Shoes and Clothes | July 23, 2009
One advantage ultrarunning has over many other sports is that it is comparatively cheap. The lion’s share of the training–running trails and roads–is absolutely free. In fact, play just two rounds of golf and the money you spend on greens fees would cover your biggest running expense: a good pair of shoes. Compare that to the cost of golf’s fancy equipment, greens fees, cart fees, tips, lunches, lost golfballs, checkered pants, spiked shoes, Penguin golf shirts, useless lessons, and trips to Scotland, and you get the idea. But when you do go to buy your shoes and clothing for ultrarunning, be sure to make good choices, which means you may have to pass up the bargain basement items.
Especially when selecting your shoes, you do not want to economize. Good running shoes are designed to provide biomechanical protection from injury, a particularly excellent concept for ultrarunners given the prolonged and excessive pounding we give our feet, ankles, knees and hips. Shoe companies generally tend to classify their running shoes into three categories: stability or motion control, neutral, and well cushioned. These categories correspond to arch types and the foot motion often associated with different arch types.
Pronation is the normal flattening out of the arch and rolling motion from the outside of the foot to the inside when the foot strikes the ground, which causes the ankle to tilt slightly inward. Runners with a low arch or “flat feet” can overpronate, that is, show an excessive inward movement of the ankle. Stability or motion control shoes are designed to check this excessive motion. Runners with a “normal” arch will tend to pronate appropriately and can select from shoes categorized as neutral. A high arched runner may pronate very little or even exhibit supination where the ankle tips slightly outward. Extra cushioning found in the “well cushioned” category of shoes can help guide the foot toward normal pronation.
Knowing your arch type and pronation tendencies will help you narrow your search for a shoe that works for you, although keep in mind that your own unique biomechanics might not fit neatly into any one category. Within each category you will find several models offered by each of the major shoe companies. For ultrarunning, look for a shoe with an adequate toe box and size up about half a size from your street shoes to allow for toe room. The rest of the fit should be snug. The shoe should flex fairly easily between the toe area and the mid part of the sole. A knowledgeable salesman at a good running store can help you pick out a shoe based on your mileage, the type of surface you run on, and your biomechanics. But be prepared to experiment with different shoes until you find a model that keeps you running freely without setting up any persistent aches and pains. Runners like to load up with multiple pairs of shoes once they’ve found a favorite as the styles and models tend to change fairly rapidly.
Be aware that most shoe companies now offer a whole line of specially designed trail running shoes. These shoes tend to be a little more armored up than standard running shoes with beefier soles for better traction and durability, sturdy uppers, and protection in front of the toe area for those fun moments when you kick the hell out of a half-buried rock. Trail shoes are also designed to exhibit enhanced stability to guard against sprains which can be fairly common when you’re tackling uneven trails. But don’t feel you need to give up on what works well for you in standard running shoes for a trail shoe just because you are running off road. Many runners happily complete ultras in standard running shoes.
Buying the right shoe can be tricky, but just as tricky is knowing when to get rid of old shoes. Worn out shoes can lose the properties that are protecting you from injury. Many factors figure in to how long your shoe will last including your weight, the surface you run on, your foot strike tendencies, and how resilient your shoe is to begin with. Look for excessive wear on the sole, significant wrinkling in the midsole that you can see on the side of the shoe, or deteriorating uppers. Other signals that it is time for new shoes might be a complete loss of the initial “cushy” feel in the shoe’s ride, or you might experience aches and pains in your feet or knees that were not there before. Some runners track the mileage on their shoes to know when they are ready for a new pair. Generally a shoe should last between 350 to 500 miles. You can also write the date you first wore the shoe directly on the side of the shoe. This method has the advantage of helping match up shoes later on and telling relatively new shoes from old ones. You’ll be surprised how quickly new shoes are indistinguishable from all your other shoes once they’ve been worn in the mud and dust a few times.
Having proper shoes is crucial in ultrarunning since a glitch in that area can spiral into a serious problem, but shoes are not the only thing you will be wearing that should be matched to the demands of the sport. For any serious runs, you should wear a shirt made of synthetic or “technical” material. These materials are lightweight, comfortable, and most importantly they wick moisture away from the skin to allow for efficient cooling. Cotton absorbs moisture and holds it against your skin, seriously compromising your ability to cool effectively. All those cotton race shirts you’ve accumulated in the bottom drawer of your dresser are fine for shorter training runs, but when it’s hot, you’re going long, or you’re in a race, leave the cotton behind. Also, wear light colors to reflect sunlight in warm weather and stay cool, dark colors to absorb sunlight and stay warm.
Running shorts should be comfortable, breathe well, and allow for freedom of movement. Some runners chose longer shorts to help protect against chaffing between the thighs. Shorts with pockets distributed around the waistband are very useful. With just a handheld water bottle and the pockets loaded with your car keys, electrolyte tabs, and energy gels, you can train for hours or run a well supported 50K without needing to take along a bulky running belt or hydration pack.
A lightweight jacket or “shell” is a must have piece of clothing for cooler weather. You can easily pack it along as a precaution, and it will serve you well should the wind spring up or portions of the run take you through chilly areas. Layering works best in cold weather versus a single heavy coat as you will be able to adjust to changing conditions both external and internal. You may need a lot less clothing during the vigorous first half of a race but find yourself freezing as the pace slows and your body is less able to generate heat near the end of a race. Or vice versa, the start of a race may be in the frigid morning hours while the afternoon hours may be in warm sunshine. Arm sleeves paired with a short sleeve shirt are becoming increasingly popular. The sleeves can be rolled up or down or stowed away if they become unnecessary, or they can be pulled down over the hands in lieu of gloves should it get really cold.
Socks are the subject of considerable debate among ultrarunners as the socks’ ability to help ward off blisters is a subject very close to an ultrarunner’s heart. Thin or thick, single layer or double, low cut or high cut, white or colored, all are areas of disagreement. Most would agree that cotton is wrong if you are going long or racing. Any sock that bunches up is also wrong as this will promote blistering. Most runners believe that a double layer sock or two pairs of thin socks worn together will help prevent blistering. Socks made of technical materials that wick moisture away from the skin and dry out quickly are highly preferred. New types of specially designed running socks are hitting the market lately, which will give you even more choices. As with shoes, if you find a sock that works well for you, buy multiple pairs to ensure a good supply into the future.
What else will you find ultrarunners wearing as they toe the line for a very rigorous event such as the Western States 100 Mile Endurance run? Almost everyone will have headgear of some kind. There will be the standard lightweight running cap usually with a mesh top to wick away moisture and a bill that absorbs moisture and directs it away from the face. Some runners will have caps with a built in or removable back flap designed to keep the sun off their necks. Many will be wearing beanie style caps or knit caps against the morning cold as well as lightweight gloves that exhibit the wicking property so useful in running gear. The gloves can be stuffed in a pocket and brought out whenever needed later on day or night.
Bandannas are common at Western. Like the hat flap, they protect the neck against the sun, but they can also be pulled up over the face to filter out the dust that can get quite thick at that race. When it gets hot, the bandanna can be dipped in a river or stream, or even filled with ice during the hottest part of the day. Some bandannas are actually equipped with an ice pocket and are insulated to keep the ice from melting right away. Finally, you will notice that about half the runners are wearing gaiters, that is, a tough piece of polyester or some other durable material that wraps around the ankles and fits down over the top of the runners’ shoes. Gaiters keep rocks, pebbles, sand and debris from falling into your shoes, and they significantly cut down on the dust that can gather in your shoe and cause blisters. Some runners will wear gaiters for any trail runs while others will only bring them out when they know the trail will be particularly rugged.
The key to all your shoe and clothing selections will be experimentation. Pay attention to what other ultrarunners are wearing and then use you long runs to test out things for yourself. Eventually, you’ll have an ultrarunning wardrobe that will enhance your efforts on race day instead of creating additional problems for you.