It’s Not All About the Shoes or at Least Not in the Way You Might Think

I’m dating myself, but several years ago Nike had an ad for Air Jordan shoes featuring Michael Jordan and Spike Lee with the tagline “It’s all about shoes.”  However, just like we can’t be amazing basketball players just by wearing Air Jordan basketball shoes, research has shown that running shoes generally have little or no effect on running performance and injury prevention.  In fact, the design of some current running shoes may increase your risk for injury!

So, at some point you will need to purchase running shoes again, unless of course you are going to run barefoot.  If the shoe model you currently use feels good and you feel no pain, then by all means continue with this same model.  Running shoe companies make this a challenge though, because they are constantly changing shoe models.  Also, the current shoes you are running in may be decreasing your running efficiency and increasing your risk for injury.

Therefore, I wanted to share with you a few things to consider when purchasing your next pair of running shoes. A couple of years ago I posted an article entitled “Runners and Triathletes: Let’s Go Shop Shopping.” Most of the considerations I mentioned in this article still hold true, so please check out this article (http://www.denverrunningcoach.com/runners-and-triathletes-lets-go-shoe-shopping/).

However, I want to update tips numbered 2 and 3 of the list of 16 tips that I gave based on the research on running shoes.  Basically, these tips addressed determining arch type for your foot and the proper shoe based on your arch type.

Research has shown that trying to “classify” a runner’s arch type or height (high arch, neutral arch, flat arch or flat-footed) doesn’t really describe what is happening when you run.  Differences between structural arch heights are muted when running.  Numerous studies have shown that assigning shoes based on arch type doesn’t improve performance or decrease injury.  No matter your arch type, we all need to dissipate shock during pronation (foot turning inward) and actively stabilize during push-off.  This is the responsibility of our body, not the shoe we are running in.  Proprioception and muscles ability to respond and stabilize when we run, especially with one foot on the ground are critical.

Proprioception is the sensory information that allows our body to sense its position and allows us to control our limbs without directly looking at them.  This is important in controlling how we land and stabilize when we run.  Poor proprioception can negatively impact how we use our muscles when we run resulting in overstriding, which increases stress on our body and can make us a less efficient runner.  This sensory information is impacted by the extent to which our foot is in contact with the ground.  The body will respond best when we maximize proprioception.

The better your proprioception and your ability to stabilize your pelvis, hip and ankle joints when you run, the more efficient (and faster) runner you will be, and the better your ability to minimize the risk of injury.  In future articles and videos, I will address how to improve your ability to stabilize, which involves properly engaging the muscles.  In this article I will focus more on how running shoes can affect your proprioception.  Any delay in this proprioception can negatively impact your body’s ability to respond and stabilize, especially since the time that we have one foot on the ground in each stride cycle is so brief (~0.07-0.25 seconds).

Maximum proprioception would occur when we are running barefoot on a firm surface.  If you have run barefoot or watched others run barefoot you may have noticed that you and/or they run differently.  A big part of this is the improved proprioception causes you and/or them to land differently; often softer and closer to the body, which is beneficial, because we will experience less impact on the body and tend not to overstride.  Unfortunately, most of the time we are not running on surfaces which lend itself well to running barefoot.  We need some type of protection on our feet.  Thus, most of us run in running shoes, instead of running barefoot, most or all of the time.

So, how do running shoes affect our proprioception and what can we do to maximize our proprioception if we are running in shoes?

Traditional running shoes evolved to share four basic key features:

Postings – dual-density material that tries to stop motion, think stability and motion control shoes

High heels – heel is about two times as high as the forefoot

Cushioned material – softer surfaces designed to absorb impacts

Narrow toe box – narrow toe boxes supposedly improve fit and control

In a previous article (http://www.denverrunningcoach.com/get-ready-to-achieve-your-running-goals-for-2017/) I mentioned three of these factors, and that they can be detrimental to running efficiency and potentially increase your risk for injury.

Postings

Postings, which are found in stability and motion control shoes, are supposed to help runners who overpronate.  However, maximum pronation actually occurs just after midstance (when we have one foot fully on the ground), after the heel has left the ground.  This means that the posting under the rearfoot that is designed to “stop” the foot from moving isn’t even in contact with the ground, so it’s not able to do what it is supposed to do!  In addition, these postings create some significant issues at midstance, including increasing the stress on the inside of the knee.  This can lead to the development of osteoarthritis.

A couple of years ago, I purchased a pair of motion control shoes.  I began noticing knee pain when I ran in these shoes.  I switched to a shoe with a significantly lower heel (less posting) and the knee pain went away.  For the shoes in which I had experienced knee pain, I measured the difference in sole from the heel to the front of the shoe on the shoe.  This difference was approximately 15mm (1.5 cm or ~3/4 inch)!  Talk about your high heels!  Well, at least for running shoes.  If you are experiencing knee pain and you currently have motion control or stability shoes, you might consider trying a flatter more neutral shoe and see if that reduces or eliminates your knee pain.

High Heels

Another running shoe feature that can have a negative impact on your running and increase your risk for injury is high heels.  Heel may be high because of a posting for a motion control or stability, or it may be due to excess cushioning.  Research suggests that the proprioceptive responses of the foot works best when the foot is flat and that high heels can mute or compromise proprioception.  Fortunately, shoe manufacturers have been offering flatter shoes, most likely due to Chris McDougal’s “Born To Run” and the barefoot/minimalist movement.  This is a good thing, because these flatter shoes increase our proprioception.

Check your current shoes.  Measure the sole at the heel and front of the shoe.  What’s the difference between this?  If this difference is 10 mm or greater, you might consider trying a shoe with approximately a 5-6 mm drop from the heel to front of the shoe.  Running shoes with a high heel mask our foot’s sensation (reduced proprioception) and allow us to land hard on the heel well in front of our body’s center of mass (overstriding).

Something to consider when you are not running:  If you put your foot in a better position throughout the day by wearing flatter shoes, you’ll be better able to maximize the function of your foot.  This will carry over to your running.  Even if you aren’t running in flat shoes, use flatter shoes throughout the rest of the day, as much as possible.

Cushioning

Just as motion control and stability shoes may be inappropriate for those who overpronate, or have flat arches, shoes with a lot of cushioning may be inappropriate for those who supinate (underpronate), or have high arches.  More cushioning results in less proprioception.  This in turn results in less control with our muscles to stabilize us when we have one foot on the ground and can result in overstriding; decreasing our running efficiency and increasing our risk of injury.

Narrow Toe Box

The last running shoe feature that can significantly impact your efficiency and injury risk is the toe box.  Unfortunately, fashion has dictated that we have shoes that taper in the front.  A shoe with a narrow toe box scrunches your foot, and thus can make it more difficult to control your big toe.  Approximately 80-85% of foot support when you run should come from the big toe.  So, your running shoe should have a wide toe box so that you can spread your toes.  This allows your muscles that control the toes to be properly activated, thus you can better control your big toe and increase your stability when you are in midstance.  This will also allow you to better push off with this foot making you a faster runner.

A few additional qualities in a running shoe that would be beneficial include:

– Thin: to provide some protection for the feet, but allow for near maximum proprioception

– Firm: enough in the midsole to optimize proprioception in the foot, but not so much to allow hard landings in the front of the body

– Light: weight matters in regards to efficiency

Summary:

  • Proprioception is the sensory information that allows our body to sense its position and allows us to control our limbs when we run. This affects our body’s response and along with muscle control affects our stability, which in turn affects our running efficiency and risk for injury
  • Don’t depend on shoes to correct for issues with running form, we’ll discuss how to correct for these in future articles
  • Consider using a firm, flat (6mm drop or less from heel to front of shoe), light shoe that is wide in the toe box
  • Consider using a shoe with little cushioning to maximize your body’s ability to control motion and to effectively respond to changes in conditions while running
  • Running shoes should be about function, not fashion. Adjust your shoe size if your foot grows, such as what can happen with wider toe box shoes as the foot widens

References

Clinghan, R., et al. “Do You Get Value For Money When You Buy an Expensive Pair of Running Shoes?”  Br J Sports Med. (42): 189-93, 2008.

Dicharry, J.  (2012).  Anatomy for Runners.  New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing.

Kurz, MJ, and N. Stergiou. “The Spanning Set Indicates That Variability During the Stance Period of Running Is Affected by Footwear.” Gait Posture. (17): 132-5, 2003.

Nigg, BM, et al. “The Effects of Material Characteristics of Shoe Soles on Muscle Activation and Energy Aspects During Running.” J Biomech. (36): 569-75, 2003.

Ramanathan, AK, Parish EJ, Arnold GP, Drew TS, Wang W, and Abboud RJ.  “The influence of shoe sole’s varying thickness on lower limb muscle activity.” Foot Ankle Surg. (17): 218-23, 2011.

Reinschmidt, C., and BM Nigg. “Influence of Heel Height on Ankle Joint Moments In Running.” Med Sci Sports Exerc. (27): 410-6, 1995.

Richards, CE, PJ Magin, and R. Callister.” Is Your Prescription of Distance Running Shoes Evidence-Based?” Br J Sports Med. (43): 159-62, 2009.

Robbins SE, Waked WE, Allard P, McClaran J, Krouglicof N. “Foot position awareness in younger and older men: the influence of foot wear sole properties.” J Am Ger Soc (45): 61–6, 1997.

Robbins SE, Waked E, McClaran J. Proprioception and stability: foot position awareness as a function of age and footwear. Age Aging (24): 67–72. 1995.

Ryan, MB, et al. “The Effect of Three Different Levels of Footwear Stability on Pain Outcomes In Women Runners: A Randomised Control Trial.” Br J Sports Med, (45): 715-21, 2009.

Sekizawa, K, et al. “Effects of Shoe Sole Thickness on Joint Position Sense.” Gait Posture. (13): 221-8, 2001.

Stacoff, A., X. Kalin, and E. Stussi. “The Effects of Shoes on the Torsion and Rearfoot Motion In Running.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. (23): 482-490, 1991.

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