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September 19, 2008  BY Sarah Kohnle

Getting fitted with running shoes isn’t just for elite athletes. Sure, Columbia’s top runners frequent the Starting Block and Tryathletics, but so do casual athletes and people with foot or leg ailments.

Dr. Kevin Marberry, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, occasionally sends sports medicine patients to get specialized fitting as a non-operative means to treat pain in the hip or knee.

Patrick Hanson, of Tryathletics, performs a gait analysis on Nate Smith.

Patrick Hanson, of Tryathletics, performs a gait analysis on Nate Smith.

“The shoes are designed to counteract subtle abnormalities that are noticed on physical examination in the office,” Marberry said.

Amy Livesay and her husband, Mark, own the Starting Block on Forum Boulevard. She said one of her roles in the store is to be an educator.

“A lot of people buy the high-priced shoe, thinking that’s the best shoe, but in reality, it’s not.” She educates customers so their purchases are based on what they need and what fits rather than being based on price.

To determine what customers need, personnel in both stores interview customers, asking questions such as what activity they will doing while wearing the shoes. If they are runners, they will ask how often and how far they run, what surfaces they primarily run on and whether they have had foot or leg injuries.

For example, running on the graveled MKT Trail, rather than paved surfaces, causes less wear on both the joints and the shoe treads.

Next, it’s on to checking the foot, noting the position of the arches, the flexibility of the foot and the standing alignment. Then getting on the treadmill, sans shoes. At the Starting Block, a video camera mounted behind the treadmill captures the movement, and at Tryathletics, the human eye does the job.

“We are trained in observation,” said Patrick Hanson, an employee at Tryathletics on Chapel    Hill Road.

Once the specific traits are analyzed, the customer is presented with a range of shoes for that particular fit. Hanson said when the selection gets past the best fit and what feels good, the customer can then chose based on how the shoe looks. Not the reverse.

Livesay said the shoes should feel good right away.

“There should be no break-in period,” she explained, and recommends moisture-wicking socks, not cotton, to alleviate blisters. Both stores allow customers to bring shoes back in a reasonable amount of time.

“We’ll switch them out,” Livesay said. “It doesn’t happen that often, but when it does… we want people to use them.”

Patrick Hanson, right, of Tryathletics, talks to Nate Smith as he performs a gait analysis.

Patrick Hanson, right, of Tryathletics, talks to Nate Smith as he performs a gait analysis.

If blisters occur after you’ve used the shoe for many months, it’s probably time to get a new shoe.

“You should be wearing them for 350 to 500 miles,” Livesay said. Unlike the tennis shoes “we wore as kids until they fell apart,” shoes today are better made and don’t show wear, he said.

“If you are wearing them until they fall apart, you are so far past time,” she said.

Repeat business is important at both shops. Steve Stonecipher-Fischer’s Tryathletics has been in business for 22 years, and Hanson estimated 70 to 80 percent of the store’s customers are repeat.

Another key to success is sharing the love of exercise and running. Both stores employ athletes. Livesay, a running coach, wants people to enjoy running. She said the reason she likes to teach is because she knows what it feels like to not enjoy running.

“Once I started changing my form, my times improved, my back hurt less, and it was so much more enjoyable,” she said. The store offers monthly running clinics for all levels of ability.

More than 24 million people in the United States run or jog at least 50 days a year, according to a survey by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

The number of total runners increased 6.5 percent from 2006 to 2007, according to the survey. Running was fourth on a list of Hottest Sports for Sales Growth in 2008, behind yoga and pilates, fitness walking and lacrosse.

Rhonda T. Epperson, KRCG’s business manager, lists biking, running and walking among her top activities. She said she’s always been active and decided to try the Starting Block after seeing an ad and hearing about them from others.

“Well, it was the most expensive pair of tennis shoes I ever bought, but my knees and lower back don’t hurt now during or after exercise,” Epperson said. “I wish I would have gone there years ago.  The customer service and the knowledge of athleticism is outstanding.”

She said they “were excellent to analyze my stride and fit me with good shoes” and were instrumental in helping her with an injury in her heel.