Some People Are Irrationally Attached to Their Running Shoes

I'm from a tribe of sorts, made up of runners who are very superstitious about their sneakers.

by Alexandra Spiroff
06 November 2017, 3:09pm

This article originally appeared on Tonic.

My dad was getting impatient.

"Come on Ally! We have to go. We're going to be late!"

Before this particular race, the Summerfest Rock 'n Sole Half Marathon in Milwaukee this past June, I was running a little off schedule—it had a little something to do with my superstitious pre-race rituals. I was still upstairs, slathering my entire body—with a special focus on my legs—with the Tiger Balm, the Asian version of Icy Hot. Once the Tiger Balm is applied, and my lucky underwear, socks, earrings, and pair of spandex are securely, only then am I ready to jog to the starting line.

Almost. I'm forgetting one major key item that I must have on me during a race. They're with me through the ups and downs in the physical and emotional roller coaster that is the sport of running. They've seen it all. At the epitome of all my running superstitions are my Nike Pegasus running shoes, a.k.a. "the Pegs."

You think I'm crazy right? I'm talking about my shoes like they're human and they have a life of their own. I'm from a tribe of sorts, made up of runners who are very superstitious about their sneakers. Because of all the sweat, blood, miles, and emotions attached to those shoes, it's more than just casual affection.

For sub-elite New York City marathon runner and Central Park Track Club New Balance board member Alysia Dusseau, it's the New Balance 1500s. They go beyond the feel for her, and carry baggage from previous races they've traveled in. Her superstition includes making sure she wears them in at least a half marathon before she wears them in a full marathon—in her psyche, that ensures her best chances at breaking a PR.

Finding the perfect pair of running shoes is glorious in itself—especially once you break them in. At that point, they intuitively grip the arches of your feet. And every time you lace up, you know it'll be mere moments before you hear that familiar sound of rubber to pavement. Once that happens, it's hard not to get too attached to the sneaker that eerily seems to know you. Running shoes sometimes get discontinued, as shoe brands are constantly trying to update their products.

"If they discontinued them I would freak out and probably stock up on as many as possible," says Emma Hatch, 21, a division I collegiate runner from Cincinnati. She pauses, probably wondering if she should just go ahead and do that now. "Eventually I would have to go to a running store and ask for the next best thing I guess." Her voice trails off.

If Hatch doesn't seem too enthused about the potential of wearing another pair of running shoes that aren't her precious Saucony Kinvaras, I don't blame her. The emotional connection that runners have with their running shoes is borderline creepy sometimes.

There's actually a whole lot of science behind it: Lee Igel, a clinical associate professor at NYU Tisch Institute of Sports, explains how human brains are wired to make an emotional connection with our running shoes. "As human beings, we like folklore and tradition," Igel says. "It's a little bit of storytelling and a little bit of finding patterns in the things that we do. It's really about those repeatable behaviors but then wrapping a story around it. There's definitely a connection to feet literally on the ground and the objects that surround your feet. It's that simple."

On a regular day, we come across a lot of information and noise that can get in the way of our focus of a particular activity, like running, but running in the same shoes every day can help people keep their focus on running. "It's like a security blanket, like one we used to have as a little kid," Igel explains. "The same sorts of feelings start to stir up."

We become comfortable in our shoes, and we start to form miles of memories with those shoes, but the uniqueness of the sport and the community that surrounds it also helps build this strong emotional connection to our shoes. Personal experiences connect us to other runners, too. The running community around us plays a large role in influencing what shoes we buy.

"Even though it's a very solitary activity—you can just walk out the door and run—runners have this real community and shoes may give you an edge," Igel says. "Even if they go their separate ways, people are all in this together. People want to be a part of something larger. It's a way to take a solitary activity, something that is individual and personal, and inject it among a larger group where people think along the same lines."

For example, when I hear news from the running community about hot new pair that an influencer broke a record in, my instinct is to seek them out and try them. But then, I think about how I'm so close to the NYC Marathon that I don't want to make the switch to new shoes this close to a big race for exactly the reasons that Igel brings up. How can I part with the pair that took me through training just to ditch them on the big day?

I began to wonder how deep this attachment goes and how many runners publicly lament a discontinued shoe. I put a call out to Claire Wood, strategic business unit manager for global performance running at New Balance, to find out who's boo-hooed to her on the phone about a discontinued shoe. Superstitious runners are no stranger to her. "We don't change things just to change things," she tells me.

"When we hear rants about discontinuing [a specific shoe], we have our team recommend new product," she adds. "It's a necessary evil that runners are their own shoe experts. It's all a part of that subculture. Whether it's your first 5k or you're trying to make an Olympic team, just know that if we discontinued your shoe we did it for the good of a larger planet, and if we didn't catch you on the way, something else will."

How does a superstitious runner deal if their choice of footwear actually does go extinct? Igel, who has a long history working in sports medicine and player development, has worked with many elite athletes and celebrity entertainers, helping guide them on top performance and overcoming their superstitions.

"It had something to do directly with performance," Igel says. "Not really—but we felt that way. You have to get this idea that it's just an object. It's just a thing. It didn't have anything to do with performance. It takes some energy and work to really buy into it. You have to work just as intensely to change your script about it if you are really superstitious."

There is a silver lining in your favorite pair of running shoes being discontinued: It probably hasn't disappeared but just updated. Go to your local running store. There are experts there to guide you toward your fallen sneaker's equivalent. They might even comfort you in your weird grief warp you've spiraled into—one only runners can understand.

But until that happens, keep lacing up your lucky pair before you head out the door and hit the pavement. Don't forget to double-knot those shoes—not for safety or anything. It's just another one of my superstitions.