in performance, or who run on moderate terrain at moderate speeds, shoe choice is not a critical factor, other than fit, which is always an important issue. For the context of fit, shoe choice is important no matter who you are.

    Many runners are probably unaware of the potential difference a shoe can make because they don't own enough shoes at one time to really notice this. I never really appreciated these differences until I started testing shoes for inov-8. Before joining the team, I was definitely careful about picking good racing shoes, but I'd didn't appreciate the impact of a good shoe until I had plenty to compare. I've always had standard trail routes where I do 50-60 minute tempo runs where I could compare the speed of different shoes. While there are a few models where I will run similar times in, with some models, I run 1-2 minutes faster than any other shoe. This is often on 2-3 different routes, as well as FKT attempts. With ultra races, there are so many variables at play that it is hard to attribute a change in performance to a shoe, and in regular runs at ultra race pace, the differences between shoes that is apparent during a tempo run or time trial are virtually nonexistent. The harder the effort and the more extreme the trail (including both flat road and extremely technical trail), the more shoes matter.

    It seems a bit ironic to have an opinion that shoes are all similar and don't have much of an impact today, given the recent drama over minimalists shoes and the invention of maximalist shoes. At what other time have there been such a broad range of styles to choose from? In the northeast, when minimalism was at its peak, I heard all sorts of stories of people with broken toes, bone bruises, plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, etc. There were a few studies reporting the same pattern, which seems to suggest that minimalist shoes matter. In terms of minimalists shoes in the northeast, that is a good example of how context is important, and the same could be said for maximalist shoes. I ran a very technical 50 mile in VT, the Peaks 50, when Hokas were starting to become more popular in the area, and the folks I saw in those shoes were having a very hard time with the mud and roots.

    I think the shoe issue is relevant to the discussion of how US runners have performed in Europe. It is common knowledge that the Euro courses tend to be more technical and steeper, yet many US runners have raced in very light shoes, especially compared to top Euro runners. The results have often been shoe structural failures and massive decreases in pace on descents towards the end of races due to lack of traction, foot pain, and/or trashed quads. Sure, not everything can be blamed on poor shoe choice, but some of it can. I am always amazed at the relative acceptance of pictures of feet that were covered by blisters and blackened toenails at the end or races. Those are signs of poor fitting shoes, not a necessary by-product of long races. It is possible that shoe choice has shortened or negatively impacted running careers.

    If shoes can get you hurt, either acutely during a race or chronically, that is clearly going to have an effect on performance. Even without any sort of injury, I've worn a few models that offered a clear advantage during training and races. The most dramatic examples have been due to improvements in traction and/or protection. For years I thought that any significant improvement in my technical downhill running would need to result from increased risk taking. At some speed, your traction is going to become much more likely to fail, and falls will become much more frequent. There have been at least two types of shoe models that made me realize that my legs were not strong enough to take full advantage of the grip of the shoes on downhills, my legs would give out before the shoes would. These models allowed me to both train and race more aggressively on downhills.

    While one could argue that the benefits are small and not matter to the average runner, I think most everyone likes to get faster, set a PR at a race, and be safer.

    1. Justin_M

      Thanks for this post Ben. I'm not a super fast runner, but I'm trying to get better, and even on my local, not-too-technical, but still dusty and slick downhill, I notice the difference depending on which shoe I wear. I'm hoping to do some more technical races in the future – would you (or anyone else) have recommendations on shoes with the best downhill traction? Thanks in advance.

      1. Ben_Nephew

        Hi Justin,
        I'm a bit biased, as I'm sponsored by inov-8, but they tend to be known for their traction in general. A suggestion would optimally be based on where exactly you run, but there are a few options that have great general traction. Any of the roclites have a great sole pattern with very sticky rubber. For regular running on loose substrate trails, it is hard to beat the mudclaws or X-talons, but the mudclaws are overkill for the vast majority of the US, it's a fell running shoe, and the roclites offer similar traction on loose terrain but are a much better all-around shoe. The ultrarace 290's have grippy rubber and a sole that is ideal for rocky and harder pack trails with occassional loose sections. For the best downhill traction, by far, go with the Oroc 340. The grip is insane, even on leaves, wet rock, wet leaves on rock, green slime of death, wet wood bridges, and ice. They have tungsten carbine dobs that bite through or into anything, and you can also tap dance in them.

      1. Ben_Nephew

        2012 was a long time ago! I can't say for sure, but most likely the midsole, and possibly a wider forefoot. In what way does it feel different? I've never done much running in the 195's myself, due to my choice of races.

        1. astroyam

          Exactly what you allude to: midsole feels mushier, and the snugness at the ball of foot is not there any more.
          With the older one, I could really open up on smooth downhills, and it was an awesome shoe. Now, it feels a bit insecure because of the wide foot, and jarring, because it's mushier. I guess the wide toe box is what a lot of people ask for, but now that it's here, I'm not so sure. I'm a bit surprised if they made the midsole lower durometer, but that's what it feels like. I think those 2 changes occurred across the F-lite and even x-talon board, though I'm not sure.

          BTW, I do add a green Spenco pad to the 195s, which has made it into my favorite shoe ever (the older one that is.)

          1. Ben_Nephew

            If you add a Spenco in there, you should just go with the original blue 230's that they still sell. You can see right on the website that the midsole is EVA; everything else is injected EVA (definitely lower durometer). They do make some 195's with the precision fit, which would be the same fit as the original 195's. Looks like those still have the injected EVA, so I'd go with the blue 230's. Many on the team have had success racing in those in all sorts of distances and terrain. I'm guessing the new one has less stone protection and is more unstable over rough terrain?

            1. astroyam

              Less protection, less stable, yes. Rocky terrain is certainly not the sweet spot for the 195, and never was. But smoother downs sure were, sigh…
              I can try the 230s, but in the past they've felt really tight in the tip of the toe box, pushing in the big toe. Maybe that breaks in. Also, at this point I've gotten really used to 3mm. Thanks for the suggestion, I'll give it a whirl.

            2. Ben_Nephew

              You are a tough one to satisfy with the forefoot fit, too wide, too narrow! I suggested the 230's because I often put two insoles in various models, which basically adds an arrow to midsole, so the 195 becomes a 230 in terms of cushioning. As you have noticed, small changes can make a big difference in a shoe. I noticed a difference in fit when they switched some models to a 3mm insole instead of a 6mm. I would either double up on the 3mm, or just switch it out with a 6mm. Of course, the change to the 3mm improved the fit for many by providing more forefoot space! For your 195's, do you include the insole with the Spenco? It's possible some of your forefoot insecurity issues could be due to a difference in insole thickness if you have the performance fit 195's for both pair which should have the same forefoot width.

            3. astroyam

              Yeah, I guess you're right… In the older models, I was using the standard 195 sole plus the spenco 3 mm. In the 2014 model, I did the same, and then even switched the Inov-8 insole for the 6 mm insole, which yes made things more stable, but i guess the injection EVA is just too soft in that thickness midsole. I've never been 100% clear why the heel-toe drop should be directly linked to midsole thickness overall, which is why I've always used the one arrow 3mm drops plus the spenco. The spenco guys really do have a good product, very flexible yet very springy, quite unlike eva or other foams. I have a pair of 230s here which I can try today and let you know :-)

            4. astroyam

              Ben, it looks like the 'MudClaw 265" might be a good fit for me, as it is listed as a precision fit, with one arrow, and EVA foam (not injected)?

            5. Ben_Nephew

              Depends on what you want to do with them. They are great in ankle deep mud, a foot of peat, mud obstacle races, and for running on pack snow, but with those lugs the ride on hardpack trail is quite different than the f-lites!

            6. astroyam

              OK, I just tried the 230s with the pad. So far so good. They do give the same secure stable feel. Thanks for the suggestions.

            7. Ben_Nephew

              No problem, happy to help. While more models makes it more likely that runners will get the right shoe for them, it does make choosing more complicated at times. Inov-8 has been consolidating to make things simpler, though!

  10. @GartenLuke

    Shoes don't make an elite or Olympian runner. But out on a dirt track you can easily measure the difference in your speed and effort by first running in road shoes, and then in track shoes with spikes. Shoes help, but nowhere near as critical as quality equipment helps every other sport out there, just like Geoff stated. Luke Garten.

  11. senelly

    Great piece Geoff. True stuff. I, too love the simplicity of running. If I could run naked, I would. That said, I have a couple of shoe stories to share:

    1) One year, coaching high school XC… at the state champs, one of a couple of my good charges… a definite winner potential, came up lame 2/3 through the race. One of his knees was really sore and no longer bore his weight at full stride. He had never been injured before and was "freaked out" by his inability to maintain the pace. Problem? Against my advice, he had chosen to wear new shoes. After his disappointing race, he switched to his old shoes and was cured.

    2) Ignoring my own "no new shoes" rule, I was 25 miles into Hardrock when I noticed beginning blisters on both heels. I was wearing a brand new pair of Hersey custom shoes, which I had been told would carry this sea-level runner home. At 75 miles, I had a blister the size of Nebraska on my right heel and my pace was, well, pitiful. At Telluride, I slashed it, drained it, duct-taped it, and put on a pair of old Montrails. Eureka! But the damage was done… and the 50 miles of extra energy I expended dealing with growing blisters on the unforgiving Hardrock terrain nearly did me in. I became the slowest finisher in the race's history for years to come (25 seconds under the allowable 48 hours).

    So, today, while I am no shoe horse – and do not believe that shoes make the runner… I have come to understand that it is worthwhile searching for what works and then sticking with it. To be fair to myself, I had had some success with brand new shoes. Some years ago, I ran WS100 with shoes right out of the box, purchased in Sacramento, on the way to the race start. All went well.

    Now, with just under 1,000 trail miles on a pair of NB MB 10's and lots of road / trail miles on a pair of the original Five Fingers Classics, I am a happy and uninjured runner. Moral: find what works and stick with it.

  12. astroyam

    I'm going to have to disagree on this one.

    For those with great mechanics and strength, ideally who grew up running barefoot, shoe choice may not be that important for injuries, but still is important for speed at the high end. Good form is embedded into the body for these folks, and doesn't get bumped out by a shoe.

    In my case, I can say without a doubt that shoe choice, within an hour or two, affects my injury status, specifically in terms of IT Band. If I wear cushioned higher drop shoes, it gets bad within an hour or 2. If I go back to my lower drop less cushioned shoes, it gets better. I've tried all sorts of different more cushioned shoes (Hoka, Saucony, Adidas, others) and have consistent outcomes regarding the IT band. I do think this boils down to form, but I simply can't get the proper form with the thicker shoes. I've tried. I've also tried PT, but the shoe is what fixed my IT. Plain and simple.

    I'm definitely not saying cushioned is bad. I know others have specifically had the opposite experience as me, and good for them to figure it out. IBut the correlation is definitely there!

    1. Ben_Nephew

      Unless the midsole is made of concrete, any cushioned shoe is going to induce more general movement and greater angles in your joints, likely involving more pronation than a minimalist shoe. This might be why they aggravate your IT band.

  13. PaulGarner100

    For those of you interested in what the new 2015 Montrail Mountain Macoshist looks like. The link below shows some of the new prouducts from the 2014 Outdoor Retail Summer Market event that are being released in 2015.

    If you scroll down you will see a picture of the new Montrail Mountain Macoshist shoe. Certainly less toe protection!
    http://gossamergear.com/wp/gear-love/outdoor-reta

  14. Aaron

    I think that’s true for nontechnical running. Otherwise my dexterity checks often fail if the my shoes are too long. That means a properly wide toe box with little taper or I have to pay for staying upright for blisters and bruised toenails. There’s also mud and wet rock to deal with, so I take a dim view of shoes that can’t handle either. It helps that a shoe that can will also do nicely for bicycle pedal grip on a wet day.

  15. Wej1971

    When I first started as a runner I was taken in by the sales person in the running store who did my gait analysis and then talked at length about what I needed or didn't need. Of course I was taken in by this, and bought a pair of £70 (probably around $100+) running shoes.

    Roll forward 4 years and I'm buying shoes of a particular type for particular circumstances (trail/fell/rock/road) but generally going for the cheapest within a number of brands, all of which I know will have a 'decent' fit and do what I need them to do. Long gone are the expensive shoes, and my best shoes over the last 3 years (which sadly died a few months ago) were a pair of £30 ($50) shoes that were in the sales.

    I think you *do* need to have the right shoes for the terrain, and for the shape of your foot, but above and beyond that if they're comfortable they're good. And over 50 miles+, your feet are going to hurt like hell regardless!

Post Your Thoughts