This topic never fails to ignite passionate conversation about what style of training shoe is best, who makes the best shoes and which shoe got rid of an injury almost overnight. From some of the comments people make, you would think that every ounce of running ability and likelihood of injury boils down to what running shoes you wear. Do shoe manufacturers make very bold claims about how much damage the wrong shoe can do? Yes. Is shoe selection important? Yes. And is shoe selection crucial for injury prevention? Probably not.
This blog looks at different styles of traditional running shoe and then compares them against more modern trends such as minimalist shoes and those that even look to mimic barefoot running. Conclusions are then drawn regarding whether one can be deemed better than the others and how you should approach the transition should you choose to make it.
Traditional training shoes from the 1990s onwards have a very cushioned heel, often resulting in a difference in height of about 10-12mm between the heel and the forefoot. These training shoes are traditionally placed into three categories: neutral, motion control and stability. To describe these, I must first go over two very relevant terms; pronation and supination.
Pronation is a natural part of your stride and describes the rolling-in of the foot from the natural first impact point on the outside of the foot upon landing, across the middle of the foot and through to the big toe as you propel the foot into the air behind you. Pronation is most definitely something that you want, and it’s therefore important to distinguish between pronation and overpronation. Overpronation occurs where the foot rolls in too much, causing excessive torsional forces through the foot and up through the ankle joint. Overpronation can be a factor in knee pain and shin splints, to name just a couple of common runners’ ailments.
Supination is the opposite of pronation and describes a foot that does not roll in as much as it should; it is known as underpronation for that reason. The force as the foot prepares to leave the ground has to be taken by the toes on the outer part of the foot. These smaller toes are not built to take that load and their bones and soft tissue can become injured. Also, as the energy is not dissipated through the whole foot, unabsorbed energy travels up through the lower leg. This can again make you more susceptible to shin splints and other injuries. Supination is less common than overpronation and, as a consequence, you will find it is less catered for by shoe manufacturers.
Types of traditional running shoe
These are normally described as fitting into three categories: neutral, motion control and stability shoes.
Neutral shoes are designed for those that have an efficient natural running style, with no material underpronation or overpronation. This lack of need for higher density (i.e. heavier) cushioning means that the runner can enjoy a lightweight shoe lets their body get on with what it wants to do relatively unimpeded.
Motion control shoes are at the opposite end of the scale. They use a considerable amount of high-density foam, which holds the foot firmly in place, rather than providing supple cushioning. The large amount of high-density foam and generally more substantial construction means they can easily weigh 20-30% more than the average neutral shoe.
Stability shoes are somewhere in between neutral and motion control shoes. They have a degree of high-density foam on the inside -middle of the shoe, to prevent overpronation, but the rest of the shoe leaves people to run largely as they would naturally.
‘Low-drop’ training shoes still have a heel to toe drop, but it’s much lower at, in most cases, around 4mm. Some low-drop shoes have lots of cushioning like traditional shoes; Nike even have an ‘Air’ shoe in this category. Other-low drops are featherweights and have very little cushioning. Whilst the shoes have a heel to toe drop and varying amounts of cushioning, they are not categorised into neutral, stability and motion control like traditional high-drop shoes are.
And what about barefoot running shoes?
Barefoot running shoes mimic true barefoot running by having no heel to toe drop. They also have very thin soles, to allow as much sensory perception as possible and make use of the thousands and thousands of nerve endings we have on our feet. These shoes do still have varying levels of cushioning and this will to a large extent determine how long it would take to transition from high-drop / low-drop to barefoot shoes.
There is always debate about the merits of running in ‘barefoot shoes’, with fierce advocates for and against. Barefoot shoes have been around for around fifteen years now, so there has been ample time for any ‘fad’ aspect to wane, and for any true merit to show itself, through the many research pieces that have been written on the subject. You also need to throw in anecdotal evidence from those favouring the new type of shoe.
Barefoot shoes use the opposite philosophy to motion control shoes for protecting you from injury. The very thin sole, with much of the cushioning removed, gives a natural foot movement. The natural positioning and movement of the foot gives far better sensory stimulation and requires activation of all the small muscles in the foot; muscles not needed to provide fine motor control when the foot is cossetted by protective cushioning. The rejuvenated foot, functioning as originally intended, will create a natural running stance that, in most people, is greatly different to how they run in traditional shoes.
Major mechanical differences between running in traditional training shoes and running barefoot
A key factor in low-drop and barefoot shoes, when compared to higher drop shoes, is that they are meant to let the foot act more naturally, and In doing so, they alter foot mechanics significantly as you run. A traditional shoe with a high heel to toe drop will encourage the runner to land on the back of the foot (i.e. heel strike). This is because the heel is raised, altering balance and requiring a more upright stance. A 4mm or barefoot running shoe will allow the runner to land on the midfoot. This forefoot strike is how the majority of us would run when truly barefoot, even if we heel strike in traditional running shoes. In a barefoot shoe, heel striking would be painful as, being the narrowest and hardest part of the foot, shock absorption would be poor.
In terms of running efficiency, landing on the front of the foot is potentially preferable as you spend less time with the foot on the ground than when landing on the rear. The difference is simply that there is no time spent rolling forwards to the point of leaving the ground again (toe-off). This is crucial for a sprinter, where every tenth of a second counts, but is it misleading to see it as important for distance running? I would say that any small saving made might be outweighed by increased injury risk from changing to a running style that isn’t naturally what your body wants to do. It’s worth noting that many runners who start a long run with a forefoot strike have dropped back to a less aggressive mid/rear-foot stance within a few kilometres. The runner probably wouldn’t even realise; the brain has just got on with following the path of least resistance.
Implications for injuries
For super-cushioned training shoe, there has long been debate about what type of shoe is best for runners based on how they strike the ground (the motion control, stability and neutral shoes, as described earlier in the blog). No one has ever managed to amass any real evidence that any particular type of training shoe is better at preventing injury than any other. In spite of this lack of empirical evidence, only this morning I saw an advert from a major shoe manufacturer still claiming that 80% of us may be putting ourselves at risk from running in the ‘wrong’ shoes.
The lack of evidence seems to extend to the debate regarding very cushioned modern training shoes and minimalist / barefoot training shoes. As much as you will read blogs from people who claim barefoot shoes have completely transformed their life as a runner, this is very unscientific. Some of those people may no longer have injuries, but how much of that is down to the footwear change, and how much is down to those injuries healing naturally over time, irrespective of footwear? Psychological factors can impact minor soft tissue injuries massively. Perhaps the time taken running shorter distances and at reduced speeds during a transition to barefoot shoes was enough time to heal the injury. Even if it didn’t physically heal, the lower-intensity first barefoot shoe sessions may have stopped the runner from thinking about the injuries all the time.
From all the reading that I have done on this subject, the only conclusion I can reach is that training error has far more of an effect on likelihood of injury than any type of training shoe. Many injuries common to runners, such as Iliotibial Band Syndrome, shin splints, plantar fasciitis and hamstring tendonopathy, are what’s known as ‘overuse injuries.’ This either means training too frequently, or increasing the loading too quickly. Admittedly I am generalising, but if you’re new to running and you increase your distances really quickly and run really often, you’re probably going to get shin splints whatever shoe you run in.
Still want to try barefoot shoes?
If you are going to try shoes that mimic barefoot running, do it steadily. It’s literally a case of walk before you run. Get used to the feeling of the shoes, and when you do start running in them, only run for short distances. If you are one of the relatively small group that naturally land on the midfoot or even further forwards, you will find the transition easier and can get running earlier than a heel striker.
For most, it will take several weeks to acclimatise to the mechanical changes the shoes create, to allow time for those smaller muscles in the foot to reawaken and strengthen. There is no golden rule here, as barefoot shoes vary in their construction. The smaller the amount of cushioning, the longer the transition will take.
It is also likely that you will suffer calf and achilles pain as you make the transition, perhaps because the calf muscles are in a lengthened position now that the heel is no longer raised. You may wish to switch from high-drop to low-drop shoes first, before then progressing to barefoot shoes.
Don’t bin the old trainers until you’ve given the new style a good go. You may hate the change whether it causes more injuries or not. Don’t follow what others think and just make your own judgement on the basis of what you’ve learned and what you think feels right for you. Happy running, everyone!!
For advice on running shoe selection or massage help with a running injury in Bristol, please get in touch.