Let's answer the 2nd question first. Normal, healthy feet pronate! Normal pronation does not need to be “corrected”. However, some people OVER-pronate. Those runners need a shoe that supports their over-pronating foot to help guide the foot and enable the runner to avoid injury.
So, what does pronation mean exactly? Well, “pronate” is the word used to describe the natural motion of the foot after it strikes the ground. When a person with a normally pronating foot runs, the outside part of her heel strikes the ground. As she shifts her body weight forward, her foot rolls inward (pronates) and her entire foot comes into contact with the ground. This allows the foot to properly support the body and absorb the impact forces. Her motion continues forward and she pushes off (called “toe off”) evenly from the front of her foot.
Normal pronators should look for a “neutral” run shoe.
A runner who OVER-pronates strikes the ground with her heel in the same way, but her foot rolls too far inward (overpronation). This causes foot and ankle strain, as it does not allow the foot and ankle to properly support the body nor to properly absorb the impact forces. As her motion continues forward, she will toe-off more from the ball of her foot. Runners who overpronate are susceptible to foot, ankle and knee problems if they don't wear a shoe that properly supports the motion of their feet.
Mild/moderate overpronators should look for a shoe labeled as “guidance”, “support” or “stability”.
Some people severely overpronate. The severly overpronating foot rolls inward to a much greater degree. Severe overpronators often have flat feet, which means the arch of the foot has partially or fully collapsed. The arch comes into contact with the ground when standing.
Severe overpronators should look for a shoe labeled as “motion control” or “control”.
A very small percentage of people UNDER-pronate, which is called “supinate”. Supinators land towards the outside of the heel, but instead of the foot rolling inward, the foot bears the weight along the outer edge of the foot, with the toe-off coming primarily from the smaller toes. This causes foot and ankle strain, as it does not allow the foot and ankle to properly support the body nor to properly absorb the impact forces.
Supinators should look for a “neutral” run shoe with additional cushioning to absorb impact forces.
The best way to discover whether you have a normal gait, or if you overpronate, is to visit a specialty run shop, an exercise physiologist, a podiatrist or a physical therapist who specializes in working with athletes. A professional can analyze your gait, by watching you either walk or run, preferably on a treadmill. Some facilities can videotape your gait, then analyze the movement of your feet in slow-motion.
Another (and less costly) way is to look at the bottom of an older pair of run shoes. Check the wear pattern. A person with a normal gait will generally see wear evenly across the heel and front of the shoe. A person who overpronates will likely see more wear on the OUTside of the heel and more wear on the INside of the forefoot (at the ball). A person who supinates will see wear all along the outer edges of the shoe.
The run industry certainly doesn't make it easy for the consumer to pick an appropriate run shoe. There is jargon galore to wade through, and each footwear maker seems to have its own interpretation of the same words!
A person with normal pronation should look for a shoe defined as “neutral”. The primary feature of a neutral shoe is that it allows your foot to flow through it's natural gait from heel strike to toe off (the “gait cycle”) without trying to “guide” your foot in any way. It simply provides some level of cushioning from impact forces and protects your feet from the elements.
Regardless of what they are called, however, they all share some important features designed around a particular function. A stability shoe features a “post” in the mid-sole at the arch This post is typically a higher density material or insert that aims to better support the arch as it attempts to collapse into overpronation. This helps guide the foot into a better (more neutral) position for the toe-off.
Finally, the upper is usually very supportive, with substantial overlays and lacing to firmly hold the foot in place.
Supinators want to be sure to avoid any shoes designed for a foot that overpronates. The last thing a supinator wants is a shoe that attempts to guide the gait more towards the outside of the shoe! The best shoe for a supinator is a well-cushioned neutral shoe that will help absorb and dissipate some of the impact forces.
The great debate in the running community right now revolves around the question of how structured our shoes should be. The traditional view is embodied in the information we've provided above.
However, a “new” run philosophy, variously called “barefoot running”, “natural running”, or “minimalist running”, has taken off in the past few years. In a nutshell, this view holds that we are weakening our feet by relying on overly structured footwear. Some proponents argue that we did not evolve wearing shoes and that we are interfering with our natural foot motion by enclosing them in footwear that tries to shape our gaits.
The most ardent proponents of this trend are going completely barefoot.
For those runners not ready to take that step, a whole new crop of footwear has been designed to address the trend. The most visible is the Vibram Five Fingers. These shoes provide no support or cushioning to the user. They merely protect the user's foot from sharp objects, glass, etc that might be on the running surface. They are the closest thing to being barefoot without actually being barefoot!
The next step up from that is where a lot of jargon starts to enter into play again. The terms “natural running” and “minimalist running” are being used in various ways by different footwear makers. Generally speaking, these shoes share certain characteristics:
Many industry professionals highly recommend that runners GRADUALLY TRANSITION to using this type of footwear. A runner who is not accustomed to wearing these shoes should work them into a rotation with shoes that are currently being worn without injury. Slowly increase the mileage to ensure that this footwear is correct for you and that you can use them without pain. Runners who make an immediate change into minimalist shoes are highly prone to injury.