Observer Magazine

Soft shoe shuffle

With 1,800 miles on the clock, it’s time for a new pair of running shoes. Marathon man Martin Love puts his feet in the hands of specialists.

Reaching into my sports bag I gingerly pull out a pair of dirty grey, battered running shoes. There’s a large hole on the top of one of them where the nail of my big toe has torn through the fabric. The heels and soles are badly worn and the arch support on both has collapsed. The left shoe has a lace which has broken twice and been retied. There is an air of decay about them both.

The shop assistant gasps and visibly rocks backwards. She’s never seen a worse example of shoe abuse. ‘How long have you had these?’ she asks, incredulously.

‘About five years,’ I reply blithely.

Open-eyed with amazement, she explains to me that running shoes should be replaced every year and certainly after no more than 600 miles of training. Making a quick mental calculation, I’d say my beloved trainers have done at least 1,800 miles, and if you consider that each foot will hit the ground an average of 1,000 times for every training mile, you can see why shoes are so crucial to remaining free from injury. And start running in badly fitting shoes and the list of possible ailments that await you is as long as a 30km road race. From blisters and shin splints to runner’s knee and IT band syndrome (not a computer problem but a chronic form of tendonitis). But wear the correct shoes and you’re looking at miles and miles of injury-free exercise.

So why on earth have I been wearing these knackered old shoes? I think about telling the assistant about the adventures we’ve shared — from early-morning jogs on Holkham’s wind-swept beaches to the muddy paths of the old Somerset coal canal; how we’ve pounded the pink tarmac of the Mall after 26.2 miles and cruised up the Champs Elysées in Paris’s magnificent marathon. Instead, I grimace knowingly and ask what she’d recommend.

And this is where the trouble begins. Running, in theory, is a fairly low-tech sport. You can do it whenever and wherever you want, wearing whatever you want. Don’t believe me: take a look at an average marathon and you’ll see people dressed as fairies, waiters, gorillas, policemen. You’ll see all ages and all levels of fitness and all with different goals, but there is one thing they all have in common: the right footwear.

Which is why I’ve come to a specialist running shop. It’s called Run and Become and is one of a chain of three, with branches in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff. The London shop was the first to open and, since 1982, has been coping with the injury worries, performance anxieties and general neuroses of everyone from weekend plodders to international athletes. Staff are also able to work closely with podiatrists and physiotherapists to help runners come back from injury safely.

Buying a pair of trainers is unlike any other shoe purchase you will make. Considerations such as style, and to an extent price, go out the window. All you and the expert shop assistants are after is a perfect fit with the correct support and cushioning for your specific training.

When I bought my trusty New Balance 851s here five years ago — easily the ugliest shoes in the shop with their garish stripes, reflective trimming and soles that looked like they’d been rejected from a jelly-mould factory — I’d been prepared to spend up to £100. Instead, the manageress insisted that the £55 New Balance were exactly the ones for me. I pleaded that I wanted to spend more, that I wanted a stylish pair of, say, Nikes. She replied that, yes, they were my feet, but it was her duty to sell me the correct shoes.

Because we wear down out trainers in unique ways, the easiest way to identify your particular support needs is to study your old pair of shoes. If you don't bring in old footwear, the alternative is to be watched while running. For this reason, the pedestrian passageway outside the shop is full of suited office workers with their trousers rolled up, jogging ‘to the lamppost and back’ so that their gait can be analysed by the fitters. ‘Yes, as I thought, you over-pronate,’ is a typical diagnosis.

As I am a road runner, as opposed to a trail, fell or track racer, my choice of brands at Run and Become was limited to Adidas, Asics, Brooks, Mizuno, New Balance, Nike, Puma and Saucony. Prices go from £40 to more than £100 (the Saucony Grid Vision is the most expensive and comes in at £110), though all brands have plenty of options at around the £70 mark. The shoemakers seem to pride themselves on outdoing each other in terms of aesthetic underachievement. If ever there is a fashion for lime green or puce shoes, or footwear covered in bizarre stripes and wiggles dotted with reflective patches and frightful logos, then head for a running shop — you’ll be spoilt for choice. In one way it makes purchasing easy; you can’t possibly buy a pair of shoes you like the look of, so you can only judge them on fit — which is what really counts.

After several minutes studying my old shoes, and a few test runs up the alley, my expert fitter disappeared among the shoe boxes and loaded shelves. I knew that the shop stocked more than 70 types of road-running shoes, so I expected a few alternatives, but she returned with just one — a pair of £65 Asics Gel-1090s with synthetic leather mesh; 3M reflectivity; California slip-lasted (EVA board); AHAR heel plug; visible rearfoot gel; forefoot gel; compression moulded EVA; DuoMax; Trusstic and blown-rubber forefoot... And, yes, they were a perfect fit.

Later that day I found myself running along London’s Embankment, over the Millennium Bridge and on towards the leafy paths of Hyde Park... The first adventure in my new shoes.

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