What is the best shoe for swimrun?

Among the pieces of equipment essential to swimrun, the shoes are fundamental. It’s our contact with the ground, it is what we spend most time in, and it suffers the most shocks. It is therefore important to choose the ideal shoe for your training and your next race. The answer is actually quite simple: there is no ideal shoe. If you are seeking peremptory guru-style advice telling you what THE best shoe of the moment is, you can save time: stop reading this article, and go to magazines paid by brand x or y to brag about their product.

If you’re still reading, then let’s try to define a method to navigate the jungle of the running shoe market and the use of shoes in swimrun.

23368732555_2498015d72_zThe first criterion: your stride

Your shoes have to suit your stride, your running technique. This is by far the most important point. For example if you land on the heel, then you should not believe that a minimalist shoe without cushioning will suit you. On the contrary: you will risk getting injured. It doesn’t help to look at what some champion or friend (the two are not mutually exclusive!) uses if your running technique is completely different from that of your hero. We can of course change our technique, but this is another debate and a longer-term approach issue we’ll address another time. So analyse your current technique (not the one you dream of) and eliminate the shoes that are incompatible with your stride. Another point which can sometimes be important: your weight. Not everybody weighs 40 kg… Take this into account when choosing your shoe. It should be noted that manufacturers are making progress on cushioning and stability, with for example the introduction of TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) foam. In summary, comfort, movement efficiency and injury prevention are far more important than fashion. Use the type of shoes you need for classic running before moving on to the other criteria.

22606934906_a5d391a69f_zSecond: the shape of your foot

There is a wealth of research showing how the shape of a shoe can distort a foot which is a complex and dynamic structure. The foot moves with each stride, but also during the day and over the years. Like Cinderella, it is best to find a shoe that fits the shape of your foot (prince charming not included!). Some have wide feet, others narrow. Some have a pronounced arch, some don’t. So when you read a comment of the style “this shoe has the best fitting”, that means nothing in absolute terms: it all depends on the shape of the foot, and there is no miracle formula. Manufacturers generally use moulds or ‘lasts’ corresponding to their perception of the ‘typical’ foot and rarely change it. If you have found a brand whose last fits you, look for a pair in this brand or a brand that adopts a similar fit. With the arrival of minimalist shoes, the trend is for a larger ‘toe box’. This has many advantages, but those with narrow feet may lack control in the front part of the shoe. This is detrimental for control and confidence, especially on rough terrain. A small comment about insoles: if you wear some, of course remember to check that the shoes you are interested in are compatible.

27755749941_0577bb3d09_zThird: the sole

Everyone has in mind the mythical images of the swimrunners at the Ötillö helping each other out of water on super slippery boulders. This is what leads many to think that the grip on smooth wet rocks is the most important criterion for a shoe of swimrun. In fact, if we analyse the races, we see that even in the Ötillö these super slippery rocks represent a tiny part of the race, only a few percent of the course. How many people think about the mainly flat 19 km on granitic rocks and asphalted roads? In reality, in all races we spend most of the time running on varied courses, and an extremely low percentage on entering and exiting the water. In addition, in order to preserve the fauna, flora and biotope of the coast, and for the safety of the runners, most of the races must use already frequented beaches and pontoons that are technically easy to access.

30293763752_238828fd45_zSo to choose the ideal shoe we should mostly focus on the surfaces on which we will run. Simple, right? Almost. The swimrun generally takes place on varied terrain. It’s very rare for a race to be entirely on the same surface. Generally the course consists of more or less technical trail, softer or rocky parts, of tracks, roads, beaches, sometimes wet rocks and boulders along the sea, fields, forest trails, etc. Clearly, there is no single sole that can be ideal for all these conditions. So we necessarily have to make choices and compromises. If possible, consider the type of terrain on which you will run, and find a good compromise. Unfortunately not everyone can have 10 pairs of shoes for all terrains, or change during a race. To choose a versatile shoe that is right for training and competitions, look for a gum that allows sufficient grip, but with studs that are not too hard or too big to allow you to race on roads or hard and smooth surfaces. All of this, of course, should be adjusted based on your playgrounds.

33094248836_5e1ec378ab_zFourth test: ease in swimming

Almost everyone swims with their shoes in swimrun (this is mandatory in some races to avoid cutting your feet). However, shoes have three drawbacks for swimming: they increase the volume of the foot and have ‘rough’ surfaces, thereby increasing water resistance, and they limit the amplitude of the plantar flexion (foot extension), which also increases hydrodynamic drag;

22713782974_c44ddbe3ac_zTherefore the ideal shoe should limit these drawbacks. That is why you should look for a shoe which doesn’t cover the Achilles tendon, is snug around the foot to limit volume (avoid very broad soles), with a smooth top, and with the least possible foam especially on the stem. This often corresponds to minimalist shoes, but they do not suit everyone. A note on the laces: they increase drag and if a pebble slips into your shoe they are difficult to do and undo with cold fingers. Self-locking laces or elastics can save time. Another point to check: the shank and tongue are intended to provide comfort by conforming to the shape of the foot. In some shoes they are made of thick foam that holds too much water and for too long (see below about drainage), which is to be avoided.

32979420832_1ceb599e10_zFifth: drainage

When going from swimming to running water should flow as quickly as possible from the shoe to reduce weight and limit the exposure of the foot to the water. Water softens the skin, increasing the risk of blisters, but also of getting cold feet. Making holes in the shoes for drainage is part of (recent) swimrun folklore, but actually, it depends on the shoes. Most trail shoes quickly drain of the water and there is no need to make holes, unless they have a waterproof lip all around the edges to prevent small water intakes or protect from shocks. In this case, one can indeed add holes on the side as if water can’t get in, it can’t get out. However, holes in the sole may let in a twig or a nail, so be aware of that risk if you chose this option. A small comment on Goretex shoes: they work well if you are running on a little wet land. On the other hand, after being completely immersed in swimming, the water which came in no longer comes out. So no Goretex in swimrun.

23260420152_3355fc6c72_zSixth: weight

Should we search for the lightest shoes? Yes, because all weight located at the extremity of a pendulum decreases the effectiveness of the movement, but be careful: this should not be at the expense of the other criteria listed previously, especially the first two. Sometime people mention that in swimming waterlogged shoes weigh down the foot which tends to sink. Actually most shoes include buoyant foam making them less dense than water. Most running shoes float.

29850586710_03714d28b2_zSeventh criteria : size

One should carefully choose the size of the shoe, but this does not normally influence the choice of the type of shoe. You probably know the size you use in normal running shoes, in particular by taking a size larger than your street shoes to compensate for swelling of the foot during exercise. However, do not forget that by swimming in relatively cold water (the temperature of the water is almost always lower than the air temperature) your foot will be less likely to swell than in a classic foot race. In addition, sections of running are relatively short, which limits swelling. Finally, the alternation between horizontal and vertical position associated with the compression effect of wetsuits will tend to promote venous return and further limit the effects of swelling of the feet. So it is not always necessary to follow classical running advice to take a larger sized shoe. On the other hand, think about the type of socks you will use: barefoot, thin socks, or neoprene socks? The latter are always thicker than conventional socks, so this should be taken into consideration for shoe size selection. Note that the modern inside linings – glued and thermoformed – make being barefoot in these shoes more comfortable, which facilitates the option of removing the shoes during the swimming sections. If you chose this tactic, go for shoes that are extremely flexible in order to squeeze them more easily in the wetsuit.

Picture18th and 9th criterion: price and colour

Principle of reality and essential concern for some, accessories for others. Again, there is no single answer! Note, however, that a pair of brightly coloured shoes can allow the partner following in swimming to better identify their team mate in the water.

Care for your shoes

Wash and dry them after a sea swim to remove the salt, and after a fresh water swim to eliminate micro-organisms. It is better to clean them by hand because washing machines can degrade the glue (too hot) and damage the fragile mesh. Plus, you risk gumming up your machine. The old classic trick to stuff them with newspaper (to be replaced once wet) still works. Then remove the paper to let the shoes breathe.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the perfect pair of swimrun shoes does not exist and will never exist due to conflicting factors. However, manufacturers must take into account these constraints to propose models more adapted to swimrunning. At the moment, there are really only two brands with a model developed specifically for swimrun, but some others are under development. In the meantime, we have to make choices, compromises, and hopefully these pointers will help your decision making process. See you at the races!

How to choose your swimrun shoe:

  1. Know your stride and eliminate what is not suitable
  2. Identify the shape of your foot, and eliminate what is not suitable
  3. On what type of terrain will I run?
  4. Swimming: is it easy to swim with these shoes?
  5. Drainage: quick evacuation?
  6. Weight
  7. Choose my size for the swimrun
  8. Price &Colour

 

François-Xavier Li is a sports scientist, specialized in the performance optimization. Part of his research covers 3-dimensional analysis of gait. He has also been a consultant in Biomechanics for the Jamaican track and field team and professional triathletes.

Photos © SwimrunFrance/Akuna Matata

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