Why runners are so weird about running shoes

OMG! Why did they change my favorite shoes????

Eenie meenie miney moe. Catch a runner by the toe…

Runners love to talk endlessly about shoes. Blogs are full of recommendations, chat rooms are overflowing with arguments about brands, stack heights and whether you should be wearing shoes at all.

If I am lucky, it’s a ‘good year’ and I’m happy with my current shoes and I can find an identical replacement pair easily. In bad years, my favorite model is discontinued or radically altered, which means that I have to start all over again.

Fortunately, from years of trial and error, I know which types of shoes are best for me and what to not even bother with. Even so, sometimes the process of selecting replacement shoes makes me want to just go barefoot. And before the barefoot runners fill up the comments with their fairytale stories of barefoot nirvana, running in five inches of snow, on rugged trails when it’s zero degrees makes barefoot running suicidal.

If you are just starting out and you are have heard that some of your running problems could be caused by your shoes, it can send you down a frustrating rabbit hole of expensive shoe purchases.

All advice is useless

You have likely heard conflicting advice from legitimate and armchair running experts who proclaim that minimalist shoes will solve all your problems and make you an elite runner overnight. Or that shoes with a tall stack (lots and lots of padding) will cause rainbows to shoot from your toes.

It’s mostly useless information. Knowing what works for you is the unavoidably hard part requiring experimentation that can’t even be guided by shoe price or brand. This is what makes runners so crazy and hair-triggered about their running shoes and why, when you show up for a race day and look around you will immediately notice that no one shoe or shoe type clearly dominates.

You really should try these. Since they are perfect for MY feet, they will be great for you too.

For a topic where there is little agreement, it’s amazing how much time runners will spend discussing it with others. As you pretend to go through some half-hearted stretching routine and chat with a random neighbor at the starting line, they will often tell you why they like their shoes and why you should try them. It’s nice to connect with fellow runners, but the recommendation is pointless.

The best you can do is find a friendly local running store and try shoes out risk-free (e.g. they let you go for a run around the block without paying for them first). The alternative is to just keep buying potentially perfect shoes, realize that their imperfections aren’t going to make you into a sub-four hour marathoner, then hide them from your spouse in the back of the garage.

I got lucky with my pile of imperfection. Recently, I was able to pass down all my hardly-worn running shoes to my teenage son who loves to collect footwear and isn’t very picky about running shoe types. So, runners, if you are the ‘plan ahead’ kinda human, have children and they’ll eventually take care of the problem for you.

But why so weird?

Let’s wind back the clock to the 1970’s running boom. Overnight, jogging was giving The Pet Rock competition for the honor of most popular fad. Everybody ran: disco dancers, middle-aged mothers, alcoholic smokers. No one escaped the siren call of sweaty polyester. A running revolution was born.

In the late 70’s, no one escaped the siren call of sweaty polyester. A running revolution was born.

At that time there weren’t a lot of choices for running shoes. Previously, the market was limited to serious athletes who mostly wanted lightweight and simple designs. It didn’t take long for shoe companies to cash in once TV evening news reporters began interviewing beer bellied men in tracksuits.

Marketers being marketers, desperately needed to differentiate brands from the competition. There are only so many slightly forward-tilting stripes you can sew onto the side of a running shoe and only so many color combinations that don’t cause intestinal distress.

Fortunately, noobie joggers going too far, too fast suddenly had a lot of transient ailments to complain about and shoe companies were quick to blame “old fashioned” running shoes.

The Stack Wars began

If your knees hurt, you needed more padding under your heel. If your feet hurt, you needed more padding under your soles. Oh my! Your back hurts? You need even more padding and let’s get that heel way above your toes so that you are almost toppling forward. That should do it.

Eventually running shoes began to mimic the patent leather disco platform soles that glimmered next to them in the department store window displays. And that was that. Running shoes pretty much stayed the same. Material technology improved and some stupid ideas were tried out but as far as your feet were concerned the shoe was the same and runners contented themselves with arguing over brand loyalty and child labor exposés.

Runners still clung desperately to shoes that made their feet feel good and groused about yearly updates to their favorites. But the shoes were still almost the same year in and year out.

The book that turned obsession into madness

In 2009 a little book called Born To Run dared to call decades of running shoe technology and marketing into question. You may have heard of this book. It’s the one that started all of those skinny people in your neighborhood running around the block with no shoes on.

Now we really had something to argue about. Did zero-drop shoes (completely flat with no raised heel) cure all running ailments and make you a better human being? Was 4mm the holy grail? What about 6mm? What about oxymoronic ‘barefoot shoes’? What about shoes with soles so thick that you could slam dunk a basketball without even jumping? Toe shoes anyone?

Runners suddenly had more brands, styles, formats, stack heights and bizarre ideas to sample, curse at, fall in love with and argue over. Sounds like paradise, right?

The end result was that everyday runners–the ones you try to kill at crosswalks–who desperately want a good shoe to remain a good shoe forever and ever and ever, would search through heaven and earth for the exact shoe that didn’t squish their toes, rub their ankle bones, tweak their knees, cause ankle roll or make the tops of their feet to go numb. Once located, this perfect shoe must not change. This of course, would be an anathema to giant athletic shoe companies. No shoe must remain the same. Result = insanity.

As we runners horde multiples of our favorite shoes before they alter the model and ruin it, we must calculate how long we can store them before the material breaks down. At the same time, we desperately search for an alternative that will work for trails or for long road races and buy up all the old models off eBay and Amazon which causes our spouses to complain about credit card bills and having to park in the street because of the stacks of shoe boxes in the garage.

It all adds up to make us runners… just… a… little… bit… crazy.

And don’t even get me started on socks.

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