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Things Every Running Shop Employee Wishes You Knew

Yes, this shoe comes in other colors. No, that doesn’t mean you should buy it.

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For two years, I worked at the Twin Cities’ best run specialty store. For seven years after that, I worked for a running shoe brand. In that time, I learned there’s a sizeable knowledge gulf between folks in the industry and most consumers. Even many consumers who pay pretty close attention to racing, shoe reviews, and so on weren’t always up-to-speed on the latest tech, how a certain brand fits or whether they need a neutral/stability/minimal/trail/etc shoe.  

It’s our own fault. Brands create so many SKUs it can be hard to keep up with each development. Stores stack so many models next to each other on the wall that it can seem impossible to know where to start. 

I can ensure you we didn’t keep things convoluted on purpose. On the brand side, we wanted people to feel like they knew enough about our footwear to confidently buy shoes from our website. And in the shop, we knew customers appreciated feeling like they were empowered to pick the right pair – if they felt overwhelmed at our store, we knew, they probably wouldn’t come back.

That got me thinking – what else did I wish every runner out there knew about shoes? So I jotted down this list. It’s far from comprehensive. Maybe there’ll be a part 2. 

Full disclosure – my wife works on the product team for the aforementioned shoe brand. But I think that gives me a valuable window into how brands ideate and produce their products, and I’ll do my earnest best to be objective. Besides, I didn’t consult her on this. To counterbalance this, I’m going to go make some major purchases, also without consulting her! 

RELATED: Why Your Local Running Store Matters

One person I did consult, since he’s been in the shop game a lot longer and a lot more recently than me, is Jeff Metzdorff, co-owner of Mill City Running and Saint City Running. He will really hate that I called his cross-town rival the best shop in the Twin Cities, but them’s the breaks. (He said, still doing his best to remain objective.) Plus, Jeff won’t see this until it’s published. That’ll teach you to help me, Jeff!

Seriously – if you’re in the Twin Cities, stop into either TC Running or Mill City/Saint City. You can’t go wrong.

Without further adieu, here’s the list:

No one shoe (or brand) works for everyone – and vice-versa.

Your coworker might love Asics. Your run club friend might hate Nike. That doesn’t mean you should buy Asics or avoid Nike. You should try both on – and a bunch of others – and see what works for you. (FYI – sizing can be different from brand to brand, so don’t be alarmed if you’re a full size bigger or smaller than you thought, or even a full size different from brand to brand.)

Every set of feet is different, and shoe choice is highly individual. Anyone who tells you with broad strokes to avoid or buy any one brand across the board might mean well, but they’re probably wrong. (And if they’re right, it’s a coincidence.)

So how do you know if a shoe is for you?

The shoe that’s most comfortable is probably best.

It’s simple – if it’s comfortable when you put it on, there’s a really good chance it’ll serve you well. Shoes shouldn’t require a break-in period to feel good. (This is in addition to other considerations you should address before you’re trying them on, like whether the tread pattern will be sufficient for the surface on which you plan to run.)

RELATED: When Choosing Trail Shoes, Comfort Matters

Not to get all hippy-dippy, but your body is a pretty good judge of this sort of thing – and the (albeit very limited) science seems to agree. 

Speaking of…

Shoes probably don’t contribute to injuries as much as we think – so don’t feel too much pressure.

They can absolutely contribute, to be sure – but it’s also tempting (and lazy) to point the finger to shoes alone when injuries happen. They’re part of an ecosystem that includes individual mechanics, stressors, your training, and so on. 

Being in the wrong pair of shoes won’t help your odds of avoiding injury, but if you’re in the wrong pair, you won’t blow out your knee in the first few steps. You’ll get some warning signs before an injury, so make sure you heed them if they appear. 

Things like ramping up your mileage too quickly, or neglecting ancillary strength and mobility, probably play a bigger role in injuries than shoe choice alone. You’re not Indiana Jones trying to pick out the Holy Grail – so don’t stress too much. 

More expensive doesn’t necessarily equal better.

All it means is the shoe contains more physical material like midsole cushion, or more expensive material like carbon fiber, and therefore was more expensive to produce. That doesn’t mean the $200 shoe won’t work for you, but don’t rule out the $130 shoe on this basis alone.

What works for the pros won’t work for all of us.

I’ve already covered this on the brand front – just because your favorite athlete wears Hoka or On doesn’t mean you should – but this applies to shoe type, too. A lot of pros train and race in shoes that are lighter-weight and lower-profile than many of us should be using. They tend to be lighter, more efficient and in more dire need of shedding ounces. (It’s their job to go fast, after all.) If you try and wear road racing flats in a 100-mile trail race because your favorite pro did it, there’s a good chance you’ll regret it after mile 50. 

By the way – there are exceptions, but a lot of pros know very little about the shoes and brands they’re endorsing. So take those endorsements with a grain of salt. 

“Support” can mean a lot of different things – and more isn’t necessarily better.

“I need support.” I’ve heard it a thousand times – and I was only working the floor for two years! 

“Support” can mean more cushion. It can mean more medial stability, designed to mitigate overpronation. For a handful of people, it means the feeling that the arch is hugging the bottom of their foot when they step into the shoe. The list goes on. 

Cushion can be good if it’s more comfortable for you – but an ultra-cushioned shoe won’t necessarily prevent injury at a higher rate than its more moderately-cushioned peers. 

RELATED: Untangling Running’s Shoe Cushioning Paradox

Medial stability is something pronators might need, although there’s been a move away from overtly-prescriptive footwear in favor of “inherently stable” shoes that work for a broader variety of folks in the last decade or so. (A shop employee should be able to help you decide whether you want a stability shoe.) 

As for the arch – an insole that hugs the foot tightly might feel good at the outset, but it could be a one-way ticket to blister city. (Earlier I noted that comfort is king – but here’s one case where comfort now doesn’t necessarily translate to comfort later. Just don’t view arch-hugging fit as a dealbreaker.) 

So – are you sure you need “more support,” whatever that means to you? Try some shoes on and find out! 

It’s not a conspiracy – most shoe updates are earnest attempts at improvement.

I know, I know. They ruined your favorite shoe. Or even worse, they discontinued it. 

I certainly won’t try to convince you that the last model didn’t fit you just a little better, or feel a little more right. And this probably won’t ease the pain. But I can assure you brands aren’t updating their shoes arbitrarily, or – as conspiratorially-minded YouTube reviewers occasionally insinuate – for marketing alone. 

When a new shoe hits the market, the brands get a deluge of feedback from customer reviews, media reviews, store staff, reps in the field, and so on. It’s too wide, it’s too narrow, the upper rips after 100 miles, etc. – stuff they would’ve liked to catch in testing, but didn’t until their sample size was the entire marketplace. 

From the noise, some signals emerge, and they’ll chart a plan to address the most consistent pieces of feedback. It might be delayed by a model, because it’s usually a 12-18-month process to brief, build and iterate a shoe before it launches. So the 5th version of a shoe often addresses the feedback they hear from the 3rd version, for example.

RELATED: What’s In Your Shoe Quiver?

That doesn’t mean you’ll like the new version as much as the old one. It would be ideal if everyone loved every update, but that’s not realistic, so the brands’ big bet is that more people will prefer the new version. That’s just business. (The brands are all businesses, after all.)

Does that mean they always get it right? 

Stares at a pile of unused Clifton 2s in the corner.

Heck no. But they aren’t doing it just to mess with you. And let’s be real – sometimes your old favorite wasn’t quite as perfect as you remember it. 

Stares at a big pile of Clifton 1s that were cashed out after 100 miles, next to a pile of socks dyed blue by the Clifton 1 upper.

The display shoe is most likely not your size.

Where are you now, guy who took that size 8 Brooks Dyad off the wall, squeezed your toes into it, and declared “this doesn’t fit”? Did you think that ruled out the Dyad entirely? Did you tell your friends that Brooks shoes are too narrow? Did you not think we had a size 12 in the back that you could try on? Did you wonder why there was only one shoe, and where the matching half was? I think about you often.

And yes, it comes in other colors.

And no, we don’t mind checking for you. If getting the color you want means you’re more likely to run, we’re more than happy to help.

Stores are excited to help beginner/newer runners.

To that end – we know it can be a touch intimidating to make your first run specialty visit. A display wall brimming with technical-looking choices and a floor staffed by serious (nutritionally- and sleep-deprived)-looking runners. 

But – don’t be scared. Don’t worry about saying the wrong thing. Good shop staff meets you where you’re at, and wants to help get you on your way to enjoying a new pair of shoes. With any luck, you’ll turn into a lifelong runner and a lifelong customer. 

You see – the stores need you more than you need them. If any staff treats you otherwise – and I know it happens – go shop at their competitor across town. 

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