While women’s running participation and shoe sales have soared for the past 25 years, the running shoe industry as a whole hasn’t exactly followed the trend from a design and performance point of view. It might be surprising to know that not all brands use gender-specific lasts (the three-dimensional interior shape of the shoe on which a shoe is built) or have material specs tuned to the unique gait and foot shape characteristics of women runners.
Generally speaking, women’s feet are narrower in the heel and wider in the forefoot compared to men’s feet, but they also have shorter, steeper, and wider longitudinal arches. Proportionately speaking, women also tend to have shorter forefoot bones, a higher instep, lower calf muscles, and wider hips than men.
Those details can result in subtly or distinctly different landing patterns and foot flex patterns in their running gait and might partially explain why women and men runners tend to be injured differently, says Dr. Casey Kerrigan, an avid runner and founder of OESH Shoes women’s footwear brand.
While men are more likely to suffer from tendon and knee cartilage problems, running injuries among women tend to be tied to stress fractures and injuries related to the instability of the pelvis, including iliotibial band syndrome, patellofemoral pain syndrome (runner’s knee), and Achilles tendonitis, according to the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Also, women experience more than twice as much knee osteoarthritis than men, Kerrigan says.
Dr. Kerrigan believes all women’s footwear could be designed better to minimize their risk.
Ideally, she says, a shoe designed specifically for a woman would be one that is a lot wider than a man’s shoe in the forefoot and much, much, narrower in the heel. She also believes women’s shoes should be built on an entirely flat platform with very resilient foam but without any underfoot contouring or gait-controlling devices. Those types of elements tend to increase impact on all lower-extremity joints, especially the knees.
“I think the idea of women’s specific running shoes is phenomenal,” says Dr. Kerrigan, who founded running gait research labs at both Harvard University and the University of Virginia. “It’s going in the right direction, but I wish the women’s fashion industry would follow, because it’s a lifetime of what your impact is in all shoes, and that includes standing.”
Aside from OESH, ASICS and Altra are among the brands have put more research, design, and marketing into women’s specific lasts and shoe features in recent years. Adidas and Puma are two of the companies that are unveiling new shoes with women’s specific designs this spring.
An all-women’s Adidas footwear team rethought, redesigned, and re-engineered its popular Ultraboost maximally cushioned training shoe to accommodate the specific foot shape and gait pattern of women runners. The women’s edition of the new Ultraboost 22 ($190) is built around a brand-new last based on the foot scan data of more than 1.2 million runners in North America, Asia, and Europe.
The shape of the new Ultraboost 22 has a narrower heel, a lower instep, and an S-curve heel geometry that works with a firm, low-profile heel counter to secure the rear of the foot while allowing the Achilles tendon to move freely. It’s also features a stretchy Primeknit upper to accommodate a wider range of interior volume and a reinforced outsole to reduce pronation.
Meanwhile, Puma’s says its forthcoming Run XX Nitro shoe has a progressive, female-specific design built on a woman’s last that has a wider heel, higher instep and steeper arch, plus a slightly firmer version of the brand’s lightweight and responsive NITRO midsole foam.
So what about the rest of the women’s shoes? If you take into consideration all of the models from every brand on the shoe wall of your local running store, most women’s running shoes are still designed off of men’s lasts or “unisex” lasts, which are most often originally based on the size and shape of men’s feet.
As much as we all cringe at the “shrink it and pink it” process of downsizing men’s shoes, there has been progress made in running shoes than other categories of footwear, says Geoffrey Gray, a physical therapist who operates Heeluxe Footwear Science and Research in Goleta, California, a company that consults with shoe brands in the process of designing running, outdoor and casual shoes.
“I always look at it from the perspective that women are buying more of the running shoes, why are we still mostly developing for men? It does kind of blow my mind when I see that. It just doesn’t make sense to me,” Gray says. “If Levi’s can make 20 different sizes and cuts of jeans for men and women, you’d think more footwear companies could do the same with shoes.”
Word to the wise, though: Women’s specific shapes don’t work for every woman, and following a one-shape-fits all concept isn’t the best way for any runner—man or woman—to select their next pair of shoes, says Jay Dicharry, a Bend, Oregon, physical therapist and one of the country’s leading running gait analysts.
Dicharry has put thousands of runners through high-tech clinical gait analysis sessions for scientific research and to advise for shoe companies in new shoe design. He says he doesn’t consider gender when evaluating shoe shape, but instead looks at data trends from testing women (and men) running in shoes with a wide range of shapes and interior volumes.
“I know there is a big push to design products specifically for women, but more importantly, we need to shift this discussion to being about designing products for individuals,” Dicharry says. “Just as all men’s feet are not the same, all women’s foot shapes are also not the same. If you don’t have a wider forefoot and a narrower heel, a women’s specific design is not going to help you.”
In other words, instead of buying a shoe based on a stereotypical dimensions, he says every runner needs to find a shoe that works specifically for the shape of their feet and gait pattern. And while the shape can be an important factor in determining what shoe models fit your feet the best, what is more important from a scientific point of view is finding a running a shoe with a midsole foam that will optimally compress and rebound in tune with your body mass, your running speed, your rate of force development, and your titin levels (the level of protein matrix inside your muscles).
So how can you be sure to get a shoe that matches those criteria? Dicharry recommends visiting a running specialty store and taking time to try on several pairs of shoes with one of the store’s expert shoe-fitters. Do some initial running movement tests, either on the store’s treadmill or by jogging a bit in the shoes on the store floor or outside on a sidewalk, he says.
You’ll want to find shoes that conform to the size and shape of your foot without binding, pinching, or causing any irritation, but you’ll also want to find a shoe with a midsole that feels semi-firm and supportive—not too soft and not too hard. While you’re demoing the shoe in the store, practice cutting to the left and to the right to see it conforms to the shape of your foot or if it feels sloppy and rolls off to the side as you turn.
“Fit matters. You want to have a shoe conform around the shape of your foot,” he says. “If that’s a woman’s lasted shoe, that’s great. If it’s a men’s lasted shoe, that’s great, too. But don’t get pigeonholed into the notion that you must find a woman’s specific shoe, because what you really need is a shoe that matches the shape of your foot. Period.”