Standing in front of the shoe wall at a running store can be overwhelming — not only are there so many choices, but also so many ways to go wrong. Of course, we all know there is an art to finding the right pair of shoes. Often when you are fit for a pair of shoes, you’re thinking about how they will perform during training, but what about a pair for racing? Do runners really need multiple pairs of shoes at a time?
We talked to two experts to find out just how many pairs you really need — and if a race-day shoe gives you an edge.
WHAT IS A RACING FLAT?
Racing flats are actually less common now and were developed before minimalist running became a popular trend. Racing flats are more lightweight than your everyday training shoe and have less cushioning (they are flat, after all). According to Cori Burns, UA Run Footwear Category Manager, these shoes are generally built to make you feel fast on race day.
“Typically, the foam compounds used will have heightened responsive and rebound properties, will be lower to the ground for natural stability and flexibility and will have minimal lightweight uppers,” she explains. “Training shoes are more focused on cushioning and structure, to comfort and provide support for longer training runs.”
As stated above, once barefoot running and minimalist running shoes came into play, racing flats were on the outs, simply because more and more shoes were just as — if not more — lightweight. Chris McClung, coach, co-owner of Rogue Running and co-host of its Running Rogue podcast, says he saw this shift happen about 10 years ago at a time when racing flats were definitively lighter, firmer and less bulky than trainers.
“With the paradigm shift in running shoes due to the minimalist movement, the shoe weights of training shoes (particularly lightweight trainers) and racing flats converged,” McClung notes. “Over time, this caused many shoe companies to eliminate pure racing flats from their lineups altogether, and therefore, today it’s very rare to find a pure racing flat in any shoe company’s lineup.”
So if racing flats are harder to find and your everyday minimalist shoe can be considered a trainer, you don’t need a race-specific shoe, right? It turns out, having multiple pairs of shoes is still a good idea.
THE CASE FOR MULTIPLE PAIRS OF RUNNING SHOES
We know not all shoes are created the same — and not all workouts are, either. Keeping that in mind, it makes sense you would want to switch up your shoes based on your workout. So how can you distinguish which shoe will be best for training and when to set aside a pair for your races? McClung says there is a simple question to ask yourself: What shoe will give me the best opportunity to perform well in my given distance on race day?
“At the risk of over-simplification, I would advise someone to choose a shoe for racing that is a little lighter than their normal training shoe, but that also feels natural when they put it on,” McClung continues. “We used to say that you want the shoe to ‘disappear’ on your foot when you put it on because you don’t want to be thinking about your footwear when running a race of any distance. This requires getting advice from someone at your local running store and also trying a lot of options to see what feels best to you.”
Burns adds that fit is paramount, and you will want to consider the shoe to be an extension of your foot. When looking for a shoe for race day, she specifically notes considering the traction, responsiveness and weight (you want it to be light). All of these elements help you feel like you are getting the same energy back from your shoes that you are putting in to your foot strike.
McClung admits that some runners may prefer a maximalist-style shoe for longer distances such as the marathon, to cushion the feet during the constant pounding. However, a lot of cushioning does not necessarily mean the shoe is heavy. For example, the UA Charged Bandit shoes — now on version 4 — are known for their cushioning, yet the men’s version comes in at 9 ounces and the women’s at 7.2 ounces. Thanks to that shift to minimalism, cushioned shoes can now also be lightweight.
HOW TO GET YOUR SHOES RACE READY
You may wonder how you can break in your shoes for race day if you are wearing multiple pairs during your training. McClung has some good news: Most current models of running shoes don’t require a break-in period anymore.
“I recommend testing out a shoe in race-like conditions 3–4 times before you use them in a race,” he notes. “So, if you are doing a 5K in the shoes, then do at least 3–4 workouts in them before you race. Likewise, if you are doing a marathon in them, then I would do at least 3–4 long runs in them to make sure they are going to work for you over longer distances.”
When doing this, you are checking for any areas that may cause blisters or discomfort over your given mileage. Also, if you are moving to a shoe with less cushioning that is more like what a traditional racing flat was, Burns notes your feet will work differently in those shoes, so you’ll have to slowly build up your foot strength. Just as varying terrain is a good idea to work different muscles in your legs, varying shoes can help you work different muscles in your feet, as well.
“Science says that those who vary their footwear are more likely to be injury-free than those who run in the same shoe every day,” concludes McClung. “Find a portfolio of shoes that work for you — and in that process, you will also find a shoe that might be better for you on race day.”