While watching the Olympics in London this summer, many viewers might have wondered why the world’s best distance runners were wearing spikes in events such as the 5,000 and 10,000m? Aren’t spikes reserved for sprinters running at maximum speed for short distances?
Well, the short answer is definitely not! This article will begin a series on what to look for when purchasing your first pair of spikes, why runners at any level can benefit from training/racing in them, and how you can implement spikes into your training on a weekly basis.
What are “Running Spikes” ?
Let us first define what we are terming “spikes” in this series to avoid confusion further down the road. Spiked running shoes are typically very light-weight, close-fitting, situated on a firm rubber or plastic outsole, and come with metal “spikes” of ¼ – ½ inch that are screwed into designated holes in the bottom of the shoes. The heel-to-toe drop of most spikes is close to level, and if one were to measure this off-set with spikes in the shoes there would actually be a negative drop– meaning the forefoot of the shoe actually extends below the heel plate.
There are three basic types of spikes that comprise most of those seen on the market today. The first of these are for cross country athletes racing over uneven natural terrain. Next are standard distance spikes to be used in track races from 800-10,000m. Finally, there are sprint spikes that we see when Usain Bolt is breaking yet another 100m world record.
Cross Country Spikes
Many of us were first exposed to wearing spikes during our high school days running cross country. If we wore spikes for XC, we quickly learned that they improved traction over muddy ground, improved our hill climbing ability by allowing us to dig deeper into the soil with each footfall, and enabled us to pass competitors more readily in our finishing kick. These spikes usually have a more dense rubber outsole, a toe-guard to prevent stubbing roots or rocks, and often possess more resilient, water-resistant uppers in case of wet/muddy courses.
Cross country racing shoes also come in “spikeless” versions, which can sometimes be confusing. What this usually means is that in place of transferable metal spikes, the shoes are equipped with rubber studs already present in the shoe’s outsole similar to a soccer cleat (but not as pronounced). These serve the same function, but may be more suitable to more manicured courses (even grass or packed dirt) or for those who find metal spikes aggravate existing foot injuries.
Track spikes in both the distance and sprint varieties are usually feather-light with airy uppers designed for one purpose- to maximize running efficiency at high speed. The outsoles are typically less thick, the spike length a little shorter, and cushioning less present to carry the runner from line to tape in the least amount of time possible. Many runner choose to go sockless when wearing track spikes for extra ground-feel, proprioception, and moisture management while sweating (or running the steeplechase with its numerous water jumps), but I strongly encourage caution with this practice to avoid potentially race-hindering blisters. Track spikes help the runner maximize traction when rounding turns on the track, surging to pass competitors, running with a quick forefoot strike throughout a race, and laying-down a blistering kick at the finish.
What spikes do you need?
Now for some notes on buying your first pair of spikes. First, it is essential to ask yourself the following questions. Why I am purchasing a pair of spikes? What will they be used for in my training/racing? What terrain will I be racing over primarily? Do I have any injuries that might be aggravated by wearing spikes?
It is important to note for those of us no longer competing in school where XC and track seasons are neatly defined that spikes can be used effectively when training for road races, as well (during intense track speed sessions, to work on running form, etc). NOTE: One should NEVER race with spikes on the road. Believe it or not, I have seen people attempt this before, and it almost always ends in a DNF. However, a good pair of spikeless XC shoes can be a great asset for relatively short trail races of 5K-15K if you compete in such events.
If you are a student-athlete in high school or college, then it would be beneficial to have both a pair of trusty XC and track spikes to meet the needs of your specific event/s. Since finances can often be a problem for hard-working students, there are several spikes on the market that can actually transfer well between the two sports; ask your local running shoe retailer about hybrid spikes that can bridge the gap between XC and track. Spikes, like other racing shoes, only last 200-300mls so be diligent in keeping-track with how many miles you have logged on a pair in your training journal.
A word of advice about injuries
In regard to injuries and spiked footwear, it is important to note that one should always break-in a pair of spikes thoroughly before competing in them or even completing a hard workout; more on this to come in later articles. Because of the negative drop of most spiked shoes, there will be extra stress placed on the forefoot, calf, achilles, and arch. If you suffer from plantar fasciitis, achilles tendonitis, metatarsalgia, or are very prone to calf strains, then it might be wise to go for a spikeless model or just stick to a traditional road racing flat for your faster endeavors.
However, using spikes wisely in your training can be a great way to retrain the muscles of the lower anatomy to handle greater stress, grow stronger, and become more efficient in terms of pronation and power output. These muscular developments, coupled with the right training, can lead to some big breakthroughs in your running career at any level of the sport.
Be sure to check back very soon for more articles on RunningShoesGuru.com related to track, cross country, and the best footwear to help you set that new PR!