By Caitlin Alexander, PT, DPT, CAFS
One of the most common questions we get from our runners is in regard to what kind of running shoe they should wear. This happens to also be the most difficult question to answer straightforward! Running shoes are highly subjective and what works for one person may not necessarily work for another. There are so many different brands and models on the market that it can be a bit overwhelming to know where to start. Below we break down a couple of the important concepts when it comes to running shoe style to help you make the best choice.
Do you need stability or neutral shoes?
Stability and motion-control shoes were historically designed to decrease excessive motion at the foot and ankle, such as excessive pronation. Neutral shoes are lighter, a bit nimbler, and allow the foot and ankle to move more naturally. The most important thing to remember when it comes to running shoes is that shoes do not run, PEOPLE do. When a runner is considering what type of shoe he or she needs, controlling motion may not the best approach. Footwear doesn’t necessarily stop or improve any type of foot motion. And often times, people would rather spend money than do the work it takes to improve their bodies and their feet.
We’ve all been told that pronation is bad, but in reality, pronation is a necessary part of the ankle’s shock absorbing system. The issue arises when that motion is uncontrolled due to poor foot and ankle intrinsic strength. Excessive motion at the foot and ankle can lead to a whole host of issues up the chain including plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendinopathy, knee pain and hip pain. As a physical therapist, my first line of defense is always to train the body to handle the demands of running. It is a much more sustainable, long term approach to healthy running. A stability shoe can be used in the interim to reduce these forces while a runner is working on improving foot and ankle control, but it should not be a permanent, long term solution.
Lots of cushion vs. minimal cushioning. Which is better and why?
This is a hot topic in the footwear industry right now, with the current trend towards highly cushioned shoes with carbon plates and large stack heights. Did you know that your running mechanics change based on your shoe’s stiffness and the material it is made out of? Shoes with lots of cushioning and a large stack height bring our feet further off from the ground, and as a result, our body loses its sense of where the ground is (or its proprioception). This sensory information from our environment is important because it tells the foot how to properly load the body when it hits the ground. With so much material between the foot and the ground, highly cushioned shoes can create a disconnect between the feet and the brain, causing weak feet and issues up the kinetic chain.
We do know that when you run barefoot, you increase your cadence and you have a shorter step length. In shoes, you put greater negative forces through the knee and the hip because you land stiffer. Imagine running on the beach barefoot as the sand moves underneath your feet. Your body naturally stiffens up as a response to that unstable surface. So, is the answer barefoot running? Absolutely not. Yes, our feet are designed to function without the need for shoes or orthotics, but our bodies are not designed to pound miles and miles of pavement and concrete, like we do in our modern world. Unless you’ve been walking around barefoot your whole life, you probably need some protective, shock-absorbing material between your feet and the road.
Another thing to consider is the heel height of traditional running shoes. A higher heel-to-toe drop (the offset between the height of the back and the height of the front of the shoe) shifts the low back into extension and puts the load through the knees. This moves the body towards a more quad-dominant position and makes it harder to engage your glutes (the backside of the hip, a runner’s powerhouse) when running.
I always direct my runners towards a shoe in the middle of the spectrum in terms of stack height, cushioning and heel-to-toe drop, unless they already run in minimalist shoes with no problems. If you’re an urban runner and log most of your miles on hard surfaces like pavement and concrete, it might be worthwhile to have a pair of cushioned shoes in your closet to use occasionally for minimizing the harsh impact of those surfaces. I also recommend my runners rotate through a couple different types of shoes, so they aren’t running in the same shoe every day.
Racing flats vs. everyday trainers.
Racing flats differ from everyday trainers in that they are designed to be lighter, faster and more minimal than the traditional training shoe. A racing flat has enough cushioning for a distance race, but is essentially a stripped down, faster version of a trainer. And racing flats are proven to be faster than trainers. Racing flats are a great compliment to your training for faster efforts like tempos and threshold intervals, especially if you plan to race in your racing flats. They give you a better feel for the ground and do a better job and teaching your foot and ankle how to act as a shock absorber and propulsive force. However, I wouldn’t recommend using them for a majority of your runs because they are more minimal, especially if you primarily run on harder surfaces. If you already have a dependable pair of trainers and are looking for a secondary shoe, a racing flat or slightly lighter, more minimal trainer can be a great compliment to your training.
Does brand really matter?
Prominent biomechanist Benno Nigg published a heavily referenced study about running shoes that found that comfort, above all else, was the best determinant of a shoe’s utility. How well the shoe fits your unique foot and how it feels is more important than any flashy technological advancement. That being said, try on a bunch of different shoes to see what feels and works best for you.
As a PT, I rarely recommend a particular brand of shoe to my runners. Instead, I give them guidelines for the technical aspects they should be looking for in a shoe (level of cushioning, heel-to-toe drop, stack height, midsole stiffness). Be well informed before you walk into a running store and don’t buy into the hottest, flashiest shoe craze on the market.
Is it better to go to a store to try on shoes or can I order a bunch online?
Ideally it is best for you to be able to try different pairs of shoes on if you don’t have a good idea of where to start. Some online retailers will let you return shoes easily if they do not work for you. Some running stores also have lenient return policies that will let you try out the shoe for a bit before deciding to return it or not. Regardless of which outlet you choose, be sure to read all the fine print so you aren’t stuck with a shoe that ends up not working for you!
Other important things to note
Most running injuries are repetitive stress injuries that occur from the same stimulus or load applied to a tissue over and over again. Studies show that we can reduce injury risk by switching up your running shoes regularly. You can give your body a different stimulus by wearing a different shoe now and then which will put the foot in a different position and load different tissues.
When considering switching from one type of shoe to another, depending on how far they are from each other on the spectrum of minimalist-maximalist shoes, allow your body a long period to transition. If you’ve been running in highly cushioned maximalist shoes, do not buy a new pair of neural shoe and start doing all your runs in them. There should be a transition period (anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple months) where you gradually introduce the new shoe to your body and your feet. This method of graded exposure is a much more effective way to get into a different type of shoe without increasing your risk for injury.