When Eliud Kipchoge became the first person to run a sub-two-hour marathon back in October, it wasn’t just his incredible form, attitude, and team support that everyone was talking about. It was his shoes.
Eliud ran in a pair of Nike AlphaFly shoes, an updated and, at the time, still unreleased version of the controversial ZoomX Vaporfly NEXT% Volts. They are supposedly the most advanced marathon trainers in the world with extra thick soles made from ultra-light, ultra-bouncy foam.
They’re so good that the shoes have been banned from many professional races after they were worn for 31 out of 36 top-three finishes at major marathons last year. And you don’t have to be a pro to reap the benefits; the New York Times found that more than 1 million average runners saw their times improved by four to five per cent.
The cost? A cool £240.
Do we really need to spend the big bucks if we want a serious pair of kicks?
What impact does price have on trainers for the average runner have and can we get away with running marathons in the cheapest options?
One guy who knows his Nike NEXT% from his Vejas is Kieran Alger, aka Man v Miles. Kieran’s an expert shoe tester for The Run Testers who has run 42 marathons, 56 half marathons, and 12 ultras (including one 100 mile race) and he believes that, beyond your own budgetary concerns, price shouldn’t really be a factor when it comes to buying running shoes.
“It’s tempting to think that top-end shoes which boast the latest clever new tech are more likely to make you run better but spending more money doesn’t necessarily guarantee you a shoe that’s optimal for you or a shoe that’ll help you run faster,” he tells us.
In fact, there’s a study famously referenced in Christopher McDougall’s book Born To Run (a must-read for all hesitant marathoners!) that suggests the more you pay, the more likely you are to get injured.
“Rather than judge a shoe on price, what’s more important is that you find a shoe that fits well and supports your own unique running style to help you hit whatever goals you’re aiming for - be that running faster or running healthier.”
As such there’s no lower limit to how much you should spend, Alger says “There are only shoes which fit right, feel right, run right”. And that could mean a cheaper pair from a smaller brand, or a higher-priced, higher-spec shoe from Nike.
Which brings us back onto those Nike trainers. We know that the Nike Next% are next level, so doesn’t that suggest that spending over £200 really does get you a pair of trainers infused with more advanced tech and speed capability…if that’s what you’re looking for? Kieran says that although some of the hype may be genuine, “We’re really still talking about marginal gains that most runners can just as easily make up elsewhere in their training”.
He says that you could spend £240 on a pair of Nike Next% but spending an extra £50 won’t make up for poor training. Brands know that runners will pay a premium for performance gains but if you’re considering spending that kind of money on a pair of trainers for the advantage, you might want to first look at what other areas you could improve in first. There really is no ”magic shoe.”
Toren Hirshfield, marketing manager at sports shoe specialists Profeet, agrees that cheaper shoes don’t result in a worse running experience - it all depends on the runner.
“Sometimes, a runner might be significantly better off running in a pair of shoes which cost £100 rather than £150 because of the way they run,” he told Stylist.
“Shoes are just one factor in what makes you a good injury-free runner. Strength and conditioning, good mechanics, the proper training plan, good diet and plenty of rest all are essential in improving running performance and running injury-free.”
Toren says that the standard price for a pair of running shoes is around the £100 mark, going up to around £150.
Think of shoes a little like wine. It’s generally agreed that if you spend a little more on wine, you’ll get better quality but that rule stops being the case above a certain threshold. After that, you’re largely paying for marketing.
“Shoes with better materials and constructions start at around £100, naturally, each brand is slightly different but as a rough average. But it shouldn’t just be about price - it’s about what works, fits and feels better.”
So what do The Run Testers look for when they’re trying out shoes?
“Comfort and performance come first,” says Keiran. “We’re also big on things like durability. All of this is obviously judged in the light of value for money and we always compare the shoes to other similar shoes out there to see if they’re the best option for the job.”
You want to be looking for how your shoes feel on the feet when you’re running in them for an intended purpose. If you’ve got a range of different goals (you might regularly split your training between treadmill sprints, parkrun and marathon training on the road, for example), you might need different shoes.
McDougall’s Born to Run didn’t only call into question spending big on shoes that were known to increase the risk of injury; it went on to explore how “hidden tribes” in Mexico ran so easily and speedily - and found that they ran almost barefoot. Cue an explosion in barefoot runners and trainers hitting the market.
These shoes are the exact opposite of the chunky Nike model. They’re ultra-light and ultra-thin, supposedly perfect for allowing the foot to form naturally on the ground with each stride. In fact, Vivobarefoot (one of the biggest manufacturers of barefoot shoes) has made a documentary called Shoespiracy: The ‘Shoe-Shaped’ Public Health Scandal, which explores how our cushioned shoes have led to a plague of injuries. Barefoot trainers cost around £100.
While they may be great for realignment and stability, the barefoot surge has come at a real cost. Keiran says that many converts simply went from running in “normal” trainers to minimalist shoes without giving their body time to adapt to the big change - which became equally as counter-productive. It can take a while for your body to re-learn how to move with less support.
It’s easy to look at runners on social media, get inspired and then order a pair of kicks online. But the truth is, whether you’re going for super-springy £200+ trainers or barefoot shoes at half the price, you really do have to go into a specialist store. It’s also really easy to let brand loyalty get in the way of finding the right fit.
“Runners are generally brand-loyal,” Toren explains, “and if someone has by chance or through professional gait analysis found the shoe that works for them, then there is still the risk that the brand or model changes significantly. If that happens, something else might work better.
“Brands generally update shoes every six months. Often it’s just colours and graphics but every few years the changes are significant.”
Kieran’s advice is: “Be open to styles, open to brands and open to price. Seek fellow runner’s advice about things like durability but when it comes to fit, don’t expect what works for them to work for you. Think about what you want the shoe to do. Is this your marathon training shoe that’ll do lots of miles and long runs, or do you want something that you can use to race fast and short against your PB at parkrun?
“Finally, if a shoe disappears on your foot the moment you put it on, that’s a really good sign you’re onto a winner.”
Getting the right shoe:
Get a gait analysis. Places like Profeet or Runners Need offer free assessments during which their experts will look at how you run on a treadmill, what foot shape you have and how your body moves. From that, they’ll be able to tell you which styles will support you best.
Work out what you want from your shoes. What’s your goal? If you want to train for a marathon or run for hours a week, you’re going to need a different type of shoe compared to someone who goes for the odd jog or is committed to sprint work.
Work out your budget. How much are you willing to spend and how much is it worth you spending? Again, if you’re an avid runner, it might be worth spending more than it would be if you’re new to the game.
Do your research. Ask other runners what they run in and how their shoes impact their training. Remember that what may be right for one person may not be for you - but it’s always worth doing your due diligence.
Concentrate on the other stuff. Your speed sessions, long miles, sleep, nutrition and enjoyment of running are all crucial…a fancy pair of kicks can’t out-do those essentials.
Don’t be swayed by clever marketing. You don’t need to spend big bucks on big names just because your favourite Instagram runners are wearing them.
Remember to change your shoes regularly. If you’re clocking up a lot of miles, you’ll probably need to change your shoes every year. If you’re more of a casual runner, pay attention to how much spring you have in your step and look out for any signs of wear and tear with the intention of recycling your shoes when they feel tired.
Older models aren’t necessarily a bargain. Torin says that foams do lose some of their bounce as time goes on, so it’s worth considering whether an older sale shoe is actually worth buying.
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Miranda Larbi is a freelance fitness and wellness journalist, and qualified personal trainer. When she’s not finding new vegan places to eat, she can be found training for the next marathon or cycling across London on a Tokyo bike.