Whether you’re an Olympic athlete or a periodic pavement pounder, happy feet can make all the difference.

For runners, selecting running shoes is akin to purchasing a house or a car; you’re going to spend a lot of time in them, so you want something you really like. In addition to a comfortable ride, shoes can play a major role in keeping you running strong.

“Without a doubt, plantar fasciitis, shin splints and other issues can be helped by the right shoe,” said Robert Smith, owner of Robert’s Running and Walking Shop in Huntington, W.Va.

As you set out to find the best shoes for the job, you should first consider the shape of your feet. “Looking at a runner’s foot leads us to what type of shoe they should be in,” explained Smith. The three main foot types are flat, neutral and high arches. Flat feet tend to have fallen arches, making them flexible and prone to overpronation, an inward rolling motion. Neutral feet are the most biomechanically sound variety, putting them somewhere in the middle. High-arched feet are essentially the polar opposite of flat feet. When the arches are particularly defined, the feet end up being rigid, leading to supination, or landing on the outside edges of the feet.

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As a result of the variety of foot shapes, shoe companies have developed models to accommodate runners of all strides. In the selection process, be sure to align your foot type with the proper shoe category. Flat-footed harriers tend to gravitate to a higher stability shoe, as they help prevent overpronation. Neutral runners can often run in many types of footwear, but most commonly go for a moderate stability shoe. Runners with high arches are best suited for a cushioned shoe, providing midsole padding with flexibility.

Once you are directed to the correct category, try on several pair. Most runners need to go up a half size from their street shoes, allowing for one-fourth to a half inch of wiggle room in the toebox. While you want to be able to move your toes around, be sure your heel is snug and secure, avoiding any unnecessary slippage.

In the end, most runners know when they have found the ideal shoe. “Once you are in the right category, you should choose what feels best to you,” said Smith. It should literally feel like a part of your foot, working in concert with your natural foot shape and biomechanics. Whether you’re an Olympic athlete or a periodic pavement pounder, happy feet can make all the difference.

Going Minimal

With increased media attention on minimalist and barefoot-inspired footwear, many runners are left to wonder whether they should ditch their kicks. While minimalism isn’t for everyone, if you are interested in experimenting with a lesser shoe, it’s important to make the transition gradually.

“We suggest first wearing a ‘step-down’ shoe that is fairly minimal, but there is still something to the midsole,” said Robert Smith, owner of Robert’s Running and Walking Shop in Huntington, W. Va..

Runners shouldn’t go directly from a stability shoe to a minimal shoe, as the change is dramatic and may lead to injury. With minimal shoes, your bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments need time to strengthen and adjust to the new training stimulus. Even once you have fully transitioned to this type of footwear, most coaches advise against wearing them every run.

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“We always tell our customers not to replace their everyday training shoes with a minimal shoe,” explained Smith.

Keep in mind that while proponents of the minimalist movement point to the fact that feet can be strengthened and gait improved through the use of such footwear, it certainly won’t work for every runner. As with any training, listen to your body and respond if it’s telling you to back off.

Gait Analysis

To find the right shoe, shoe sales staff often watch customers run on a treadmill or outside. “The visual analysis of a customer’s footstrike is an essential part of finding the right shoe,” explained Dan Schade of Fleet Feet in San Francisco. “The goal is to use a shoe to correct any overpronation, help with shock absorption and guidance for supinators or complement their foot strike if they have a neutral foot strike to begin with.” Schade distinguishes the Fleet Feet exam as a tool for shoe fitting and urges runners to seek the advice of sports medicine doctors or podiatrists for gait analysis that addresses injury- or form-related issues. “We work closely with podiatrists, physical therapists and sports chiropractors so we can refer our customers,” explained Schade.

This piece first appeared in Competitor magazine.