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If you run, you’re a runner.
It doesn’t matter what pace you run or how long you go, but it does matter where you buy your running shoes.
There are a lot of places to buy running shoes nowadays—at a big sporting goods shop, at a mall chain store, at an online retailer, at a discount website or at a running specialty store. The best way to buy your next pair of running shoes is to walk into your local running specialty shop and spend a half hour trying on shoes with a knowledgeable shoe-fitter who knows how different shoes fit, feel and ride and what models might be best for the size and shape of your feet and the idiosyncrasies of your running gait.
Not only will you be amazed at how the different shoes feel on your feet, but you’re bound to feel energized about your own running. It doesn’t matter if you’re a young, fast runner, someone who’s been jogging forever, a middle-aged back-of-the-packer or a complete newbie to this thing we all love to do almost every day.
That includes Gina Kutz, a Fitchburg, Wisconsin, resident, who decided to go all-in during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020 because she needed to exercise at a time when gyms were closed.
She admits she didn’t know anything about running shoes when she walked into a locally owned Fleet Feet store and was fitted for her first pair of running shoes by store owner Jessica Anderson. Kutz learned why some runners need more support and stability from their shoes, why it’s best to have a different pair of shoes to run trails or speedier workouts and that most shoes have a lifespan of 300 to 400 miles.
“At that point, I wasn’t a runner, so I needed all the help I could get,” Kutz recalls. “I was intimidated going into the store the first time, but Jessica made me feel welcome and calm. She not only helped me find my first real pair of running shoes, but helped me start my journey as a runner.”
Kutz has since run a marathon, two half marathons and more than a dozen 5ks. She’s been back to her local running shop to buy more shoes, sports bras, running apparel and accessories. The more she visited, the more she realized it was less about the gear and more about the vibe.
“It’s one of those places you walk into and you’re immediately inspired,” Kutz says. “It’s not about buying stuff, but you just feel good about being around active runners and people who are there to help you with whatever you need.”
America’s Best Running Stores
Last month, the 50 Best Running Stores in America were announced by a running industry organization that puts on The Running Event trade show in Austin, Texas, every fall. The winning stores will be honored at an industry celebration on December 1, when the 2022 Running Store of the Year will be announced.
“Our team evaluated hundreds of store submissions and had the pleasure of learning about the races, clubs, charitable efforts, employees, and overall culture that make each run specialty shop a true force for good,” said Christina Henderson, executive director of The Running Event. “The industry is comprised of extremely passionate and dedicated retailers, and our team knows there are many incredible stores not represented on the list. These winning stores have proven commitment to their customers, employees, community, and growth of the sport that brings us together: running.”
The roughly 900 running specialty shops around the U.S. have been the lifeblood of the sport for recreational running for more than 40 years, providing a sense of community and spreading their knowledge and passion to all levels of runners. Yes, many have had a runner-geek quirkiness to them, but the expert shoe-fitters are there to help every runner find their next pair of running shoes.
You can buy bread, milk, vegetables and ground beef at a chain superstore and your local gas station, but you’re probably better off going to a bakery, a butcher shop or traditional grocery store for those items. If you’re looking for quality and service, you get what you pay for, and the expert shoe-fitting and customer service (not to mention the running smarts, inspiration and encouragement) you’ll get at a running specialty store far outweigh the benefits of buying shoes at a discount and getting them shipped free to your doorstep two days later.
“If you don’t have a good fit, you don’t have anything,” said Kris Hartner, owner of Naperville Running Company in suburban Chicago, which has won the Running Store of the Year honors twice. “It’s an individual process because every shoe brand and model will fit slightly differently. The best way to find out what works is to try on several models.”
In addition to knowledgeable and personal shoe-fitting service, most running stores offer some type of running gait analysis, a great range of models than most online sites, mall shops or big box stores, plus apparel and accessories and loads of inspiration, too.
Big Things Come in Small Stores
Small, independent running shops have always been the heart and soul of running. They’re all about community; not only do they support and encourage local runners, but they also assist local schools, races and training programs. Plus, most can point you to local medical professional who can properly diagnose any running-related aches and pains you might have quickly and effectively.
Those are all of the things that Josh and Kara Levinson focused on as they developed the collection of Charm City Run running specialty stores in Maryland and made it one of the running industry’s biggest success stories of the past two decades. They opened their first community-based shop in Timonium north of Baltimore in 2002 and saw it thrive based on good customer service and a friendly local vibe.
They replicated that experience and opened new shops around the state with great success, earning national recognition as the Running Store of the Year in 2016. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, they adapted with improved online sales that allowed them to impart their shoe-fitting expertise, local knowledge and top-level customer service, not to mention free home delivery.
As the pandemic waned, the noticeable increase in recreational running was apparent and the store thrived — a testament to the community connections the stores and its staff had worked so hard to build for years, but also because of how much effort they gave to their local community when adversity struck.
“There was a huge uptick in business,” Levinson said. “It was partly that we were offering more to our customers, but I think people really doubled down on local. Nobody wants to see a lot of local businesses go away, but it’s not easy to survive. Local stores aren’t just going to stay around. They need to be supported. I am proud of our employees and that we have persevered.”