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Make sure shoe fits, then run with it

Foot analysis can help determine the proper pair

Sales associate Rob Dalton helps customer Andrea Griffin try on running shoes at Marathon Sports in Wellesley. Sales associate Rob Dalton helps customer Andrea Griffin try on running shoes at Marathon Sports in Wellesley. (ARAM BOGHOSIAN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
By Courtney Hollands
Globe Staff / April 16, 2009
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Aspiring runners: Those floppy Converse All-Stars aren't going to cut it.

If you're thinking about embarking on a regular running program, your first stop should be a sports or specialty store where you can get properly fitted for shoes.

Local running stores have slightly different methods for matching runners with shoes, but all agree fit is essential. As runners increase their mileage, ill-fitting shoes can lead to pain, blisters, instability, even injury.

"Having the wrong shoes sets off a chain reaction," said Steve Meinelt, owner of the Greater Boston Running Company. "If your arch isn't properly supported, it can affect your knees, shins, and back."

Running shoes can be technical - and can cost over $100 - and finding the right pair starts with a basic foot and arch analysis. Stores that specialize in running products often ask customers to jog on a treadmill, walk across the floor, or run on the sidewalk while an employee observes their gait.

They're examining a runner's pronation, or how the foot rolls from heel to toe as the arch flattens and distributes the force of impact.

The degree of pronation determines which type of shoe is best for a runner's foot.

People with flat feet and more flexible arches tend to overpronate, putting extra stress on the big toes and the inside of their feet, while people with high, rigid arches tend to underpronate, running on the outside of their feet. Overpronators are typically matched with what manufacturers call mobility-control shoes to curb excessive inward rolling. And underpronators (also called supinators) do well in what's known as a neutral-cushioned shoe to encourage more natural foot motion.

Almost everyone's feet roll inward slightly as they run. Overpronators' feet roll too far inward; supinators' feet aren't rolling inward enough. A runner whose foot rolls in slightly from heel to toe - neither over- nor underpronating - generally has a low or normal arch and should wear a stability shoe.

Of course, there are several other factors in determining fit. Are you bow-legged? Do you have wide feet? Are your heels narrow? How big are your toes? How flexible are your ankles?

Turns out, like fingerprints, every foot is unique.

For example, New Balance offers six different shoe widths for men and five for women and more than 30 different "lasts," or shoe shapes, said Shane Downey, national products training manager. In September, New Balance opened a sports research and development lab in the basement of its Lawrence manufacturing center to wear-test each shoe.

"Your foot should be as wide as your shoe, and there should be a thumb's width between your toes and the end of the shoe," Downey said. "And you should be able to play the piano with your toes." In other words, you need some breathing room to prevent your toes from hitting the front of the shoe. Too-tight shoes can lead to lost toenails.

Most companies offer myriad fits and widths. The average lifetime of a running shoe is 300-500 miles, so trying several shoes makes sense, said Marathon Sports owner Colin Peddie.

"Sometimes, it's like the princess and the pea," he said. "A customer might try out seven or eight shoes before finding the right one."

Somerville Road Runners vice president Gwen Co-Wallis started running two years ago because she needed exercise. The first thing she did? Got fit for shoes at her local running store.

"I knew if I had a bad initial experience [with running], I would write it off," the 40-year-old Arlington resident said.