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The Shoe-Buying Conundrum

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These babies have been my best friends for a year and a half. Most of the wear is in the mid-foot.
These babies have been my best friends for a year and a half. Most of the wear is in the mid-foot.

Running is pretty simplistic from a 'necessary gear' standpoint -- the only really required gear is a pair of shoes (well, nine months out of the year, at least). A good pair of shoes quickly becomes a non-entity during a run, a natural extension of the foot that neither hinders nor accelerates the run. While choosing a pair of kicks would seem simple, there are a number of differing opinions on what shoes work for what type of person. Support shoes, racing shoes, cushioned shoes, minimalist shoes -- the options go on and on.

Adding to the equation are annual (or more frequent) shoe manufacturer product cycles, causing runners to often buy a specific model in bulk in fear of their favorite shoe becoming obsolete. Depending on who you believe, a pair of running shoes is good for somewhere between 300 and 2000 miles -- meaning a person training for two marathons in a year may need upwards of four pairs of shoes per year, depending on how quickly they wear down their shoes. These two points are relevant to my current situation: I've logged nearly 950 miles in my current shoes, a pair of Nike Zoom Vomero 4s that I bought in September 2010. As great as the shoes have been, it's nearing time to put them out to pasture -- and I'm probably not going to find a new-in-box pair that's not already breaking down.

So this brings me to the ever-nagging question: what shoes should I buy next?

In recent years there has been a shift towards minimalist running shoes -- a shift catalyzed largely by Christopher McDougall's novel Born To Run and the resulting discussions. As demand for such shoes has grown the market has shifted, supplying a wide variety of 'minimalist' shoes -- some more minimal than others, some just marketing themselves as such. Rather than do us all a disservice and inaccurately describe minimalism, I'll refer you to Pete Larson at Runblogger, whose opinion I trust based on our interactions over the past few years. If you're interested in learning more about minimalism I can't more highly recommend checking out Pete's incredibly-researched Guide to Minimalist Running Shoes and some of his related posts. From Pete:

[I] have come to be a firm believer that our current system of choosing shoes largely on the basis of pronation control and cushioning is flawed. I have also come to believe that the lifted heel found on most modern running shoes (see example photos below) promotes a pronounced heel strike, which the scientific literature suggests is not the way humans are meant to run.

In between marathons in 2009 I made some changes to my stride that resulted in a mid-foot strike, rather than my previously-employed heel strike. I have toyed around with minimalist shoes (I own a pair of Vibram Sprints and did most of my 2010 summer running in them and loved them for low mileage), but my perpetual calf soreness when running only in the Vibrams has me shelving them for more traditional trainers when marathon training. As much as I'm intrigued by the biomechanical theories around minimal running shoes, I worry that going to a zero-drop shoe is far too much for my calves to handle while ramping up my training -- which is exactly what I'm currently doing. That said, I'd like to shift a bit towards a shorter heel-toe drop as this should be compatible with my mid foot strike.

Luckily, Pete also has an excellent 2011 shoe guide (and Runners' World has a whole web section devoted to gear), and the trainers that have me most interested are the Saucony Kinvara 2 and the New Balance Minimus Traili MT10. While these shoes are certainly made for different surfaces, I feel like I could get by with either on roads and trails alike.

Certainly I shouldn't buy a pair of running shoes blind, but I'm wondering if anyone else is going through the same sort of process right now, and how they're approaching it -- after all, it's been so long since I bought a pair of shoes I don't even know if anything is the same anymore.