If you’re a fitness runner who only rarely enters local road races with a goal of just finishing, read no more. This article is not for you. But if you are someone who challenges themselves several times a year in important races and going for age-group honors, you probably have asked yourself more than once: Should I wear racing shoes?
It’s a good question, especially among competitive runners who want to race faster, set PRs or contend in road races.
The assumption that many of us make is that wearing a lighter shoe—i.e., racing flats–in races will make a substantial difference, result in faster times and maybe even that elusive PR. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple as there’s no single answer that works for every runner to the question of whether or not to wear flats or training shoes in important races, especially the all-important marathon.
But generally speaking, wearing lightweight racing shoes (or road flats, the terms are synonymous) is not a shortcut to bettering your PR. Training does that; not the shoes. In fact, racing shoes on the wrong runner could lead to a personal worst.
The harsh reality is that racing shoes are not recommended for the average recreational runner, simply because that runner doesn’t have much to gain by wearing extremely light shoes. And they are absolutely not for the beginner who is running for fun and/or just trying to finish a marathon or half marathon.
Obviously, racing shoes are very light–as much as four ounces lighter per shoe than most training shoes—so it stands to reason with less shoe on your feet, your turnover should be faster which should translate to faster times.
That much is true–a lighter racing shoe is a faster, more responsive shoe—but not necessarily better for every runner. The primary reason road racing shoes are so light is that they are less cushioned and much less durable and supportive than training shoes. But, most recreational racers and newbies can’t afford to sacrifice cushioning and support for supreme lightness.
At the other end of the spectrum are experienced, fast, biomechanically efficient racers who can give up some cushioning and support in an effort to squeeze every last second out of their race. Racing shoes won’t take you from a three-hour marathoner to sub-2:45, but they can help squeeze every second out which may make a difference if you run for top finishes and age-group awards.
But if that doesn’t sound like you (and most of us aren’t fast featherweights), you probably shouldn’t wear racing shoes. Flats simply aren’t worth the added risk of injury. Not only that, but racing shoes won’t make a significant difference in how fast you run, unless you can race at least 6:30-7 minutes per mile pace or faster.
Most highly competitive, veteran road racers near the front of the pack wear racing shoes. If that sounds like you and you are contemplating whether to wear racers for your next key race, try a pair out in a few of your tempo runs. Doing so, will give you a feel for the extreme lightness and flexibility that will allow for a faster leg turnover than if you wore conventional, heavier training shoes.
You might find out you like the snug fit and road feel of racing shoes and decide to use them in your next race. Go for it. Just don’t make your first race in road flats a marathon. Way too risky. Use them in a 5-K first.
If you find racing shoes just too light and lack adequate cushioning and support, stick with your everyday training shoes in races. Nothing wrong with that. That’s what most citizen racers use.
However, if you still want to wear a lighter shoe than your normal training shoes for road races but racing shoes are just too light, try a lightweight trainer-racer. This genre of shoes are a little bit heavier than most road-racing flats and have a moderate amount of cushioning which is usually adequate for recreational racers.
In addition, most running stores carry lightweight trainer-racers from the major manufacturers whereas few stores carry a full line of racing shoes to choose from.
Here are some helpful guidelines that will assist you in making a decision whether to wear racing shoes or not:
1. Racing shoes will allow you to run faster, but they won’t make you run faster. Research shows that for every ounce that you shave off the weight of a training shoe, you will run one second per mile faster. That’s not a lot. But if you extrapolate that from a typical 10-ounce trainer to an eight-ounce racer, that’s a savings of two ounces per shoe which translates to just two seconds per mile. That equates to just seven or eight seconds in a 5-K or nearly 1 ½ minutes in a marathon. But for some runners, every second counts—especially when you’re shooting for a personal best or an age-group victory.
2. Racing shoes make you feel faster. Race morning is different from a normal training day and chances are you want this day to feel special. That’s why you wear a singlet with a number on it and that’s why many racers also wear racing flats. They want to feel fast and light and racing shoes allows them to feel like there’s almost nothing on their feet to slow them down.
3. Use racing shoes for a few shorter runs before wearing them in a race. Racing in flats is an acquired feeling and you must get accustomed to the extra pounding your legs will take. Racing shoes weigh less because there is less shoe, especially less cushioning. If the shoes feel too light in training, chances are they are too light for races.
4. If you need plenty of cushioning, racing shoes are out. Most racers offer about 20 percent less midsole cushioning foam than training shoes. If you need that extra shock absorption, stick with trainers.
5. If you need support and stability, stick with your trainers. Racing shoes have almost no support or control features. If you overpronate and need those added support features, stick with your trainers.
6. If you’re a big runner, racing shoes are not for you. Simply put, bigger, heavier runners need all the support and cushioning they can get. Especially in the final 10 miles of a marathon. Racing shoes don’t have adequate cushioning for most bigger runners. Wear training shoes that have worked for you in the past.
7. When in doubt, stick with trainers. There is much less risk involved if you wear training shoes that worked well for you in the past.