Never mind which trainers are the coolest - which get the vote from serious runners?
WHETHER IT is worth paying pounds 120 for the latest Nike Air Max and looking fly on the streets of Newport is clearly subjective. But style aside, is it really worth spending pounds 120 if you want the best support for your feet?

Damaged bones, dropped arches, inflamed tissue and fungal infections caused by sweaty feet are often the result of inadequate footwear, particularly among would-be athletes. So which to choose? The confusing plethora of trainers that line the shelves of JD Sports in Oxford Street is explained by footwear supervisor, Kojo Oppong: "Running shoes should be lighter than the cross trainer, with an emphasis on heel support. High-impact exercise such as aerobics, step and circuit training requires equal, if not greater cushioning at the front of the foot. The upper sole should always allow the foot to breathe."

Kitted out with four pairs of running shoes, varied in kind and cost, I prepared to discover the truth behind grandiose claims and matching price tags. Nike (with an "e" - purlease) always claim to be seriously sporty. Their expensive designs are not simply experiments in how much cash the average mug will part with, but are the result of advanced technological innovation and improvement in comfort and bounceability. The new pounds 120 Air Max is soon to replace the ubiquitous Air Max Metal. With what resembles a lilo underfoot, it cushions not just the heel, not just the toes, but the whole length of the foot. An added bonus of 360 reflectivity means that if you should indulge in a midnight run, your sparkly footprints will be visible from all angles.

Bazyl Piotrowski, technical advisor at Runners Need in Camden Town, is not convinced: "You'll find very few club runners using this shoe. If you're working through a couple of shoes every year, you don't want to spend that much money every time - unless it's infinitely more comfortable." He prefers the Air Max Triax, priced at pounds 79.99, "an equally good shoe with excellent support for the forefoot and heel". The full length air- bag, flashy upper and extensive marketing of the new Nike design increases the cost considerably, Piotrowski says. "In my opinion, the customer is led to believe he needs something which is really rather unnecessary."

The Air Max Triax, in garish "cactus, ultramarine and white," is frankly grotesque, but the shoe is curvaceous and bright with the delightful Nike air-bubble visible (and squeezable) in the heel (sadly condemned by the experts as "more gimmick than genuinely useful").

The Asics 2030, cheaper at pounds 69.99, has two shock-absorbing silicone gel pads (the Asics answer to the Nike air-bag) lodged in the mid sole and a "power bridge" which adds support to the arch of the foot, while the Saucony Jazz 5000 at pounds 49.99 is cushioned with ethylene vinyl acetate, an old-fashioned, but durable, soft foam material. Admittedly, neither the Asics nor the Saucony have the street cred of the celestial Nike, but are, I am assured, reputable running shoes.

Joint winner of the Which? magazine best shoe award 1997, the Saucony might best be described as supermarket-chic, and does recall ancient Americans strolling through Miami. Shapeless and bland, Jazz 5000 is a painful misnomer, but feels by far the most springy. They will certainly survive a strenuous trek. And now that cut-price Nikes can be found at Tesco, it may well be that supermarket chic is the next big thing.