Ask the Experts: Running Gear

I've been running for about three years with a few races under my belt (5Ks to half-marathons). I've always worn the same type of running shoe for everything, but I see others wearing racing flats for speed work and racing. Should I give them a try?

A racing flat is a more minimal, lighter weight performance shoe than a regular running shoe. With less bulk and weight, flats help give runners extra speed for shorter, higher-intensity sessions like track workouts, tempo runs and, of course, racing. Most running specialty stores carry a few racing flats—some that feel barely there, others with a bit more "meat" to them—that are much lighter than your regular shoe.

They're not for beginners, though. It takes at least eight months to a year of consistent running to build the leg strength and gait efficiency to handle the minimal cushioning and support of a flat without risking injury. Based on your running experience, you should definitely give them a try, but you'll want to transition to flats gradually. First, try your racing flats during training, for an interval session or a short tempo run. You don't want to spend all your time in them during the first workout, however. Warm up or cool down in your regular shoes and use your flats only for the specific workout. If your legs respond well, and you don't experience any pain or an unusual amount of soreness, then you should do well in flats. But give yourself a few weeks to break them in before your race.

Many runners can safely enjoy the lighter, more performance-oriented feel of the racing flat in shorter races such as 5Ks and 10Ks. However, longer distances must be treated with more caution. If you're an overpronator or underpronator with a foot type needing extra support, motion control or cushioning, transition gradually to flats in longer races. For example, if you plan to use them for a half marathon, train in flats at least a month before the race doing a few long runs (eight to 10 miles) to get your body used to absorbing some of the shock that your more cushioned training shoes usually absorb.

We don't recommend using flats for races longer than 13.1 miles—leave that to elite and professional runners who have the years of serious training and superior physical conditioning to safely handle marathon distances in flats. Also, if you wear inserts or orthotics in your regular shoes, use them in your racing flats as well.

More: Mysteries of Running Shoes Revealed

I run about 30 minutes three times a week for exercise. My standard running outfit is a cotton T-shirt and gym shorts. But my friend says I should invest in running-specific clothing if I want to train for events and increase my mileage. Why?

Technical fabrics are great running partners, helping cool or heat your body so you stay comfortable throughout your run. Cotton and other non-technical fibers hold moisture, trapping it against the skin and retaining heat or cold depending on climate conditions. Your body is forced to exert extra energy as it works overtime attempting to even out body temperature. Moisture-laden apparel can also cause chafing by rubbing against the skin. Technical fabrics transfer or "wick" moisture to the surface of the garment so it can quickly evaporate. The result is a dry microclimate between your skin and the garment, which aids in body thermo-regulation and wards off chafe.

You should also analyze the design and construction features of athletic apparel before you make a purchase. Make sure the garment moves comfortably with you. When trying it on, move in the garment (and sports bras) like you would during your workout. Yes, run in place in the dressing room. Make sure tops stretch an ample amount in the arms and shoulders. Look for shorts that don't get in the way of your stride. Also, pay close attention to seams. Most technical running garments feature seams strategically placed outside common chafing zones, such as under the arms or between the legs. By gusseting shorts, designers eliminate seams between the legs. Additionally, a treatment called flat seaming ensures seams are low profile, an ideal chafe-reducing feature found in many technical running tops.

While it may be routine to grab your beloved cotton Ts and gym shorts, consider making technical running apparel the new core of your workout wardrobe. As you increase mileage and begin training for events, technical fabrics will complement your body's natural physiology and deliver a more comfortable, worry-free run.

More: Basic Gear for a Beginning Runner

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Claire Wood is footwear product line manager for Brooks Sports and a former collegiate distance runner. Also with Brooks, Lara Dittoe is the women's running apparel product line manager and the founder of the women's sports apparel company Athleta.
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