Anatomy of a running shoe

There’s a vast array of running shoes out there. Buy the right running shoe and running is a dream – you won’t even notice your shoes. Buy the wrong running shoes and they can make you more miserable than you could ever imagine. Ill-fitting running shoes can lead to poor performance, as well as discomfort and injuries such as hip and knee pain, plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendinitis, and a whole host of other maladies.

Running shoes are designed to optimize your performance and make your workout as comfortable and safe as possible. Even the most basic shoe is chock full of technology, taking into consideration all manner of variables, such as your height, weight, sex, running experience, type of running you do, how much you run, where you run, how fast you run, whether you’ve been injured, how high your foot arch is, how your foot strikes the ground and more.

When a running shoe meets your exact requirements, it means the different parts of the shoe are just right. So it’s worth having an understanding of what precisely makes up a running shoe. Understand the jargon, and you’ll be able to easily navigate buying your next set of running shoes, and more importantly buy the right running shoes for you.

Running shoes have several tasks to perform and this is reflected in the parts that make up a typical running shoe…

Outsole. There are several different types of outsole to choose from. Some are designed for road running and offer very little in the way of grip while off road shoes have molded lugs designed to provide lots of traction on loose surfaces. The outsole is also the first part of a shoe to show wear and provides a good indicator of what part of your foot is most heavily loaded when you run.

Insole. Also called the sock liner, the insole is often removable and is the contoured layer of foam designed to support your arch and provide a small percentage of your shoes’ shock absorbing capability. Because the insole is removable, you can replace it with insoles of your choice – for example, orthotics designed to correct a gait problem.

Upper. This is the part of the shoe which holds the outsole onto your foot – normally using laces but sometimes using Velcro straps instead. If your shoe has laces, there may be a variety of lace holes so you can customize the width up the upper according to the breadth of your foot. Parts of the upper are often reinforced where wear is most likely – for example on the inside of the shoe around your big toe. Further reinforcement is usually present to increase lateral stability. The part of the shoe that is home to your toes is called the toe box. The tongue protects the top of your foot from the pressure of your laces and also stops debris getting into your shoes.

Heel counter. Your heel is held securely in place by the heel counter which is a firm cup. This ensures the shoe moves with your foot and that your foot does not move independently of your shoe which would cause a blister.

Heel collar. The heel collar is the padded opening around the top of your shoe that supports your foot and ensures your shoe remains firmly but comfortably in place.

Heel tab. Also known as the Achilles tab, this is the part of your shoe that extends above the heel counter and, as the name suggests, protects your Achilles tendon, sometimes called your Achilles heel. Ironically, stiff or high heel tabs can cause inflammation of the Achilles tendon so avoid shoes like this if you are prone to Achilles tendonitis. Some heel tabs are fitted with webbing or cord loops to make it easier to pull your shoe on and off.

Midsole. Sandwiched between the insole and the outsole, the midsole is the part of your shoe that gives the shoe its thickness. The midsole is arguably the most technologically advanced part of your shoe and is responsible for controlling the motion of your foot and absorbing shock. Midsoles can be made from a variety of materials including EVA and polyurethane foam although some shoes actually use multiple materials so that different parts of the insole behave in different ways. For example, to prevent pronation, shoes may use a firmer material on the inside of the shoe and a softer material on the outside. Some midsoles also house shock absorbing devices made of a flexible gel or pockets of air.

Last. The last is the foot model over which the rest of the shoe is built. There are several types of last currently in use; board lasting, slip lasting, combination lasting and Strobel lasting although Strobel lasting is the most widely used. Lasts can be straight, slightly curved, semi-curved or curved. Curved lasts are shaped very much like your foot while straight lasts are more commonly found in shoes designed for heavier runners who have a flat-footed gait.

Shank. Designed to stiffen the middle of the shoe so that energy is effectively transferred from the front to the back of your foot, the shank is usually made of semi-flexible plastic although in older running shoes it was made of metal. Most shoes have shanks with the exception of ultra lightweight racing shoes. Some shanks are housed inside the midsole while other manufacturers build the shank into the outsole.

There is a lot of information to consider when you are buying a new pair of running shoes but the whole process will be considerably easier if you go to a specialist running store and get some expert advice from a trained running shoe fitter. By looking at your old shoes and assessing your running gait as well as considering your weekly mileage, you should have no problem getting a pair of shoes that fits you perfectly.

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