How to Wash your Running Shoes
Have you ever unboxed a pair of brand new, beautiful fluorescent running shoes only to stain them on their maiden voyage? Even worse, perhaps you have stepped in dog poop or had a blister that bled through your favorite shoes. Or, if you are like most runners, your shoes likely have begun to stink after a couple hundred miles. How can you remove the stains and odor while maintaining the integrity of the shoe? Listed here is a comprehensive guide for safely cleaning your most important running investment.
Anatomy of a Running Shoe
Before detailing how to clean a running shoe, you should first be aware of the parts of a shoe and the materials of which they are comprised.
The outsole of the shoe is the bottom portion that directly touches the pavement (or trail, sidewalk, grass …). This part of the shoe is typically a thin layer of carbon rubber if the material is hard; or blown rubber, if the outsole has a softer feel.
The midsole is the most important aspect of the shoe and is the main component that is responsible for differences among brands, makes, and models. The midsole is typically comprised of polyurethane, gel, liquid silicone, polyurethane foam, or even compressed air. Although the midsole is entirely contained within the shoe and is never exposed to the environment, the materials can be easily damaged.
The insole of the shoe is the portion that sits directly beneath your foot and can be removed. This component is typically a thin piece of molded ethylene vinyl acetate.
Arguably the least important part of the shoe, yet also the portion that people are most worried about keeping clean, the upper is the cage portion of the shoe that keeps the foot contained. Materials vary and can include leather, suede, nylon weave and cloth.
Shoelaces come in as many varieties as shoes. Typically made of synthetic fibers, they thread through the shoe’s eyelets to secure the foot. Flat laces tend to stay tied more securely than round cord laces and cotton ones are more likely to remain knotted as opposed to their synthetic counterparts. Popular for its ease and reliability is the Quicklace system, seen on many trail runners.
Why should you wash your shoes?
There are many reasons to wash your running shoes besides aesthetic reasons. Each component of a running shoe is susceptible to breaking down, especially when caked-on dirt, mud or sweat infiltrates the materials. The knit fabric of the upper may become more prone to ripping or tearing when weakened by debris, and the materials may even separate from the midsole if shoes are not properly taken care of. Regular cleanings can help ensure you get the most mileage possible out of your running shoes. What does “regular” entail? The answer depends mostly on mileage and preferred running surfaces. Anytime your shoes become excessively muddy you should clean them as soon as possible. Otherwise, shoes should be given a maintenance cleaning every 75 – 100 miles, especially if you run without socks.
Which soap to use?
Before you begin to wash your shoes you must first decide on an appropriate soap or detergent. By definition, soap and detergent are two different entities. Soap is often less harsh, but detergent has better cleaning properties. When choosing to wash your running shoes, the choice of cleaning agent matters. If the detergent is too powerful then the sensitive materials in the midsole could weaken. Listed below are common products that can be used to safely clean running shoes.
Photo courtesy of softstarshoes.com
Mild soaps will be free of harsh chemical additives that can cause irritation to sensitive skin. These soaps are ideal for running shoes because their ingredients are often plant-based and unlikely to be detrimental to the shoes.
If you are concerned the detergent you have at home will be too harsh for your running shoes, consider purchasing a product that is specially designed for athletic wear, such as this one. The formula contains no bleach, phosphates, fragrances, brighteners nor fabric softeners that may be harmful to shoes.
Many people use shampoo (such as a baby formula) for their delicate clothes and running shoes because of its effectiveness, economy and gentle ingredients. Shampoo is especially ideal for washing stains out of a shoe’s upper.
When added to detergent or soap, white vinegar can provide extra cleaning power due to the polarity of acetic acid, which helps to remove stains such as dirt or blood.
This all-around great household cleaner can also be added to soap or detergent to improve the ability of the cleaning agent to remove stains and doors.
When choosing to wash your shoes, water temperature is very important. Cold water should always be used, as hot water can degrade the materials in the midsole or even melt the glue that holds the various components of the shoe together.
Washing Methods: Washing Machine vs. Dishwasher vs. Hand Washing
There are three camps of runners when it comes to washing running shoes: those who swear by using the washing machine; those who only use the dishwasher; and those who would never use a machine for washing their shoes. The attributes of each method are discussed.
The washing machine has just as many proponents as it does opponents. Some people claim that it is perfectly okay to put running shoes in the wash while others strictly advise against doing so for fear that the shoes could be permanently damaged or weakened. In truth, running shoes should never be submerged fully in water because of the differences in the midsole materials. Those that contain gel, compressed air, or highly technical cushioned materials may become damaged if water seeps in.
The second consideration is whether the machine is a front load or top load washer. The front load washer does less damage, especially when the shoes are washed on the delicate cycle, as less water is used and there is no risk of the shoe laces becoming wrapped around the agitator. Additionally, when running shoes are placed in a top load washer they are unlikely to be adequately cleaned because the foam of the midsole will cause the shoes to float to the top of the machine. If choosing to wash shoes in either type of washer, doing so in as small a load as possible is recommended and with shoe laces removed or doubled knotted.
Advantages and Disadvantages
The advantage of washing shoes in a washing machine is that you are practically guaranteed that your shoes will look new again. If your shoes are nearing the end of their usable lifetime, this may be worth the potential damage. Also, while some people claim that washing shoes in the washing machine can weaken materials, others claim that grime and oils may cause more damage to the running shoe than washing does. If your shoes are highly technical, however, washing in the washing machine may cause irreparable damage.
If you can stomach the thought of putting your dirty running shoes in the same place you wash your dishes, the dishwasher has many people singing its praises as a shoe cleaning tool. The trick is to remove the shoes after the initial rinse cycle, which typically uses cold water, and to certainly not leave your shoes in the dishwasher for the drying cycle. Many people claim this method is gentler on shoes and also provides a better cleaning than the washing machine.
Advantages and Disadvantages
The advantages of this technique include avoiding full submersion as well as an experience that is more like a car wash and less like a swimming pool for your shoes. The disadvantage is that placing your running shoes in the same place you put your dishes can be unfathomable for some. Additionally, not removing your shoes from the dishwasher in time could result in serious damage.
Undoubtedly the safest option for washing your shoes is to do so by hand. There are multiple methods, such as scrubbing with a tooth brush, dunking your shoes in a bucket containing a 1:5 solution of bleach and water, wearing your shoes in the shower or washing them in the sink as you do your dishes.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Hand washing allows you to simply spot clean your shoes, which is likely the safest for the midsole. However, hand washing can be time consuming and may not clean as effectively as the washing machine. Some methods, such as dunking them in a bucket of water or wearing them in the shower, may still cause damage from complete submersion.
Cleaning Techniques Based on Material
The way you clean your shoes also depends on the material that is stained. For the outsole, a stiff brush is required to remove the debris that is struck in the treads of the shoes. A used toothbrush is also convenient for reaching stains that are deep within the nooks and crannies of the material. The upper can be more difficult to clean and methods should be dependent on the material of which it is comprised. If the material is suede or leather, a specially formulated cleaner with a brush can solve the problem. For nylon weave, a stiff brush or even a tooth brush may cause damage to the delicate threads, especially if the shoes are nearing the end of their lifetime. In this instance, spot cleaning with a towel and a deep-cleaning spray cleaner, bleach or rubbing alcohol is most appropriate.
Common Stains and How to Remove Them
There are a number of stains that running shoes are prone to acquiring, such as blood, mud, grass and dog poop stains. Listed below is a guide for removing these common offenders.
If you have ever run a marathon, chances are you have dealt with this type of stain. Blood typically only affects the upper portion of the shoe, which unfortunately can be the most difficult to remove. The quicker you take care of the stain the best chance you have for complete removal. First, wet the stain with cold water (never use hot water with blood stains, as this will cause the stain to set). Rub a bar of soap directly onto the stain, working up a good lather. Next, add a pre-treatment, such as Oxyclean or other gentle stain remover. After the pre-treatment has been set for the proper amount of time as directed by the manufacturer, dab a small amount of diluted ammonia or color safe bleach onto the stain. Finally, wash the fabric as normal with a mild detergent or one specifically designed for running shoes. Additionally, hydrogen peroxide can be used for small stains; however, use caution as some people claim that this solution can weaken certain components of a running shoe, especially glue.
Perhaps the most common stain on a running shoe is mud, especially for those who enjoy trail running. The key to removing mud stains is to address the stain as quickly as possible. Use a stiff brush to remove as much debris from the shoe as you can. Compressed air can also be used to blast off stubborn caked on mud if the nozzle is placed inside the shoe, behind the stain. Next, add small amounts of water to baking soda until a paste is formed. Liberally apply the paste to the affected areas of the shoe and let it set for 2 – 4 hours. Use a damp towel to remove the paste, which should reveal a spotless shoe. For stubborn mud stains, a commercial cleaner such as a bleach pen or Zout is recommended.
Grass stain removal can be tricky, especially on foam materials. The first method is to dab rubbing alcohol on a cotton swab and try to scrub the stain away. A soft toothbrush could also be used here. Next, use dish soap to continue working the area if any stains are left behind. Finally, wash the shoes in the method you typically use but add white vinegar to the soap or detergent. If the stain is especially stubborn, a bleach and hydrogen peroxide solution can be made. Mix ¼ cup bleach, ¼ cup hydrogen peroxide, and 1 cup of water in a spray bottle. Liberally apply the solution to the stain (again, use caution because bleach and hydrogen peroxide may damage certain glues) and let the solution set overnight. Rinse the stain clean the following morning.
Every runner has been there: running peacefully along a sidewalk or trail only to come home and realize that something smells. Hopefully the mess is caught before it is tracked into the house, but removing the offending stain as soon as possible is necessary. After you return from your run, hose off your shoe to remove as much of the mess as you can. Next, wipe the stain with a Chlorox wipe to remove any debris that is remaining. If remnants of the stain are left behind, a baking soda paste as described for the removal of mud stains can be used, as well as the bleach/hydrogen peroxide mixture.
Removing gum from the bottom of your running shoes can lead to a sticky situation. If the gum is fresh, wrap your shoe in a plastic bag and be sure to press the plastic into the gum. Place the entire shoe in the freezer and allow it to stay there for over an hour. Remove the plastic bag and the gum should peel off as well. An alternative method is to use WD-40. The oils will loosen the adhesive properties of the gum. Spray the gum and surrounding area with the WD-40 and wait 5 minutes. The gum should easily scrape away. Other oily substances, such as peanut butter or olive oil, can work as well.
It might be easy to think that dust can be brushed off, yet for some trail shoes that have received many layers of dust it can be a bit hard to clean them properly. The most efficient way to remove excessive dust is to flush it out with some cold water, followed by air-drying.
If it’s not serious and you haven’t run in the Sahara, just wipe the shoe with a dry cotton cloth.
The way that you dry your running shoes is just as (if not more) important than how you wash them. Never place your shoes in the dryer, which will ultimately cause the glue to erode and the midsole materials to warp, or even rupture. However, if you absolutely must dry your shoes in the dryer and are not concerned about permanent damage, one trick is to tie your laces together with a thick double knot, then close the dryer door on the laces so the knot remains outside the machine. This, in addition to using the lowest heat setting possible, will prevent the shoes from tumbling inside the dryer and will minimize the risk of warping or shrinking.
You should also avoid direct heat, such as placing them on top of a furnace vent. Safe methods for drying include placing your shoes outside to dry in the sunlight. A quicker alternative is to stuff your shoes full of old newspaper, which will absorb excess moisture. Replace the newspaper every 2 – 4 hours. You can also fill a sock with kitty litter or rice and fill the shoes with these inserts. A commercially available option that is similar to newspaper or rice is Stuffitts, which contain cedar to both facilitate drying and to minimize odors.
What the Shoe Companies Say
Are you curious what the shoe companies have to say about washing running shoes? Here is a collection of common running shoe brands and how they recommend cleaning their product (Note: not all brands have an available recommendation for cleaning).
Asics wearers are recommended to wash the laces and insoles separately from the shoes, and to not place the shoe in the washing machine. Instead, remove dirt and mud with a brush and lather warm water and anti-grease soap together on a towel for spot cleaning. Never dry your Asics shoes in direct heat or in the dryer.
Altra recommends spraying its running shoes with an all-purpose cleaner and then letting the shoes sit for an extended period of time. Then, with a stiff brush in hand, scrub the shoes in the sink or shower. Altra does not recommend placing its shoes in the washing machine, as midsole integrity may be compromised.
Never place your Brooks shoes in a washer or dryer. Instead, hand wash your shoes as soon as they become dirty with a damp washcloth and mild detergent. Brooks also recommends shoes be air dried at room temperature.
Hoka One One
To avoid damaging the cushioned midsole on a pair of Hokas, hand washing with cold water and mild detergent is recommended.
Mizuno warns that their shoes are not washing machine or dryer safe and utmost care should be taken to hand wash dirty shoes.
Of all the manufacturers, Nike provides the most detailed instructions for cleaning running shoes. First, remove excess dirt using a soft brush or toothbrush to clean the outsole. Next, mix warm water with laundry detergent and apply the mixture to a sponge to clean the affected area. Remove the soapy mixture from the shoe with a clean sponge and then allow the shoes to air dry at room temperature. Nike makes note that other cleaning products, including those that contain bleach or alternative chemicals, are not recommended.
New Balance shoes should never be placed in a washing machine nor submerged in water, the company warns. A silicon-based cleaning product should be used, as well as suede or leather cleaner if appropriate.
Like most manufacturers, Newton does not recommend the washing machine or dryer. Instead, use warm water and gentle detergent, as well as a toothbrush, to keep your Newtons looking brand new.
Trail shoes will obviously need more care, so Salomon offers a comprehensive guide to cleaning its shoes. The company recommends removing caked on mud or dirt immediately after each run with a wet washcloth or brush and air dried. If the shoe contains leather components, those areas should be cleaned with a cream or water-based leather product, such as Nikwax. The sock liners of the shoes should be periodically removed and washed in the washing machine with warm water and gentle detergent.
The team at SCOTT offered perhaps the best explanation for why its shoes cannot be washed in the washing machine. The company states the ethylene vinyl acetate midsole may harden due to the temperatures reached in the washing machine, and the reflective accessories on the shoe may peel off easier. Instead, SCOTT recommends first using a rag or brush instead of water for removing caked-on debris in order to avoid the penetration of mud into the shoe materials. Once the mud/dirt is removed, remaining stains can be dealt with by hand washing with gentle soap and warm water, as well as a scrub brush.
Sometimes the best offense is a good defense. Preventing stains can go a long way in keeping your shoes clean. Applying a layer of Scotchgard or other waterproofing solution can keep stains from penetrating your shoes. Note that applying a waterproofing formula will not keep your feet from getting wet, but will simply aid in keeping your shoes from absorbing stains.
Removing Odor from Running Shoes without Washing Them
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Many times runners wish to wash their shoes simply to remove the odor caused by sweat. There are numerous ways to do so without subjecting them to potentially harmful cleaning techniques.
Wash the Insoles
Sweat is absorbed by the areas of the running shoes that touch your feet the most – namely the insoles. If your insoles can be removed, they are perfectly safe to be washed in a washing machine if they do not contain a secondary material such as gel. Otherwise, handing washing your insoles is perfectly acceptable, and this component of the shoe is made to be submerged.
Many runners rely on air freshening means to remove the odor, such as Febreze. Look for a formula specifically designed for sport odors.
Sodium bicarbonate is truly a powerhouse cleaning tool. With the ability to remove dirt and grime, as well as odors, sprinkling baking soda onto the insoles of your shoes after each run will absorb excess sweat. It also removes the odors caused by bacteria.
A number of companies manufacture odor-removing insoles that can be dropped into a pair of running shoes after each run. These odor removers are designed specifically for running shoes and sportswear and can remove even the harshest of offending odors.
DIY Odor Eaters
If you have the ingredients on hand, you can make odor eaters at home that may work just as well to eliminate unwanted smells and help remove moisture. Make a solution of one part baking powder, one part baking soda, and two parts cornstarch. If desired, you can also add a few drops of your favorite essential oil, such as lemon or lavender. Place the powdered mixture in an old sock or other breathable container and place them directly into your shoes after a run.
Unsavory odors are caused by bacteria that linger within the materials of your shoe. Killing the bacteria is ultimately the best way to remove the odor. Wrap your shoes in a plastic bag and place them in the freezer for 24 – 48 hours to kill the stink causing germs.
Place your running shoes on a paper plate in the microwave and zap them for 30 – 60 seconds on low. The radiation from the microwave will kill the odor-causing germs and is unlikely to damage your shoes.
Spray Them with Vodka
While this step may sound silly, it is actually well-known that inexpensive vodka can be used to clean clothes that are unable or inconvenient to be placed in the washing machine. Simply pour a bottle of unflavored vodka into a spray bottle and periodically spray the insides of your running shoes with the spirit. The alcohol in the vodka will kill any odor-causing bacteria.
Preventing Running Shoe Odors
Ultimately, preventing odors in the first place is better than trying to remove them afterwards. If your roommates frequently ask you to keep your running shoes outdoors, following these tips may be helpful.
Always wear socks when you are running, as the sweat will be absorbed by this additional layer instead of by your shoes.
To avoid the build-up of bacteria, shoes should be completely dried between uses. Rotate shoes so that you always have a dry pair.
A number of products are available to combat smelly feet. For instance, Dr. Scholl’s Odor-X Odor Fighting Spray Powder can be applied to your feet before activity to keep your feet dry and prevent your shoes from absorbing sweat.
How to extend the life of your running shoes
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I know what it’s like to spend your hard-earned money on brand new running shoes every once in a while. Since it’s recommended to change them after about 300 to 400 miles, the life of running shoes can sometimes be short. Let’s see how you can get the most ‘bang for your buck’. We all love running shoes, especially those new models that are released every year, but hey, are they expensive!
Don’t wear your running shoes before they are completely dry
I once washed my three main pairs of running shoes and didn’t have a choice but use one of them that was 3/4 dry. Bad mistake. Never put your wet (or half wet) shoes on. The combination of bacteria from your sweaty feet will exponentially increase the total amount of bacteria present in your running shoes. You don’t want bad smells.
Wear your running shoes ONLY when running
If you’re racking up miles and miles every week, do yourself a favor and save your shoes for only running. Don’t keep them on to run errands, walk in the park or go to the gym. All the unnecessary activities will just cause them to break down faster. Choose cross-trainers for lifting weights, not running shoes. Use ‘work out’ shoes for running different errands that do no require the same quality, amount of structure and support.
Cardinal rule: Track the mileage and know when you bought those shoes
If you’re a seasoned runner and pound the pavement or trails for more than 40 miles a week, running in the same pair of shoes for 12 months is not a smart option for your health. I’m friends with a guy who ran more than 100,000 kilometers in 19 years and he told me he changes shoes after 250-300 miles. Always. The running shoes break down with sweat and weight over time and can’t support your body in the same way they did in the beginning. Keep track of the mileage and know the date of purchase.
Alternate a few pairs of shoes
You certainly have more than one pair of running/athletic shoes in your closet, right? Alternate your options when working out and extend their life. Use them in a rotation to allow the shoes to rest and fully dry.
Store your shoes in a good place
Find a dry environment where your shoes will not get crushed, stepped on or torn apart by house pets. It’s advisable to put your shoes in an open space, as air should be circulating around them. A gym bag or a box will not do the trick. Put your running shoes on a shelf, as your dog can’t reach them to chew on them and the air will circulate better.
On the same note, aim to store your shoes indoors, particularly in the cold months. If you live in a really cold climate, it’s not good to leave your shoes in the car or an unheated garage or porch. The prolonged exposure to sub-freezing temperatures tends to stiffen the midsoles.