What trainers shall I buy?

What do we know about running trainers and what trainers shall I buy?

Running has for many years become increasingly popular.  It has great health benefits, is available to all levels of athlete and in an age where finances are restricted, it costs you very little.  

I see many runners with running injuries and one of the most common questions I get asked is ‘what trainers should I buy for running?’  Great question, but to answer this we need to look at the subject in more detail.

When taking up running and exercise in general, it is normal for there to be risk of injury, which is the trade off at trying to stay healthy in a world of sedentary jobs and fast food.  These injuries happen when certain interactions between us and the environment lead to a response that may cause tissue damage to our bodies. When running, our feet (us) interact with the ground (the environment).  This interaction is a complex one, and one which we are continually trying to improve our understanding of as it is deemed by many very important in the prevention of injury. Running trainers act as a barrier between the foot-ground interaction and have traditionally been developed to ensure optimal foot alignment and force transition thereby believing to reduce the chance of injury.  

So what trainers do we have?

  • Motion control (for the low arch/pronating foot)

  • Stability (for the normal arch/neutral foot)

  • Neutral/Cushioning (for the high arch/supinated foot)

  • Minimalist/natural/barefoot (no foot preference)

MOTION CONTROL STABILITY NEUTRAL/CUSHIONING

MOTION CONTROL STABILITY NEUTRAL/CUSHIONING

In its simplest form, the above trainers essentially function to correlate with the foot arch as depicted by the footprints.  These footprints are known as the ‘wet foot test’, which show one’s foot arch position varying between a low arch on the left to a high arch on the right.  It is believed this test comes from an Army survey carried out in the 1940’s looking at footprints, and many years later companies began developing trainers to correlate with these footprints.  Why? Because it was believed that by pairing trainers to this wet foot test, they could place the foot in its optimal position and prevent injury.

Here’s the thing, there is actually no evidence behind trainer design and an optimal foot position. This is what we know (or don’t know!).

  • No conclusive evidence suggests trainers allocated to specific foot types reduce injuries

  • Some studies even suggest that allocating specific trainers to specific foot types can actually increase injury

  • There is no evidence there is actually an ideal foot alignment/position. We all sit along a line of unique individual characteristics and may therefore have person specific ‘normals’

  • Pronation (low arch) is not consistently a predictor of injury. (this is what your motion control trainers control

  • No association between the wet foot test and foot function when we run, exists

Despite the above research findings, you as a runner can get assessed within the sports, health and therapy industry on a treadmill and be told like most of the rest of the population, you are an over pronator and therefore you need trainers to address this to therefore reduce your injury risk and improve your running.  

Did you know, the latest research suggests injury rates reduce when we choose a pair of trainers that are comfortable!

Other trainer characteristics have in recent years been tweaked more so and will also affect trainer selection.  These are ‘stack height’ and ‘heel drop’ and are often changed for minimalist trainers.

  • Stack height is the height of the rearfoot and forefoot of trainer

  • Heel drop is the rearfoot stack minus the forefoot stack

Rear Stack Front stack

Rear Stack Front stack

In the above picture the rear stack of 28mm minus the forefoot stack of 16mm equals a heel drop of 12mm.

Typically, heel drop for many years was set around at 10-12mm but in recent years there has been a trend to reduce this to as low as a zero drop.  The picture below shows the difference between 2 minimalist trainers and a traditional trainer showing changes in heel drop.

Zero Drop 4mm Drop 11mm Drop

Zero Drop 4mm Drop 11mm Drop

Minimalist/barefoot/natural trainers have become more common.  They are chosen by many runners because it is believed they emphasize a more natural running performance. They keep foot mechanics as natural as possible by having an absence of motion control (low arch trainers) and stability devices (normal arch).  When considering performance, reduced heel drops/heel stacks are also chosen based on mileage per session, speed of session, type of session etc.

With the above information all I have discussed is the trainer type and touched on decision based on performance.  However, let's go back to what I mentioned earlier about the interaction between ‘us’ and the ‘environment’. What if we could change ‘us’ to reduce injuries.

Well we can, and in my opinion is more important than the trainer. Here are a few of many factors we must consider…...

  • Previous injury

  • Weight

  • Running experience

  • Running technique

  • Training methods

  • Goals

  • Daily activities away from running

  • Structural lower limb changes

  • Foundational movement capabilities

  • Leg strength

  • Stress

  • Diet

  • Recovery

Think about it, the hip pain you get when you run may be due to an ankle injury you had 1 year earlier, the shin splints you get may be due to the 5kg of weight you have put on whilst being inactive from exercise for 6 months, being generally overweight, a running technique that doesn't suit you or increasing your mileage too much.  The knee pain you have could be due to the habitual position you adopt when you sit at work. The calf tightness of both calves could be because you have read that we should all be running forefoot and you’re landing excessively on your toes. The excessive foot pronation you have on one side could be from an ankle fracture you and surrounding tissue still very weak.  My point being, you need to consider yourself as a whole in prevention of injury and then running trainer selection will be so much easier enabling you to choose based on performance and comfort as opposed to based on the myth of an ideal foot alignment.

There is no simple answer to the best trainer.  There is no best brand of running trainer and there are various models of trainers within brands, trainers are built based on belief as opposed to evidence. If you would like to take up running on a regular basis and would like to reduce your chance of injury, you need to find a good therapist or running coach with experience and interest in the area.  After consulting the experienced therapist/trainer and going through the above factors, try on different models of different brands and choose your running trainers based on comfort and performance requirements.  I should say, there are certain requirements when someone does need a specific trainer because of previous injury or specific run technique, but this is much less common.

Footwear and foot mechanics is a complex area and I’ve only scratched the surface,  keep it simple, focus on you and trainer selection will be easy.   


Lee Watkins

Founder of RUNFLOW