You’re in the sports store looking for a new pair of running shoes and naturally the shoe and size which fit, is the absolute worst colour. Sigh.
You reach for the men’s lovely blue one but hesitate…
Surely all size UK7 are the same, right?
Is there really a major difference between men’s and women’s running shoes?
Is it just a marketing gimmick?
Are there very differing needs for each gender for running?
Before spitting out the answer, let’s delve a bit deeper and take each factor into consideration while looking at the differences.
A Last is a three-dimensional mould shaped like a human foot. It is used to design and build a shoe around. The last gives the shoe it’s shape.
While many manufacturers with lifestyle sneakers could utilise the same last to make both a men’s and women’s shoe, when it comes to running shoes, separate lasts are made for both genders for narrow, medium, and wide shoes for the different sizes.
One of the most important ones is the ratio of the forefoot to heel.
Primarily, women appear to have a wider forefoot due to a narrower heel. When looking at running shoes from above, you will note a women’s shoe heel is more V-shaped compared to a man’s U-shaped heel. This is to accommodate the narrower heel. Placing a narrow heel into a U-shaped heel could result in heel slippage, instability, and chafing. Too much movement at the heel can translate up the limb, possibly resulting in knee, hip, or lower back pain.
Originally, running companies offered a scaled down version of the men’s shoe in appealing colours for women. Quickly this proved inadequate. If the heel didn’t slip, the forefoot would be too wide. Some shoes, although branded as the same model for different genders e.g. Nike Pegasus, are in fact two very different shoe designs in terms of midsole, materials and heel support which affect overall comfort, fit and weight of the shoe.
3. Width & Size
Running shoes are categorised into mostly medium and wide shoes, with a few manufacturers making narrow shoes. Men’s shoes tend to be wider and larger sized compared to women’s. The shoe size is described as a number for length (e.g. size US8) and a letter for width.
Men US 8-13; D = medium, 2E =wide.
Women US 6-11; B=medium, D=wide.
Having learnt everything above, therefore a men’s size 8 and women’s 8 would be vastly different in shape, construction and width due to a different last used. And ultimately there couldn't be a shoe called "unisex".
This is the angle from the outer hip towards the kneecap. The higher the angle, the greater the amount of pull of the quadriceps (thigh muscle) on the knee which can result in an increase in values forces. As women have wider hips, the Q-angle is greater. Shoe manufacturers take this into account by altering the type of material for the mid- and/or outsole in a women’s shoe to limit the tendency to pronate.
5. Weight of shoe
A men’s shoe is designed to accommodate a greater size and weight of the individual. A woman’s composition tends to be ± 15% less muscle than men. Therefore genders of the same height and shoe size (e.g. US8) would be different in weight, with the woman weighing less.
To decrease the impact of each foot strike, the midsole of the shoe can be made of a lighter/softer material to accommodate the weight difference. Grooves underneath the shoe also tend to be deeper on a women’s shoe. Due to a lower body mass and hence greater difficulty to flex the midsole, these deeper grooves are added to assist and provide a smoother roll.
Lastly, taking all of the above into account, it will ultimately come down to a personal fit. Perhaps the shape of one’s foot is not within the "norm" of their gender and they may ultimately find the opposite gender’s shoe a better fit.
Although there are significant differences between men’s and women’s shoes, chat to your running-friendly physio or a specialist run footwear shop to find your perfect fit. Do not choose according to colour alone!
Tune in soon for the follow up in the RUN series:
…#2 Race Tips.