Understanding Endless Footwear Options
Neutral vs. Stability vs. Minimal vs. Barefoot......why are there so many kinds of running shoes?
Even though running is a very natural and simple sport, there are many options when it comes to footwear. Shoes are classified into different categories, depending on the level of support and cushioning that is needed. While most people believe that stability is essential in a shoe, it ultimately comes down to comfort. Each runner is completely different in their biomechanics, thus enforcing the need for a wide variety of shoes. Although it can be confusing, each shoe type actually serves a very specific purpose.
A stability shoe is pretty much like it sounds, stable. Stability shoes are designed for someone who normally pronates, or rolls their foot inward while walking or running. This kind of shoe is good for someone with a lower to medium arch, that is also flexible. These shoes are usually more on the stiff side, since they have what is called a stability post integrated into the midsole. A stability post is where the foam on the midsole is more dense and compact, giving more support for the arch and heel of the foot. A stability shoe often has a stiffer heel as well, to give support for rear pronation as well.
By comparison, a neutral shoe (or also called a cushion shoe), is usually more flexible. Neutral shoes are designed for people with higher, more rigid arches and do not have the same structured support as a stability shoe. These shoes are best for runners who either have a neutral gait, or supinate, rolling their feet outward while they run or walk. A neutral shoe is beneficial in absorbing more shock for runners whose rigid arches don't.
A relatively new shoe category, a minimalist shoe (also considered to be a racing flat), is lighter, more flexible shoe than either or neutral or stability shoe. This shoe does not have stability and has minimal cushioning. Because of it it's light weight, a minimalist shoe is often used for racing or shorter, faster runs. While it does have some cushioning, it is not as dense and therefore will compact down faster than a standard trainer. This means the impact of the road can be felt faster, making it not as comfortable for some runners. These shoes should be gradually introduced into a training program, since the body will be absorbing more of the shock than it's used to.
While people have been running barefoot since the dawn of time, only recently have they actually had shoes for it. A barefoot shoe is more like a foot glove, providing no support or cushioning, only protection from the ground. Some barefoot shoes have individual toes, while others have a closed toe box. Either way, runners will feel everything on the surface they are on. While these are obviously a natural fit for the foot, it can also change your running form. Since there is no heel cushioning, barefoot runners automatically will have to convert to a forefoot strike, since heel striking is extremely painful. Like minimalist shoes, barefoot shoes should be gradually and slowly introduced to a training program. Even though it is considered to be a natural shoe to wear, it is not for everyone. Barefoot shoes are not advised for those fighting an injury or who are a beginning runner. There is absolutely no shock absorption with these shoes, and should be used with caution.
While the different types of shoes can be confusing, it is important to find the right kind of shoe for you. A custom shoe fitting from a specialty running store can help determine your best fit. Since a shoe is only an article of clothing, it will not make you run faster or stronger or help an ongoing injury. All a shoe should be is comfortable and allow for you to run in your most natural, efficient form. Whether it be a stability or a barefoot shoe, comfort is ultimately the biggest factor when choosing a shoe. And if you are comfortable, you are more likely to run.
Emily Cebulski is a veteran marathoner, long distance runner and running specialty expert in San Diego, CA. Check out her blog at http://trailmama.wordpress.com/