Analysing each step forward

Photograph: Getty Images

Photograph: Getty Images

Tue, Aug 7, 2007, 01:00

In our series on preparing for the Dublin marathon, Emmet Malone looks at running shoes and the vital role they play.

Okay, first a confession. Until a couple of weeks ago, I'd never paid full price for a pair of running shoes with my moderately extensive collection amassed entirely during the twice-yearly sale seasons which can throw up discounts of 50 per cent or more.

It's universally recommended that running shoes are replaced every 500 miles because after that they'll have lost a good deal of their capacity to cushion your landing and prevent injury but, to be honest, it's not a problem I've had much because those sales come around so often.

In fact, the last pair I bought before commencing my preparations for my marathon debut were a pair of rather generously proportioned Nikes the mere mention of which left serious runners incapable of suppressing their mirth. "But hey," I would point out, "they only cost a quarter of what they should have."

The Nikes, as it happens, would probably be perfectly fine if it wasn't for the fact that they are designed to counter over-pronation, basically an excessively inward roll of the foot during running which affects around 75 per cent of runners. Just a few months ago I had no idea what over-pronation was but I've since learned that if it isn't addressed it can cause all sorts of injury problems, primarily in the foot, knee or hip.

All of which would have made the shoes fine for me if it hadn't turned out that I am one of the 3 per cent of people who supinate (my feet roll outwards) a condition that can also lead to problems.

In my case it's very mild. Indeed, my stride is almost neutral (the remaining 20 odd per cent) but before I knew any of this I was bounding along (they were very bouncy) and noticed quite clearly that I was right over on the outer edges of each foot immediately before taking off. It wasn't all that long before this minor moment of self awareness was followed by the first pains in my legs.

Anyway, mine is apparently a common experience with many inexperienced runners buying shoes that either fail to address or over compensate for their particular running style. Because most people over-pronate most shoes are made for over-pronators but even then the chances are if you buy shoes without somebody involved in the process knowing what they're doing then you stand a very good chance of causing yourself some significant problems.

"Believe me, I learned about all this stuff myself the hard way," laughs Damian McKeever of Amphibian King, a specialist shop in Bray that caters to all aspects of the triathalon.

"I lived in New Zealand for a year and a half and while I was there I ran the Auckland marathon in the wrong shoes. It was only then that I started looking into the whole thing and realised the mistake that I'd made."

McKeever became interested in the area and, having concluded there were very few shops properly catering to runners back here in Ireland he set up his shop not long after returning.

Central to the way he sells shoes is something called "gait analysis", which in his case involves getting prospective buyers to run barefoot down a 20-metre track while being filmed. The recording is then used to help assess which is the best shoe to sell them.

"That narrows it down and then we repeat the process with different shoes and see which is the most comfortable," he says. "We then encourage people to go for a bit of a run outside before buying but even after that we make it clear to people that we'll take the shoes back if people find they're not happy after leaving because we find that having put in the time and effort with customers here, we very rarely actually get it wrong."

Watching videos of the more extreme instances of over-pronation is remarkable. It actually looks as though the runner's ankles must be breaking every time the foot hits the ground and the difference once an appropriately cushioned shoe is worn is almost as striking.

Many people, though, are advised to use orthotics to prevent or, more usually if they've gone to the trouble of seeking advice, address an injury problem. A number of readers have been in touch to say that the inserts have worked very well for them but Michael Jenkins, who owns another specialist store, Belfast's Up and Running , is highly sceptical.

"I wear orthotics myself but only in ordinary street shoes. When it comes to running there is almost always a shoe out there designed to counter a particular problem and sometimes serious problems can actually be caused by fitting an orthotic to a shoe that is already designed to address precisely the same condition."

Like McKeever, Jenkins seeks to stock a number of brands that are less commonly available here, his shop offers gait analysis and his staff are experienced runners.

"I opened the shop a couple of years ago because I was training for the great North Run in 2002 and almost all of the advice I was getting was abysmal. I talked to other people and the feedback that I got was that they were tired of being served by kids who really didn't know very much about what they were selling."

Things, he says, are good as is the reaction they've received to both shops. Others mentioned by readers include Arnotts (especially for their sales by devotees of Asics) and Mick Dowling's Sportsworld in Terenure while one reader, Mary Harney, mentions how a geezer from Nike periodically arrives at her club in Waterford with a treadmill and a van load of shoes.

There are, of course, other perfectly good places to buy shoes suitable for marathon training but which simply haven't been mentioned to us.

If, however, you know very little about the topic and somebody tries to sell you a pair then it is probably best to go somewhere else.