Make these gear mistakes and your race time (and your toenails) may pay the price
Lace up your shoes and you’re ready to start running. But if you don’t pay attention to what’s between you and the pavement you’re pounding, your running program can face some serious—and unnecessary—challenges.
Here are 8 ways you can unintentionally screw with your running from the ground up, and how you can avoid those pitfalls.
1. YOU RUN IN THE SAME SNEAKERS YOU LIFT IN
You need to run in shoes actually made for running, not for CrossFit or any other sport, says Jeff Gaudette, owner of online coaching service RunnersConnect.
That’s because running shoes have the right balance of flexibility and support for an activity that essentially involves hopping from one foot to the other for long stretches of time.
You want some give so your foot can move with less effort, but enough cushioning to soften the impact, Gaudette says.
The right pair can help you run faster and injury-free; the wrong one can contribute to cramping, arch pain, Achilles problems, and other injuries.
Fix it: Forget the big-box department store—if you’re new to finding the perfect running shoe, head to a specialty store instead. There, you’ll find a selection of running-specific kicks and a staff trained to guide you through them, Gaudette says.
Plan to spend over R1000. Major brands sometimes offer lower-end options for closer to R700 at department or discount stores, but they’re made of cheaper materials that don’t absorb shock as well.
2. YOU BLINDLY BUY THE SAME SHOES YOUR BUDDY RAVES ABOUT
When it comes to running shoes, we’re all special snowflakes. So some sneakers that work great for others may not fit you the same way, says Budd Coates, M.S., director of training at Runner’s World and author of Running on Air.
For instance, Brooks, Saucony, New Balance, and other brands each use a different last, the underlying shape around which the shoe’s built, Gaudette says.
Some are wider in the heel and narrower in the toe box, or vice versa; others are roomier from top to bottom for people with thicker feet. Others may have less of a drop, or slope, from heel to forefront.
The brands then produces different models, each designed to correct different minor imperfections in your stride. Finding the right pair for you means honing in on the best combo for your foot shape and biomechanics—something it’s tough to do on your own, Gaudette says.
Fix it: Instead of grilling your hard-core running friends for shoe picks, ask where they buy theirs—and head there for consultation.
Running specialty stores train their staff to assess your feet and gait, then bring you a selection of appropriate trainers, Coates says.
Take at least a few options for a spin around the block or on the treadmill and choose the pair that feels most comfortable.
Another perk of heading to a running store? If a couple weeks pass and you find yourself in pain, you can take the shoes back. Chances are, this type of store will make an exchange, Coates says.
3. YOU BUY THEM IN THE SAME SIZE AS YOUR OXFORDS
Running shoes often start on the snug side size-wise. Then, there’s the fact that feet tend to swell in the evening or at the end of a long workout, says Atlanta-based running coach Carl Leivers.
As a result, most people buy running shoes too small to account for these issues, causing black toenails which might fall off, blisters, foot and toe cramps, and uncomfortable rubbing, Gaudette says.
Fix it: Try on a pair at least one size larger than your street shoes.
Stand up and ask a friend or the shoe salesman to press their thumb down between the longest toe and the front of your shoe. That’s the most accurate way, but if you’re by yourself, you can bend over and perform the test yourself.
You should have about a thumb-width of space there, Coates says. If not, go up another half a size and repeat.
4. YOU TIE THEM TOO LOOSE …
Ideally, your shoe should serve as an extension of your foot, offering extra support each time you hit the ground, Coates says.
But leaving too much slack in your laces allows your foot to slide around, reducing the efficiency of your stride and throwing off your alignment.
As a result, your plantar fascia—the tough tissue on the bottom of your foot—or your Achilles tendon can start to ache as your foot struggles to grip the sole, Gaudette says.
Over time, you might also feel pain that starts in your ankles and shins, and can eventually work its way up to your knees and hips. These are signs your sliding feet are preventing your joints from tracking properly, Coates says.
Fix it: Eyeball the top of your shoe. If more than two fingers’ width of the tongue peeks out between the laces, pull them tighter.
And always untie your shoes before taking them off. If you can slide your foot out without undoing the knot, they’re definitely too loose, Coates says.
5. …OR YOU TIE THEM TOO TIGHT.
The tendons from your lower leg collect in a sheath right at the top of your ankle, Coates says.
Secure your laces in a death grip around this spot, and you can develop extensor tendinitis, which causes pain and inflammation in the top of your foot and the front of your shins.
Fix it: Visual signs of too-tight laces include wrinkling in the sides of the shoes and not being able to see the tongue at all.
If you spot these, loosen up—if that makes your heel slip around, try a smaller pair, Coates says.
Your laces should feel comfortably snug but not constricting.
If the top of your foot aches while you’re running, stop and let out some lace, Leivers says.
6. YOU WEAR YOUR RUNNING SHOES FOREVER.
Over time, the materials in your shoes break down, sapping their cushioning and shock-absorption power.
Shoe manufacturers will tell you to buy a new pair every 400 to 500 miles. That’s a good guideline, but consider this a case in which your mileage may literally vary.
Everyone has a different “canary in the coal mine,” based on their body and biomechanics, which signals when it’s time to toss your sneaks, Leivers says.
Some runners develop foot and ankle pain when their shoes start to break down, while others feel it in their knees or low back.
Fix it: If your shoes have a few hundred miles on them and you didn’t change anything else about your program—say, you didn’t start doing hill
sprints for the first time—and something starts to hurt, it’s probably time to invest in a new pair, Leivers says.
It’s also time to replace them if the rubber’s worn off the soles enough to reveal the foam underneath, Gaudette says.
Holes in the top, on the other hand, are mostly aesthetic. Don’t worry about them unless they change the fit or the shoe feels uncomfortable, he says.
7. YOU TREAT THEM LIKE DIRTY LAUNDRY.
Whether you run on city streets or gnarly trails, your shoes aren’t going to stay pristine. But resist the urge to put them through the spin cycle.
Washing and drying your kicks kills the cushioning, reducing the lifespan of the shoe, Gaudette says. That means you’ll start feeling aches and pains a few miles sooner.
Fix it: If the outsides of your shoes get so muddy or dirty you can’t stand it, wipe them down with a wet paper towel.
Run through a rainstorm? Stuff the insides with newspaper and leave them to dry overnight—the paper soaks up the moisture and the shoes keep their shape, Gaudette says.
That trick also helps prevent odors, which usually arise due to dampness, he notes. Sneakers dry but still stink? Try a spray like Dr. Scholl’s Odor-X Foot & Sneaker Spray Powder.
8. YOU’RE LOYAL TO A FAULT.
Every year or two, shoe companies issue updates to each model.
In some cases, these changes represent an improvement—but even a minor tweak in materials or construction could mean they’re no longer right for you, Leivers says.
Fix it: Don’t blindly buy the newest version of your beloved trainer. When your model gets an update, take a trip back to the shoe store and try it on to make sure it still fits comfortably.
While you’re at it, try a few other options too. After all, other brands have been busy issuing updates too, so a pair that felt uncomfortable in the past just might be your ticket to a faster 5K this time around.