A few weeks before my first "half distance" triathlon—which consisted of 70.3 total miles, including a half marathon at the end—I slipped into a brand new pair of sneakers, intent on breaking them in during my next few practice sessions.
They're triathlon-specific shoes, outfitted with elastic bungee laces and a plastic fastener that lets me pull them on and off with ease. These types of "speed laces"—of which there are several brands on the market—have become ubiquitous in the triathlon world, where a quick change during the bike-to-run transition can save precious seconds. I've worn them, with different shoes, for plenty of shorter races, so I was surprised when my coach suggested I swap them out for regular ones this time around.
He told me that he recommends stretchy laces for Olympic-distance triathlons (which inlclude a 10K run) and shorter. But for longer runs or everyday training, he follows the wisdom of fellow Team in Training triathlon coach and New York City-based bike fitter Jay Borok, who advises against them.
"My experience has been that they are problematic for some athletes, as they tend to make to make the shoes too tight or too loose," Borok told me when I inquired about his unofficial rule. "In most cases they end up needing to be too tight to keep the shoe from moving around, and I've seen athletes who end up having tendon inflammation at the top of the foot. "
Plus, he's not convinced they're necessary. "I have always left my shoes knotted and slip them on. I've run races and never touched the knots on my shoes. Look at every kid in America. You think they untie and tie their shoes before they go out and run and play?"
I was curious whether other athletes felt the same way, so I posed the question to Chris McClung, a triathlete and running coach with Rogue Running in Austin. While McClung has never had problems using speed laces himself, for distances up to a half marathon, he does agree that it can be tricky to find the right fit—and that they aren't right for everyone.
"I don't see a reason to use them in a regular road race, because you aren't in a rush to get your shoes on," he told me. In some situations, he adds, a runner might require a special lacing technique in regular laces—someone with a high-volume foot, for example, who needs pressure taken off the top. "In those cases, elastic laces might be harder or impossible to use and achieve the same result, but that's pretty rare in my experience."
Both coaches agree that if you've been wearing them without injury, and your feet feel comfortable and don't slide around or feel cramped or pinched, there's no need to change. But to play it safe, I went with old-school ties—and once I switched, I noticed that my feet did feel more secure in my shoes, with the pressure more evenly distributed throughout.
I took Borok's other advice, too, about keeping my laces knotted during my race, and my shoes slipped on almost as easily in transition as they would have with the bungees. Even if they hadn't, it wouldn't have mattered. "The time savings, as a race gets longer, are insignificant," says Borok. "I haven't heard anyone say that if they had speed laces they would have missed that Kona slot." (Bummer—there goes my excuse!)