A Salty Primer on Spikes

The many colors and patterns of  spikes – just on one team!

When I first joined the running community nearly four years ago, I always believed there was just one kind of running shoe – a basic trainer. But I quickly learned that the types of shoes people use depend on the activity they’re doing. With winter and indoor track season already begun or beginning for many athletes, runners are ready to lace up their spikes and hit the track.

Racing spikes, or simply “spikes,” are lightweight shoes worn for racing on a track or competing in field events. Many runners will often use the spikes for fast speed workouts too. “But Eucalyptus!” you cry out to me, “I do all of my speedwork in my trainers and still hit my paces! Why do I need spikes?”

Take it from a tracklete – it’s worth a shot!

First, let’s take a closer look at what spikes are:

Track spike photo
Close enough for ya?

As you can see from the photo, we’re literally talking about shoes that have metal spikes sticking out of them.  If you’ve never seen them before they may sound a little like torture devices, and be just as intimidating. But fear not, fellow runner!  At heart, spikes are just really fast, lightweight shoes, and you can wear them with or without the hardware–the spikes screw on and off with a little tool called a spike wrench.

So why wear them instead of trainers?

The design: Besides being lightweight, there is little to no padding in the heel, forcing your body to direct power forward so you run on your toes, which is less of an energy-suck on your body, and efficiency can mean seconds, and on the track, seconds count!

The traction: For a while, I didn’t wear metal spikes in my shoes during track, and my shoes were more like racing flats. But when I added spikes to my spikes, the increase in traction was incredible! It not only makes you feel fast, but it’s also helpful when you’re trying not to fall over in a tight pack.

The dedicated purpose: Whether you use metal spikes or not, track spikes are also worn much less often than your training shoes, so there is much less wear and tear, which can keep a spring in your speedwork step much longer than if you wear long distance trainers.  Depending how often you wear them, they can last years! Also, spikes are made for running fast, and that’s it. There’s not a special spike for neutral runners or overpronators–what you get is a natural sprinting gait. You pick what is comfortable for a single purpose; no need to worry about how they’ll perform on a long run or on pavement, or whether they’re cute enough to keep them around after you’ve worn them out for running.

What about the actual spike part of the spikes?

Pyramid spikes, the most common type.  Click to see more or purchase via Amazon!
Pyramid spikes, the most common type. Click to see more or purchase via Amazon!

If you were to go out and buy a pair of spikes right now, it would probably come with a set of spikes and a spike wrench. Spikes come in all different sizes and types, but I’ve found that for distance running on a track, 1/4 pyramid spikes are the way to go. These are the most universal spikes, and are usually allowed on any indoor or outdoor track. Other types of spikes include needle-shaped and cone-shaped. You can also put blanks, or flat spikes, in your shoes.

Spike maintenance

It’s a good idea to take a quick look at your spikes every time you put the shoes on and to tighten them down before an important workout or big race so they don’t unscrew themselves and fall out.

It’s important to watch how worn-down your spikes get (note: this is especially true if you wear blanks!); if you leave the spikes in too long or run in them a lot, they can get worn down enough that your wrench won’t grip them and once that happens, they’re stuck.  Because I run longer distances and haven’t always paid attention to my spikes, I’m on my third pair in three years, a result of spikes getting stuck in my shoes, so now I try to change my spikes every three or four races, and always tighten them down right before a big meet or important workout

How do I know which ones to buy?

Spike shoes differ based on what kind of events you participate in. As a cross country runner, I typically use the same spikes year-round, but this isn’t the case for everyone.

Cross country spikes are typically heavier (though this is changing) and have more traction on the sole,.

Track-specific distance spike (distance here meaning around 3K-10K) would have a smoother spike plate than a cross-country spike. Distance spikes are flatter and heavier than sprint spikes, and spikes are usually spread more evenly throughout the front of the shoe (there are never spikes in the heel).

Mid-distance spikes are a great choice if you’re only using spikes for speed training on the track.  These are a little less flexible than distance spikes but not as rigid as sprint spikes. It makes sense when you examine the spikes in terms of the race – the longer the race, the more comfortable and loose the shoe needs to be.

Sprint spikes are probably the least like racing flats or trainers. They are inflexible, have no cushioning in the heel, and often have a hard plate under the toe which encourages running on the toes.

Some sweet Jav spikes! (Amazon.com)

Field events even have spikes of their own. Jumpers will have heel cushioning to help with liftoff, and throwers have flat shoes with no metal spikes to help with their spins – with the exception of the javelin throwers, who get to wear long spikes in both the front and back of their shoes.  Talk about torture devices!


A few words of advice

When running in spikes, there are a few things to remember. Make sure to have a working spike wrench with you whenever you have spikes on. If you’re racing, you never know when the officials will tell you that you can or can’t wear spikes!  If you’re just training, you might need to add or change a spike before it wears down too low.

Lace them tightly, and only wear them for their intended purpose. Never, ever warm up (beyond a few strides, of course!) or cool down in your spikes. Remember, there’s no cushioning, so your feet will not thank you for this!

Be careful when running in a pack, on the track or on the trail. Getting “spiked” (i.e. getting stabbed by the spikes in another girl’s shoes) is a common occurrence during track meets. Usually it’s done accidentally, but even so, it still hurts.

It’s not just physical

Beyond the obvious physical advantages, spikes have always made me feel faster and wearing them changes my mental approach to the track which I believe gives me an edge. There’s something about bright colors and the claw-feet that just gets me revved up and ready for speed!  If you have any interest in running on a track, I highly suggest trying them out!


Would you ever try wearing spikes to enhance your track experience?  Have you worn them before?

Former collegiate coffee-fueled distance runner who loves track workouts.

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