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?