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Although running seems like one of the simpler sports in terms of logistics — lace up a pair of sneakers and go, right? — you’ll still find entire books, articles, and lectures about all its technicalities.
This is especially true when it comes to your main piece of equipment: your feet.
Heel strike, push off, stride, and arch are all foot-focused terms you might have heard about when trying on a pair of shoes at the store. But these all boil down to understanding the key element of pronation, aka the natural side-to-side movement of the foot.
Understanding this movement is important because it determines how well your feet are absorbing shock and how evenly you can push off the ground. If your foot rolls too far in or out, you could be wasting energy and, even worse, risking injury without the proper corrective footwear.
This can seem overwhelming to figure out. But don’t fret. If you’re just getting into the running scene but aren’t sure what your running style is — or which running shoes to buy — use this guide to help get you started.
Depending on things like your stride and arch, you could have one of three types of pronation:
- Normal or
neutral pronation. Neutral pronation
is when your foot rolls naturally inward, about 15 percent, allowing it to
absorb the shock, and keep your ankles and legs properly aligned. This makes
you less prone to common injuries of other pronation types.
- Underpronation (aka supination). Underpronation occurs when your foot rolls outward from the ankle and places pressure on
the outer toes. It typically effects someone with higher arches and can cause achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, ankle sprains, shin splints, iliotibial band syndrome, and other shock-related injuries.
- Overpronation. When your foot rolls more than the 15
percent inward or downward,
it’s called overpronation. People with this condition colloquially are considered to
have “flat feet.” This can cause iliotibial band syndrome, which hurts the outside of the knee.
Since this foot movement can be quite subtle for many (who knows what 15 percent rolling feels like?), you’ll likely need outside help to determine which pronation category you fall in to.
“Get yourself to your local running specialty store, where the employees [can] analyze your form as you run [or walk] on a treadmill,” says Alison Feller, marathon runner and owner of Ali on the Run.
If, however, you don’t have access to a running store, sometimes a professional — such as a podiatrist — can just watch you walk.
In either scenario, someone is checking the sequence of how your foot is landing from one step to the next, known as your gait. Your footprint, arch, and how your weight sits on your feet when you walk are all examined.
Sometimes store employees will capture your gait analysis on video. “The slow-motion playback will allow you both to see whether your ankles and feet are rolling in, staying in a neutral position, or rolling outward,” explains Feller.
Likewise, some experts will choose to use the Foot Posture Index (a tool that measures standing foot posture) because it takes in more information than footprint shape and ankle motion to determine pronation.
You might even be able to tell your pronation at home. Look at your footprint. If your foot appears flat, you’re more likely to overpronate. If you can see a higher arch, then you may be underpronating.
You can also look and see how your shoes tilt. If they tilt inward then that’s overpronating, outward means under.
Now that you’ve figured out which pronation category you fall in to, what should you do about it?
Find the right running shoes.
“Wearing the right running shoes is so important for preventing injury,” says Feller. “If you’re in shoes that don’t offer enough stability, aren’t the right size, or just aren’t comfortable, you’ll end up altering your running form and, very likely, getting injured. And no runner wants to be injured!”
That said, each pair of shoes are created with different amounts and placements of support and cushion to correct the rolling movement either inward or outward.
Underpronators, for example, need a cushioned running shoe with lots of flexible midsole, outside, and heel support to balance the foot rolling outward. Whereas overpronators should look for a shoe with maximum stability, firm midsole, and more structured cushioning under the heel.
Even if you have normal pronation and could likely use a range of running shoes comfortably, it’s best to stick with a neutral one. This means that the cushioning is positioned to allow for that natural foot motion and won’t push it to one side or the other as with the other types of corrective footwear options.
If you’ve complained about plantar fasciitis, achilles tendonitis, IT band problems, or other ailments, it could simply be a result of not wearing the right shoe.
You might not feel the aches and pains the first few times you head out for a jog, but over time you could develop a number of minor to more serious injuries if you don’t wear the correct running shoe for your pronation situation.
Luckily, it’s an easy fix.
Since pronation is such a common problem for people, many shoe companies have designed and marketed shoes to correct the imbalance.
“The right running shoe should feel totally unobtrusive,” says Feller. “If it feels a little big, a little small, a little wide, a little tight, a little anything, keep trying stuff on [because] you haven’t found the right [pair].”
Feller adds that it’s important to remember that you might have to try on a number of brands and styles before you find the right one for you. “Don’t believe anything you read that says a certain model is ‘the best shoe for runners.’ Every single runner is different, and there is literally no one-size-fits-all solution here,” she adds.
To point you in the right direction to finding the right shoe for your pronation type, here are some to consider:
Top 3 running shoes for overpronation
Asics GEL-Kayano 24 Lite-Show
This shoe by Asics focuses on the two main areas where overpronators need support: the heel and midsole. While there’s extra cushioning in those key spots, the rest of the shoe is designed to be flexible and lightweight. So, you have that stability without feeling bogged down. You can find it here.
Nike LunarGlide 9
Not all pronators are created equal, which is why Nike uses dynamic support in the midfoot and heel. What that means is that as the foot pronates more, the shoe delivers more stability with their angled Lunarlon cushioning. You can find it here.
Mizuno Wave Inspire 14
While you’ll get extra midsole support similar to that found in the other shoes, this one by Mizuno has an additional piece of plastic known as the “wave” that ensures you have a smooth transition from heel to toe. This is especially good for heel strikers. You can find it here.
Top 3 running shoes for underpronation
Saucony Triumph ISO 4
The full-length cushioning and continuous tread on these shoes by Saucony makes for a smooth ride for those who tend to strike on the outside of their feet. There’s even built-in guide wires on the upper portion of the shoe to keep your foot from sliding around. You can find it here.
Adidas Ultraboost ST Shoes
This shoe by Adidas is all about cushion, cushion, and more cushion. Why? If you’re a severe underpronator who constantly lands on the outside of their foot, you won’t have much shock absorption. But you will with these. You can find it here.
New Balance Fresh Foam 1080v8
While you’ll have lots of cushioning with this New Balance shoe, you’ll also have the added bonus support on the upper part (the part of the shoe that covers the foot) to keep your foot in place while you run on what feels like mini clouds. And if you still feel like you need more support, the shoe also comes with an additional insert to add an extra layer. You can find it here.
Top 3 running shoes for neutral
Salomon S/Lab Sense
Made for runners looking to tackle terrain beyond the pavement, this shoe by Salomon fits like a glove and is created to feel like your “second skin.” You do get a hard ground outsole to take on rocks, roots, and rugged ground, but the rest of the construction is lightweight and minimalistic. You can find it here.
Brooks Ghost Running
As a neutral pronator, you really have your choice of running shoes. If you prefer the cushioning of an underpronator shoe, but don’t need the upper support, this pair by Brooks is the perfect combo. The integrated system of shock absorbers makes for a smooth heel-to-toe transition while the mesh upper allows for flexibility. You can find it here.
Adidas UltraBoost Parley
You might not even feel like you’re wearing shoes with these Adidas sneaks. The molded heel and the full mesh upper make for a sock-like construction which allows your achilles to follow its natural movement. You can find it here.
Jordi Lippe-McGraw is a travel writer and certified holistic health coach, who spent nearly 10 years as an entertainment reporter. While it was fun for a while, she was tired of writing about other people’s lives rather than living her own. So she quit her job, started traveling, and graduated from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition. Jordi has since written for Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, and the New York Times (to name a few), and has appeared on TODAY, MSNBC, and E!. She also created the website Well Traveler to share stories from around the world, inspiring people to build happy and healthy lives of their own.