When you start running it can feel almost like you are learning a new language. Fartlek. BQ. Split. Learning the terminology for these often involves trying a new workout (such as a fartlek), going for a long run (and checking how fast your time was the first half versus the second) or even racing a marathon (to go for a Boston Qualifier) and immersing yourself in the sport.
However, before you start running and hear those various terms, you will probably find yourself in a running store being fit for the right shoe hearing things about your gait and how the shoe works with your foot and it can be a lot.
One thing to consider is a shoe’s responsiveness, but what does that mean? What types of shoes have the most? We talked to two experts to break down the terminology and help you learn how to find it when buying your first — or next — pair.
WHAT IS RESPONSIVENESS?
The term responsiveness can admittedly be a bit hard to describe, but according to Chris McClung, coach and co-owner of Rogue Running, you know it when you feel it. He describes it as a ‘pop’ as you land, when you’ll feel as if the shoe is giving energy back to you. This energy is known as an energy return and Cori Burns, Under Armour’s Run Footwear Category Manager adds that it comes from the midsole foam or system.
“This can be illustrated in a lab when a ball bearing is dropped onto a slab of foam,” Burns notes. “If the foam is responsive, the ball will bounce back or rebound with great intensity. If the foam is more cushioned, typically the foam will deaden on impact and the ball will not bounce back greatly.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the more cushion a shoe has, the less responsive it is. Generally speaking, the more foam a shoe has the less responsive it will feel, unless the foam was made with responsiveness in mind. Shoe brands are starting to focus on this more — especially as there has been a shift to more lightweight and minimal shoes on the market — and even brands known specifically for their cushioning have found a way to combine both features.
HOW ONE COMPANY HANDLES CUSHIONING AND RESPONSIVENESS
To get a better idea of how cushioning and responsiveness can go hand-in-hand, Burns broke down Under Armour’s HOVR foam for us. Developed with polymer scientists from Dow, the main goal was to find the perfect blend of cushioning and energy return. They turned to scientists for help because the HOVR foam is actually a bit different depending on the shoe — because the amount of cushioning that works for one runner may not be the preference of another — but it still gives the same result across the board.
“For example in our distance training shoes [the HOVR Infinite], we heighten HOVR’s cushioning properties while still maintaining energy return,” details Burns. “But for our Tempo models, we configure the foam to elevate energy return, while still providing enough cushion to keep your feet and legs feeling fresh.”
In the case of UA HOVR, the configuration of the compound may give you a different feel as your foot hits the ground — depending on whether the shoe has more or less cushioning — but you will get a similar energy return as you toe-off for your next step. McClung notes there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to the amount of cushioning you need. As both he and Burns note, it all comes down to preference. That’s where trying on shoes before you buy and honing in on your preference can make all the difference.
WHAT TO KNOW WHEN BUYING A SHOE
So how can you take all of this information into the shoe store when trying on various pairs? Taking the shoes for a short run — whether on a treadmill or by doing a few strides the length of the store — can help you get a sense of the responsiveness. Additionally, trying shoes with different levels of cushioning is recommended, however, McClung stresses that you shouldn’t confuse how hard or soft a shoe feels with how much cushioning it contains.
“There is a trend in footwear to make shoes softer and softer because it feels good when you try them on in the store,” he admits. “In many cases, soft shoes can be like kryptonite for your feet (similar to how a soft mattress might be kryptonite for your back). Your body has to work harder to stabilize itself in a softer shoe which can stress the stabilizing muscles, tendons and ligaments, especially in the lower legs.”
He notes that preferences vary between runners, but it is important to distinguish firmness independently from cushioning. The same can be said for the weight of a shoe as companies have begun to make lighter shoes that have ample cushioning. “With lighter materials and foams available to manufacturers, you can now have both a highly-cushioned shoe and a lightweight shoe which is running nirvana for many,” McClung adds. Gone are the days where cushioned shoes are heavy and clunky — now they can be both cushioned and responsive.