If you’re reading this article I’m going to guess you’re in the market for a new pair of running shoes. Maybe you’re curious about which shoes prevent injuries, or accommodate for your foot strike, or even perform for the type of running you want to be able to do!
Lucky for you, I’m about to debunk the myths of running shoes and shed light on useful facts so you can save yourself a lot of time, money, headache, and injury. After all, the point of buying the right running shoes is so you can feel great running, right?
Debunking the Running Shoe Myths
Let’s just start with what’s probably the most popular shoe myth today. Today’s narrative from shoe companies, social media, and even running books have become very skillful at convincing runners that there’s a specific and certain shoe that’s “correct” for you. Claims have been made that there are certain types of shoes for certain types of runners.
Some shoes claim that it forces the runner to land in a forefoot landing pattern, declaring forefoot running as the only and best way to run. Well, the truth is, that could not be more untrue.
Not every runner is the same. Most runners have a complex history of injuries, pain, or training styles that necessitate individualization of the shoe buying process. With this approach, runners are liberated from restricting themselves to specific shoe box for the rest of their lives.
Because the truth is, runners change, you get an injury, or maybe your training style causes mechanical and physiological changes that invokes changes in your gait over time. This nuances the procedure in finding a shoe that is appropriate for the runner at that specific point in time of their life. Just the same as why you can’t just wear the same shirt every day for forever. Internal and external changes occur such as weight changes, desire for different comfort fit, or weather temperatures that necessitate a different shirt.
For this reason, we can’t believe everything shoe companies tell us we need because a big piece of their objective is to market and sell fancy and eye-catching details about their shoes.
Let’s Talk About Running Shoe Truths
The “right” shoes are completely dependent on the runner’s personal preferences, foot shape, and history of injury, amongst many other factors. In fact, research even shows that the two most important aspects for selecting running shoes are good fit and overall comfort with an efficient shoe lace system to promote a good geometrical match between the foot and shoe-bed.
How to Pick Your Running Shoe
- The Four Most Important Considerations
- Heel drop: the height of the heel with respect to the forefoot.
Literature demonstrates no significant difference in injury risk with different heel drops. However, if you have a history of injuries with running, which most runners do, you should take some caution when selecting the heel drop of your shoe.
For example, if you have a history of knee pain, shoes with higher heel drop can increase stress placed on the knee when pushing off the ground, potentially exacerbating any preexisting knee issues. Furthermore, shoes with a lower heel drop can also increase the amount your ankle bends upwards
when standing and pushing off that leg, potentially adding more stress and stretch to the back of the ankle, or the Achilles tendon, and if you have a history of Achilles pain, this should be of consideration.
Additionally, literature demonstrates that there are differences in the tolerance to various heel drops depending on your frequency of running. Early scientific research suggests that runners who only run occasionally have a lower injury risk in low heel drop shoes as compared to more regular runners in low drop shoes. Although modern research is inconclusive on this finding, it heavily suggests the need to observe and appreciate individual differences in runners.
- Minimalist vs Cushioned shoes:
Defined as footwear with minimal material between the foot and the natural environment. A shoe with high flexibility, low weight, low stack height, low heel-toe drop, and an absence of motion control and stability devices.
There’s a lot of speculation on whether this type of shoe promotes the way we were “meant” to run. To keep this short and sweet, minimalist shoes no doubt improve the performance of a runner. Performance meaning optimal mechanical efficiency for a predetermined period of time, to maximize power and speed. This does not necessarily imply this is the most sustainable running shoe over a long period of time.
Consider the fact the runners compete in racing flats for races, but they do not train in them on a regular daily basis. In fact, modern scientific research has found that over a 10 week period, runners who ran in minimalist shoes consistently had more calf and shin injuries.
Minimalist shoes can help to harness force production for forward propulsion and yield better performance for a race, but caution should be taken when switching to them for a daily trainer shoe as this should be done progressively with consistent training over time while working with a movement specialist that can address any issues that may arise.
So what’s the rub? The main dilemma is that many runners convert too quickly to minimalist shoes, and without proper training through strengthening, balance exercise, or a consultation with a movement specialist prior, their mechanics have not been prepped or readied for the drastic change of impact loading on the leg, leading to injury down the road.
To sum it up, minimalist shoes have demonstrated improved performance via improved mechanical efficiency, meaning good for racing, but caution and measures should be taken when a runner wants to make them a daily training shoe in order to avoid injury.
- Shoelaces: Regulate tightness of the shoe to allow for a good geometrical match between the shoe and the individual’s unique foot anatomy.
This is probably the most under-looked and under-appreciated category. The shoelace system is more important than most people think. Good fit for any running shoe is a prerequisite to have before allowing the rubber to meet the road. — See what I did there?
The shoelace system ensures that the foot is secure within the footbed. If the foot is not secure, excessive motion will occur within the shoe which leads to altered and potentially suboptimal mechanics, leading to potential injury.
So what’s the best shoelace pattern to look for? Research demonstrates that a seven eyelet pattern rather than a six eyelet pattern yields improved stability perception in runners. The six eyelet pattern was the most unstable for running mechanics and showed a higher impact loading rate and heel peak pressure than all seven eyelet patterns. Additionally, the six eyelet pattern with tight lacing was also found to be the most uncomfortable for runners.
Final take-away? Further research is still required to determine the best eyelet pattern but all in all, the most important aspect is the shoelace system’s ability to provide fit and comfort for your foot in the shoe.
Next time you lace up, take a peek at how many eyelets your shoe has and play around with what feels best for you.
- Midsole: The cushioning, shock absorbing layer in between the insole (contacts with the foot) and the outsole (contacts the ground).
There’s a lot of talk about the reasons behind choosing a stiff or soft midsole. In recent studies, a stiff rigid midsole can improve running performance by minimizing the potential energy lost from the time of landing to pushing off the leg (i.e. more of the energy stored from landing is transferred to push off force). On the contrary, soft midsoles are beneficial as they can reduce the peak impact and loading rates, decreasing impact-related injuries.
But what about “super shoes”? The newest carbon plated “super shoes” demonstrate performance with an impact control concept. They are a racing shoe designed with a rigid carbon plate in the midsole, which provides the structural support with a stiff enough lever to optimize propulsion force forward.
Additionally, these super shoes come with enhanced midsole cushioning, differentiating themselves from typical minimalistic racing flats in that they can provide better shock absorption and therefore decrease the risk of impact-related injuries in runners.
But do these shoes work for everyone? Research is still developing on these carbon plated shoes as it has been debated that the amount of energy returned from the potential energy stored in the stance phase depends on the individual mechanics of the runner.
Either way, it is an exciting and newer development that demonstrates impressive and promising results so far.
Figure 3: Note the red layer, the carbon fiber plate, serving as the rigid midsole that allows for stored potential energy during the stance phase that is utilized in the push off phase for energy return and improved forced production
But what about shoe orthotics?
Shoe Orthotics: a layer of material placed in a shoe, made of soft or gel materials with either foam or plastic to provide support or to address a specific problem.
Many of us have been told that we need an orthotic following a diagnosis like plantar fasciitis. However, orthotics can be incredibly expensive and may not even fix the problem. Does this sound familiar to you?
Research demonstrates the use of orthotics and taping techniques can help with short-term pain reduction, key word being “short-term.” Once painful symptoms are managed, it is crucial to fully fix the problem with an appropriate stretching and strengthening program for long-lasting results and prevention.
Want some good news? Not everyone is a candidate for an expensive custom orthotic, in fact, recent research demonstrates that just over-the-counter orthotics yield very similar results for pain management.
The most successful approach would be to talk with your physical therapist about the best treatment plan for YOU. Minimize pain, and solve the root cause at its origin.
At the end of the day, the orthotic will help provide support to the foot, but the foot also requires the right exercises so it can support itself as well. This is the only way to get long-term, money-saving, headache-relieving, efficient results so you can continue to run happily for as long as possible. Sounds pretty good, right?
Let’s get down to business. The sooner you can fix the problem, the sooner you’ll be back out running, pain and injury-free. For many of you, changing up your shoe game and choosing a better shoe for you will wash your worries away.
But if you find that you’re still searching for answers and continually guessing at what you can do to unlock your best self with running, it might be time to find a good physical therapist that specializes in running rehabilitation.
Lucky for you, if you’ve made it this far, you’ve had the opportunity to harvest some useful information to get you started. There’s a lot more than just running shoes that can be addressed to help a runner.
I have worked with hundreds of runners in the Boulder area to help them achieve that “Aha!” moment everyone looks for. I have extensive personal and professional experience with running so you can feel rest-assured your physical therapist walks the walk, or I mean, runs the run and not just talks the talk.
I am accepting new clients at this time to work one on one with you to create a tailored program. My clients enjoy working with me because they know they are treated with the most up to date knowledge; they are pushed to their limits; all while having some fun!
Article written by Running Rehab Specialist, Dr. Ally Barry
Malisoux, L., Chambon, N., Urhausen, A., & Theisen, D. (2016). Influence of the heel-to-toe drop of standard cushioned running shoes on injury risk in leisure-time runners. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 44(11), 2933–2940. https://doi.org/10.1177/0363546516654690
Sun, X., Lam, W.-K., Zhang, X., Wang, J., & Fu, W. (2020, February 24). Systematic review of the role of footwear constructions in running biomechanics: Implications for running-related injury and performance. Journal of sports science & medicine. Retrieved September 23, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7039038/.
Joubert, Dustin P.; Garcia, Caleb; and Johnson, Blake W. (2021) “A Case Study Comparison of Two Carbon-Plated Running Shoes on Running Economy and Running Mechanics,” International Journal of Exercise Science: Conference Proceedings: Vol. 2 : Iss. 13 , Article 89.