Pronators, Supinators, Neutral Feet, Oh My! How to Choose Shoes

Everything is better with science! How nice would it be to get running shoe choice down to a universal and infallible equation where, to choose a shoe, all we would need to do is plug in a few variables to diagnose how each of us runs and then solve for X. Bam. Done. For years, running shoe companies and running stores have worked to do just that using a diagnosis technique called gait analysis to determine how each runner runs and then categorizing shoes to fit each type of gait.

What kind of gait do you have? Are you an overpronator? A supinator? A neutral foot? This is what your local running store sales associates are looking for when they conduct a gait analysis on you. They might ask to see your old stinky running shoes, then stare knowingly at the treads or perhaps they’ll have you jog barefoot on the treadmill and nod and hmmmmm as they play the footage back in slow motion while pointing vaguely at your Achilles. Deciding whether you overpronate, underpronate or perfectly pronate is how they determine what kind of running shoe to prescribe you.

But what exactly is pronation? Does your gait really determine what type of shoes you need to avoid injury and perform your best? Is there a better way to find the right shoe for you?

What is Pronation?

Very generally put, pronation is a rotation of the bones around the arch of the foot and is not a terrible thing. In fact, pronation is a normal part of the gait cycle. When your foot strikes the ground as you run, you will experience a minor collapse of the arch, causing your ankle to roll slightly inward when bearing weight. All of our bodies are unique, so the amount and character of foot pronation is different for each of us.

Amount of pronation as seen on a treadmill gait analysis.
Types of pronation as seen on a treadmill gait analysis.

Historically, we’ve all been grouped into one of three categories according to how much or how little we pronate when we run. Below is an explanation of each type of pronator and what the hallmarks are for determining that type:

 

1) Neutral Pronation:

This is the label for people with a “natural” or “ideal” amount of pronation. Conventionally, it was thought that people with a neutral gait will have fewer injuries and, as such, do not require corrective orthotics or additional support or stability in their footwear.

Arch Type: Normal

Outsole Wear Pattern: Progresses from outside of heel to the center of the ball of the foot

Gait Analysis: Achilles is in line with the heel and calf

 

2) Overpronation:

This is the label for people who pronate “too much.” Their arches seem to collapse when weighted, leading to a dramatic inward motion of the ankle and a perceptible inward sway of the Achilles. Conventionally it was thought that overpronators are more likely to have injuries as their muscles, joints, and tendons are tweaked at “unnatural” angles to counterbalance the overpronating. For this reason, most suggest overpronators select shoes with posting to prevent the overpronating. These are the stability (moderate posting) or motion control (heavy posting) categories of shoes that keep your arch from collapsing too much.

Arch Type: Low

Outsole Wear Pattern: Progresses from heel to big toe/inside of foot

Gait Analysis: Achilles bends inward significantly

 

3) Underpronation (or Supination):

This is the label for people who pronate too little. Instead of the center of the foot and the big toe area relaxing and pronating to account for variety in terrain, the weight stays on the outside of the foot through the whole gait cycle. This can lead to ankle sprains and IT band issues, among others.

Arch Type: High

Outsole Wear Pattern: Progresses from outside of heel to outside of foot (little toe side)

Gait Analysis: Achilles bends slightly outward

Distinctive wear patterns on running shoe outsoles for different running gaits/types of pronation.
Distinctive wear patterns on running shoe outsoles for different running gaits/types of pronation.

 

Conventional Shoe Prescription

Once the shoe store sales associate labels your gait, she’ll choose a shoe type to fit that gait; usually either neutral shoes or support shoes. If you have a neutral gait, obviously you’ll be prescribed neutral shoes. If you overpronate, you’ll be prescribed support shoes. Usually supinators are prescribed neutral shoes too. By doing this, she’ll also rule out at least half of the shoes on the wall for you to choose from. From this point, she will likely bring you a few fairly similar shoes from different brands which you can try on to determine the pair that feels the best. The variables you choose from at this point are mainly the type and amount of cushioning you prefer, the shoe shape, brand-specific technology, and color.

 

The Problem with Gait Analysis

So, what’s wrong with this system? It seems perfectly logical, right? However, just because something sounds good or seems objectively based on science does not mean it actually is good. In fact, when this method of prescribing shoes based on gait analysis is put to the test, it doesn’t hold up. While it’s true that different people have different propensities for pronation, it does not follow that prescribing stability shoes to people with greater amounts of pronation reduces their rates of injury. In fact, according to recent research, choosing the right running shoe for you might be a lot less complicated than we’ve been led to believe.

Much of the research available shows that the best shoes for a given runner are in fact, most likely the shoes that feel the most comfortable to that person.

That’s right! The way to know which shoe is right for you is to go with the one that feels the most comfortable on your foot.

So, presumably, someone who knows nothing about running or running shoes could go into a running specialty store, skip the gait analysis, try a few different options, then pick the pair that is most comfortable and be perfectly okay. She might even be better off than if she had gone through the whole gait analysis process!

On a personal note, I am an overpronator who runs almost exclusively in neutral shoes. They feel the best to me and haven’t led to more frequent injury, in fact I have been injured less since making the switch. So maybe next time you’re looking for new shoes, take a pass on the gait analysis and branch out to find the shoes that feel amazing, be they neutral shoes or stability shoes!

How do you choose your shoes? Do you run in shoes that were prescribed for you based on a gait analysis?

I'm a proud resident of Portlandia, ex-running store employee, pulmonary emboli conquerer and connoisseur of high fives. I write about running community, trail running/training and anything else that grabs my immediate interest. I'm currently running for fun with my crazy friends - no races on the horizon YET.

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10 comments

  1. After I had my third kid I thought I’d go into my LRS and get refitted to see what changed. Based on the store’s scientific method, the clerk insisted I needed shoes that were: a) uncomfortable; b) a “type” that I have never felt comfortable in; c) a full-size too big; and d) also needed inserts which I have to this day used twice. I listened and ignored my own thoughts because I wasn’t sure how my body had changed. I had several horrible runs before returning them for the shoes that felt good – a full-size smaller, with a little stability that made me happy and of course without the stupid inserts.

    Right then I realized that the whole getting fitted thing is only worth so much. People want experts and I think a knowledgable LRS clerk can help guide a customer based on that customer’s feedback on how different shoes feel, but to say the data objectively points to this shoe is the RIGHT one for you despite the subjective data screaming otherwise suggests that there might not be as much science to shoe choice as we’d like. And because that’s what my experience says it must be true 😉

    1. Ugh! Inserts! Glad you ended up listening to your instincts. It’s been a while since my last shoe store fitting, but back when I used to go regularly my experience was similar. My feet make salespeople gasp in wonder that I can function without orthotics – bunions, flexible arches – but my gait is not super pronated. Twice I caved to the orthotic insert advice and I regretted it both times: because my foot couldn’t move naturally, the rest of the chain was affected and I got IT band pain.

      I think once you’ve been running long enough you just know what works. And it makes sense to me that the most comfortable shoe (provided people try running in it, not just walking) would be the right choice.

  2. I have high arch but neutral gait (years ago, a friend commented that I ran “straight up”, meaning no over or under-pronation) and very narrow feet with long toes. I prefer shoes with minimal drop (currently, wear Saucony road shoes and Brooks trail shoes, each with 4mm drop–and no plug for either company!). With chronic hamstring issues, I need to consider entire chain kinetics from pelvic girdle area down to feet–and shoes can greatly affect form. Trying a variety of shoes, what feels comfortable, what fits my mechanics, perhaps a gait analysis for reference, seem to be a better combination for finding the right shoes than merely pronation considerations.

  3. YES to this post. I’ve never been fitted with shoes that are actually comfortable and the correct size by a “gait analyst”.

    I worked at a running shop for a bit and realized pretty quick that the whole gait analysis thing was just a way for the shop to recommend the most expensive shoes. idk if that’s true for every shop but I’d much rather just pick out what feels best!

  4. When I first started running a LRS recommended a stability shoe. At the same time, on and off I would also have to deal with IT and flute issues. Fast forward a few years, I increased my cadence, went to a LRS again and they recommended neutral shoes. Since I moved to neutral shoes and increasing my cadence, I don’t have IT or glute issues! Anecdotally, I also think that moving to a more mid-forefoot stride helped with injuries.

  5. My husband has the most collapsed arches you’ve ever seen… he’d been told to wear orthotics for years with major stability shoes as a result. Kept having Achilles pain/issues. Then he had a sports/med guy assess him, who said despite the messed up looking feet, he had a totally fine gait. No more orthotics and he buys what feels right, now. You just never know.

  6. After ITBS as a freshman in high school I was fitted with stability shoes. Like hard-core motion control shoes. Wore them through college without incident. As a senior (2005) I started learning about racing flats and that people even trained in them. I bought a pair and used them initially for races (resulting in some PRs!!) and then gradually integrated them into everyday runs because they just felt better!!! Those old shoes seemed terribly clunky, unnatural, and just uncomfortable. So by 2007ish I was training almost entirely in shoes classified as flats and still do so today! I don’t know how my feet would be classified now, but having had just one injury in the past 15+ years, I’m going to stick with the flats!

  7. First, I am not a runner. I am not sure I could be- at 5’9″ with feet that are a size 7-1/2 US I probably fall on my face. I do believe in purchasing shoes ( running) for everyday wear. I stepped into a pot hole that was about 10″ deep. Long story short- I had 2 surgeries to repair the damage 2 years a part. It seems that injury caused my supination to be worse. I must wear orthotics to keep my right side happy. Poor shoes, no orthotics, will start pain in my hip, moving to my leg and then, to the right side of my right foot. I go through a lot of shoes. Because of the fact I wear nothing but running shoes the last on the shoe does not hold up for more than 3 months or so. I go in to be fitted and I purchase what is recommended. I try to stay with that particular style until I can no longer find them. At that point I go in to be fitted again. For people who have feet that can wear anything- enjoy it. Not all of us have had that situation even before injuries.

    Since my surgery- 13 years ago I cannot tolerate hard soled shoes nor walking on a hard surface. It is very painful. Orthotics are not cheap either as most people know. I have to get new ones every 3 yrs. I see an orthopedic surgeon and have orthotics made a place that makes prosthetics. It is a bit different than the podiatrist path.