A good shoe is the most important purchase a runner makes, and that's even more true for a TOJ who needs good protection because his/her body already has wear and tear. I've never scrimped on running shoes and have owned over a hundred pair. Many of them have ended up barely used at a bargain price in a Goodwill store, and, hopefully, on the feet of somebody for whom they were perfect. Even after years of running, finding the best shoe takes some study and luck.
The comparative performance ratings in the running magazines and online are getting better and better at objectively assessing some of the important differences that exist between shoes. As one who ran in the Adidas Cross Country and early Nikes with a black rubber waffle sole, I can attest that all the engineering and materials in today's shoes have really improved their durability and performance. The innovations in new shoes are not all marketing hype. I use the ratings to pick out a half dozen or so promising candidates, if I'm ready to take the risk of a model or brand change.
But I also try to ignore the lure of the hot looking shoes on the lean and mean (10K, marathon, ultra, whatever) superstar in the ads showing him or her triumphantly breaking the finish ribbon. I (or likely you either) don't belong in that shoe because I neither run nor am physically like the guy in the ad. And though the zippy graphics on his shoes are cool, they won't protect me in steep, rocky and remote terrain.
Of course, you have to do the in-the-store drill. Put on socks of the same weight and material in which you prefer to run. Try on both shoes. Lace them just as you would when you are going to run. Check that there's a about 1/4 thumb of space between your toes and the end of the shoe. Check that the heel cup is snug but not tight, and that your forefoot doesn't float sideways and isn't cramped. Walk then jog around the store (or outside if allowed) to see if there are any spots that rub (even a little bit!), if you feel stable, and adequately cushioned the full length of the foot, especially under the arch. If they feel close-to-perfect, congratulations, there's a chance they might work.
You may not really know if the shoes are right for you until you've run anywhere from 1 to 50 miles. I've had shoes that made me slightly change my gait. My feet felt fine, but during the run I would notice something didn't feel right, like I wasn't centered over the shoe or I needed to run slightly pigeon-toed to get them to roll properly trough a full stride.
Even small changes in the way you naturally run can cause a repetitive motion injury that manifests elsewhere in your body. While running, your whole body is rewarded or punished by your shoes. Even a couple of degrees of change in the angle a shoe engages the road or trail surface can radiate out of the feet to the knees and hips. If you start compensating by adjusting your stride by moving your pelvis or arms more, you can aggravate your shoulders and neck, which are a long ways from where your feet pound on the earth. Sometimes you don't even realize it until you feel pain after a hard run.
I bought a pair of North Faces, which felt great in the store. They hugged my foot like a glove and were grippy on the loop I ran around the store. After I bought them, they weren't bad on the trails either for the first part of a run. But after running for a half hour or more, I had low level pain pulsing through my legs, and not in the usual places. I'm a stocky runner who has had an ankle injury and both knees scoped. I expect a little discomfort there. Some soreness, especially in muscles, is to be expected after a long run. To me, it's a pleasant reminder. But I was feeling some pain in my thigh bones and hips joints, too. The shoe just wasn't offering enough cushioning or holding my foot laterally stable. I concluded it might be a good shoe for a lighter runner, but not for me most of the time. I now reserve them for short runs on softer surfaces, where they do fine.
I also have a pair of Montrails that felt a little clunky in the store and a bit roomy in mid-foot. I wasn't sure about them. But the heel absorption felt right and the sole very firm. I gambled and bought them. For the rocky trail where I run often, they work very well. They fit snug enough on my foot, and, more important, they fit they way my body runs. my weight, and the terrain. At the end of the run, my feet and the rest of my body, feel tired and a normal post-workout sore, but there's no unusual pain. That tells me I'm in the right shoe.
Yet my Montrails, like any shoe, have their limits, too. A good shoe may work on one surface but not on another. With the Bolder Boulder 10K coming up, a few months ago I started running once a week on an asphalt country road. Running on mountain trails and asphalt roads is very different, not just because of the difference in hardness of the surfaces. Running trails with steep ups and downs strengthens your legs, but it also shortens your stride length -- not good for a road race. I've also found from wearing a heart rate monitor that I tend to work at a higher rate on flat roads than going up a hill. Road running presents much less variation to the body. So to get ready for the Bolder Boulder, I try to get acclimated to the asphalt and find a mile-by-mile sustainable pace, which is impossible to do with the ups and downs on a mountain trail.
The first couple of times I ran on the asphalt during late winter in my Montrails, I felt crappy. My entire skeleton ached, as did my toes and the middle of my feet. It didn't help that the county went cheap on road maintenance by capping it with 3/4 inch gravel, making a surface that is tough for runners and bikers. On that hard, abrasive surface, the Montrails felt like I was running on short slabs of 2x4, and 10K seemed like a long, long ways. Something was wrong.
I wondered if the problem was due to my shoes. I happened to be in Boulder, Colorado, and went into the Boulder Running Company, a runner's mecca. A nice young woman asked me what I was looking for, how many miles I was running, etc. It was nice to have a store clerk take a TOJ like me seriously.
I told her all about what was going on. She asked me to take off my shoes and socks, then stand evenly on both feet. She told me I had a little over-pronation. After getting my size, she disappeared into the stock room and came back with three pairs of shoes, all of which felt good at first touch. She insisted I take each of them out of the store for a run. I followed her advice and returned sweaty and sold on a pair of Saucony's, a brand I have never owned before. They have made the runs on asphalt much more tolerable, sometimes even pleasurable, and I eagerly anticipate what they will do on the comparatively smooth streets of Boulder. The knowledgeable clerk reminded me of why it's always best to buy your shoes in a speciality store. You want to buy your shoes from someone who loves running as much as you do.
My body has taught me a lot about how to buy running shoes. Thirty years ago I made the right pick about 20% of the time. Now I guess correctly more than 60% the time. It's good the odds are getting so much better because, as a TOJ ages, the physical stakes get much higher. And the return on investment good shoes give me by keeping me on the trail and out of the doctor's office is better than I'll ever earn in my IRA. I figure I better buy more running shoes to save more money.