How to buy the perfect pair of running shoes: we go shopping in Hong Kong with a foot expert

A specialist in sports shoe design, Dr Jason Cheung explains the five key criteria for selecting running shoes as we visit big brand shops on Mong Kok’s Fa Yuen Street, where seemingly little is done to help customers make the right choice

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 September, 2017, 5:45pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 September, 2017, 12:24am

It is a rainy weekday afternoon in Mong Kok, and Fa Yuen Street is buzzing with shoppers.

This section, just south of Argyle Street, is popularly known as Sneaker Street. It is jammed with just about every conceivable brand, design and colour of sports shoe imaginable, attracting locals and tourists alike.

The ground floor of the large glass-fronted Nike flagship store is swarming with customers jostling for access to the extensive display rack of the latest running shoes mounted on the far wall.

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Dr Jason Cheung Tak-man, a specialist in sports shoe design, watches the scrum of bodies. “People are buying running shoes but they have no idea what they are really buying – it’s all about the looks,” he says.

To call Cheung a specialist is an understatement. During his PhD in foot biomechanics at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, he used a computational technique called finite element analysis to build a sophisticated 3D computational model of his own foot based on multiple MRI scans. He later worked at the University of Calgary’s Human Performance Laboratory in Canada, researching optimal support and load distribution between a person’s foot and sports shoes.

“There is no such thing as the best running shoe, only the best running shoe for you,” Cheung says, adding how easy it is to buy the wrong type and cause serious damage.

Cheung is chief scientist and senior director of footwear research and development at the Innovation Centre at Xtep (China), a sports footwear brand. He has agreed to help me select a new pair of running shoes from the bewildering choice available on Sneaker Street.

Cheung explains that there are essentially five key criteria for selecting the correct running shoe: purpose (such as sprinting, track racing, jogging or alpine cross-country); typical distances run (a marathon or just running for the bus); performance level (are you a lithe Olympic prospect or middle-aged journalist jogging at the weekend?); surface type (smooth tarmac roads, rubber running tracks or country park trails); and the physical characteristics of the user (foot, body and running style).

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Having explained my limited athletic ambitions, Cheung goes in search of a measuring device to obtain the dimensions of my foot, but returns empty-handed.

“They don’t even have a simple Brannock size-measurement device,” he says, referring to the patented industry standard tool used to measure foot size for sports shoes. He says that obtaining a perfect 3D fit is essential, and that the length and width of the arch is as important for correct support as the length of the entire foot.

“All the functional construction and design is based on supporting the foot, particularly the arch length,” Cheung says as he selects a pair of running shoes from the display rack, bends them, and flips them over to inspect the soles.

“A high-quality running shoe will last 1,000km, but most of the basic shoes [will last] maybe only 200km,” he says.

He hands me two pairs of shoes that are not running shoes at all but general training shoes, presumably put in the wrong retail area by mistake.

“If you tried to wear these for a marathon, it would be a disaster very quickly,” he says. He explains that the absence of cushioning and an unsuitable placement of the foot support for running means there is a good chance these shoes could cause knee damage, heel pain and shin splints.

Even if a customer manages to obtain a shoe that fits correctly, suits their purpose and conditions, and conforms to his or her own physical standards, there is still the tricky issue of pronation type.

During running, pronation occurs as the foot rolls inward and the arch of the foot flattens. Pronation is a normal part of what is known as the gait cycle. It helps to provide shock absorption in the foot and it is essential to know your pronation type (under-pronating, neutral or over-pronating) before buying running shoes. Someone who over-pronates is sometimes said to have “flat feet”.

Many specialist sports shoe stores offer gait analysis. Typically, this sees a customer’s running style subject to video analysis while they run for a few minutes on a treadmill. None of the stores visited on Sneaker Street offer the service and most sales staff we spoke to had never even heard of it.

Cheung explains that you can also tell a lot by looking at the soles of existing running shoes and seeing where the worn areas are distributed. Usually, an over-pronator will wear down the medial (inside) of their shoe heel, while abrasion on the lateral (outer) side is more normal.

“Biomechanics dictate that 80 per cent of us land on the lateral heel, but excessive pronation on ground contact means the foot joint is unstable,” Cheung says. Buying the wrong shoe for the wrong pronation type, he explains, can be a very painful and expensive mistake.

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Over the road at the Adidas store, they don’t have any means of measuring the customer’s foot or analysing their running style either, but one customer has arrived prepared.

“I am a neutral pronator running long distances on the flat,” says Daniel Spiess from Germany, who is competing in the Munich marathon in October and hopes to complete the race within three hours. He is shopping for running shoes with his girlfriend and admits that although impressed by the variety of shoes and the cheap prices on Sneaker Street, he is shocked by the complete lack of gait analysis, sizing facilities or professional guidance. He says these services are offered as standard in Germany.

Cheung examines Adidas’ rack of about 50 different running shoes and selects one priced at HK$1,500.

“There is no grip on the heel – the cushioning is good but the uppers are not really supportive enough. This is all about style, not function,” he says. He believes this type of shoe has arisen because more non-running customers prefer the soft cushioning and flexible feel of running shoes, creating a market trend that could be very unhealthy.

At the Asics shop, the sales supervisor says they offer a special “Foot ID” service, but this is only available at their Causeway Bay store and an appointment is necessary. He asks me what sort of shoe I am looking for, and when I explain, he immediately leads me to a section displaying Asics’ Gel-Kayano running shoes.

Some of the damage is cumulative, which is why you get problems called ‘overuse injuries’ such as stress fractures. Often you don’t realise the damage you are doing
Dr Jason Cheung

For once, Cheung looks mildly impressed. As the sales supervisor looks on nervously, Cheung starts twisting the shoe and showing that the sole is built for long-distance road running, with foamed rubber at the front and highly abrasion-resistant durable rubber at the back. He also points to the two-layer midsole design constructed of lightweight, elastic foams with gel interior, and the double thickness elastic mesh on the upper, which is more supportive, yet breathable.

They fit well, too, and a purchase decision seems imminent until Cheung asks me about the soles of my existing running shoes. I tell him of the extensive wear to the mid-section on the lateral side and he seems horrified. The shoes I am about to purchase should never be used by someone with under-pronation; they act against over-pronation, so could damage my feet.

Cheung turns around and selects Asics’ Gel-Nimbus shoe instead. He shows that the two sides of the segmented soles are not connected, so there is no attempt to correct for over-pronation. The shoe is slightly heavier, but still fits well and feels very comfortable.

According to analysis by US- and India-based Transparency Market Research, the global athletic footwear market was worth US$74.7 billion in 2011, and is forecast to reach US$84.4 billion by 2018. Greater China and Southeast Asia are the fastest growing areas.

However, not everyone can take an eminent sports shoe specialist shopping with them, and few of the leading brands appear to be investing much in helping customers choose the right product – at least not on Sneaker Street. With Hong Kong’s exorbitant rents, store managers may be reluctant to use precious retail space for measurement machines and gait analysis systems.

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Judging by the queues at the tills, consumers seem content to pay for style rather than function. But many are likely unaware of the long-term damage they might be causing to their bodies.

“Some of the damage is cumulative, which is why you get problems called ‘overuse injuries’ such as stress fractures. Often you don’t realise the damage you are doing,” Cheung warns. “The potential damage you can do in the wrong shoes is 100 per cent.”