A beginner’s guide to buying a pair of spikes

Are you thinking of heading to the track? Want to improve on your speedwork? Buying a pair of spikes, whether it is for the first time, second time, or one-hundredth time, is an important purchase for any runner of any level; and one that needs a surprising amount of consideration.

There’s always the danger of choosing a shoe as they look the part; shiny, garish and branded but it’s important to remember you’re not Michael Johnson (yet).  Here’s my guide to choosing the right spikes.  

Firstly, let us look at what spikes are available to athletes. Different events require a different type of spike.

Sprint Spikes (100m-400m)

Traditionally, the sprint spike is a much firmer/stiffer spike than the others. In particular, the mid-foot on the sole of the shoe is extremely stiff. This maximises propulsion, reduces contact time, forces the athlete to run on their toes and in turn, improves maximum speed, helping them win the race.

Middle Distance Spikes (800m-1500m)
The middle distance spike, as you’ve probably guessed, is the ‘half way spike’ between sprint and long distance spikes. The spike plate is slightly firmer than a long distance spike but not as firm as a sprint spike. The spike is often made with the spike plate curving slightly towards the fore-foot. Again, encouraging the athlete to run on their toes and aid their speed.  Conventionally there isn’t a great deal of heel cushioning as you’re only running up to a mile and the body simply doesn’t require it.

Long Distance Spikes (3000m – 10,000m)
Vastly different to the sprint spike, the spike has a lot more cushioning on the heel, and the sole of the shoe is flexible, allowing the foot to move in the most natural way. The focus of a long distance spike is, to provide good support in order prevent injury when racing, and to provide comfort so that the athlete can run up to twenty five laps without any feet related distractions.

Cross Country Spikes

The marine of spikes, the hobnob of spikes. Built to last. The spikes are built more like a lightweight racing flat. Good cushioning around the heel, fore foot, mid foot and a firm back support on the spike allows athletes to compete in cross country races from 3k up to 10miles. In addition to this, it has a rubber spike plate on the bottom, allowing you to screw in your cross country pins. This helps the athlete battle through six inches of snow, mud and anything else you’d find in the traditional English countryside.

With all this in mind, these are simply guidelines. There are some athletes who decide to run 800m races in long distance spikes, and some athletes who run a 5k in middle distance spikes. The key is to chose what works for you, what you feel most comfortable in. However, I strongly recommend NOT running a long distance race in sprint spikes. If you do, I imagine you’d come out the other end with your feet looking like something out of Quentin Tarantino Movie.

What To Look For

Fitting:

The spikes should generally be a snugger fit than your running shoe, yet as I keep stressing, it is all down to the individual. If you are somebody that likes a bit more room, I’d recommend no more than a thumbnail of space in front of the big toe.

Pin Placement:

The pin placement and number of pins in a spike usually has two variations. The classic and most common, six pinned spike and the less common four pinned spike. 

The four pinned spikes tend to have the pins positioned more towards the centre on the spike plate. This can be good for runners who supinate (runners who land on the outside of the foot), as on the six pinned spikes, the spike on the outside of the spike plate, in SOME cases, can cause blisters due to excessive rolling caused by the supination.

The key thing to remember is that neither is better than the other. It is all down to personal preference and it’s up to you the athlete, to work out what is best for you. 

Pin Lengths:

The pin length is a very simple one. When racing on the track it is illegal for the pins to be any longer than 6mm. So if you want to avoid the disappointment of being sent off the track for pins being too long, make sure they’re 6mm or under! 

At cross country races however, it’s a different matter. You’re allowed anything from 9mm up to 18mm. Your 9mm pins will serve you well for the cold, crisp mornings where the ground has frozen over night, making the surface feel more like a road race than a cross-country slog. 

The 18mms however, will come in handy for your traditional wet and wintry British days; where the ground has been churned up so much, you’re often left to battle it out it out in ankle and in some cases, knee deep mud!

On race day it is up to you to decide which length to go for, whether it’s the 9mm, 18mm, or somewhere in between. Over time you will learn which ones to go for, yet I’ve been running cross country races for sixteen years and I still get it wrong sometimes. In the meantime, don’t be shy to ask a friend or fellow team mate what size they’re going to use. 

Michael Johnson's gold spikes

The Shop Experience

Whilst you can get some great deals online, if it is your first time buying, it would be good to go into a specialist shop. The staff are usually trained in assessing your biomechanics and can offer you great support in getting into the right spike. Here are a few key things to remember when in the shop:

•Don’t be scared to ask questions – from my experience, staff working in specialist shops are often helpful, friendly and knowledgeable. They are there to help you, so take advantage of this!

•Don’t be scared to try on a few pairs – it’s unlikely that you’re going to love the first pair of spikes you try on, if you do, fantastic! Yet it’s more likely you’ll need to try on some different sizes, brands and styles. So try on as many as you need.

•Walk around in them when you get home – there is no harm in walking around the house in your spikes at home. Get a feel for them; make sure you’ve made the right decision. It goes without saying not to take them outside as this could jeopardise your warranty. Oh, and don’t put the pins in or else you could be buying a new carpet!

•There is NOTHING wrong with a bargain – just because a pair of spikes is cheaper than another, it doesn’t mean they’re a worse spike. They could simply be last year’s colour or model. If last year’s model was good enough for athletes, it will be absolutely fine for this year!

•Trust your instinct – go with your gut feeling of what spike feels the best. Most of the time, you’re going to be right. 

I hope this has been helpful and enjoyable for those of you still reading. If you have any more questions, don’t be afraid to hit me up on twitter @rosscojammin. Good luck buying your spikes!