The Great Running Shoe Debate

By popular demand, this topic has reached the blog! Not a week has gone by for 25 years that did not have at least one person ask “What kind of running shoe should I use?” My answers have been both somewhat consistent and gradually evolving.

First of all, the shoe has been a wonderful invention for mankind. Shoes protect our feet, keep them warm, increase their traction, and provide them with an all-important (smile here) fashion statement. Running shoe design has progressed through many changes over the last half-century, and most of them have been positive. Methods of engineering, fabrication, and testing of shoes have all improved. The materials are stronger, lighter, more durable, etc. Our understanding of gait biomechanics, and how the body interacts with footwear, is quite advanced.

With all that stated, I still feel that there is a place for barefoot running for some people in some circumstances. If we all lived in warm climates with soft natural surfaces to run on, the previous sentence might read that barefoot running could be for most people in most circumstances. But this is a blog post about running shoes, so I’ll stick with that. While it is possible that the “wrong” shoe could cause problems or injury for a runner, for the most part running shoes allow us to run longer and more comfortably on mixed terrain. I’ll mention some categories of running shoes and some of their pros and cons in this text. Right now the big debate is between “minimalist” (closer to the barefoot condition), and “maximalist” (providing as much support and/or cushioning as possible) shoes, and I’ll get to this a bit later. What I’ll do first is list out the major categories of shoes for discussion purposes.

The Track (or cross-country) Spike: Ironically, this may have been the first minimalist shoe. If you think that idea is new to the last decade, you are off by at least 150 years.  The spike is today, and has always been, a slipper with a spike plate on the forefoot. It is the lightest shoe available, and there was a time when many runners not only competed in them, but trained in them as well. Because of the presence of the spike plate, not only is this a “zero-drop” shoe (also not a new concept), sometimes, especially in the case of sprint spikes which have no midsole or heel pad, a spike can have a negative height differential from heel to toe. These shoes are at their best on a track or a soft grass field.  If you’ve never laced up a pair and felt the power and exhilaration of running as fast as you can in these shoes, I’d recommend you try it (cautiously).

The Racing Flat: Some of these shoes are essentially spikes without spike plates, but there are some with thin midsoles made for road racing as well. Originally designed for competition, they are quite thin (thus “flat”), light, and flexibile. Runners who were seeking a minimalist shoe before it officially existed have trained in these shoes for decades.

The Lightweight Trainer: This shoe is essentially a hybrid between a racing shoe and a dedicated trainer. It may have additional support and cushioning features compared to a racer, but it is slightly lighter and more “racy-feeling” than what is usually considered a daily training shoe. While outsole materials have advanced just like everything else, these shoes often have thinner layers of high-carbon rubber or blown rubber on their outsoles to save weight.

The Daily Training Shoe: This is where the bulk of sales in running shoes has historically occurred. There are a number of sub-categories I’ll mention using the prefix “DTS” to designate this segment of the shoe population. Daily training shoes are meant to be somewhat substantial and durable for day-in/day-out usage, and they are built accordingly.

DTS-Neutral/Cushioned Shoe: This is a shoe that has a basic and continuous midsole that is purported to have a “neutral” effect on the runners strike and pronatory function. It is a very popular category for runners who have few biomechanical concerns. Midsole material continues to be dominated by EVA (a foam whose full name is ethylene vinyl acetate), and  polyurethane to a lesser extent.  Additional components such as air, gel, encapsulated cells, voodoo, and witchcraft are often incorporated into the midsoles. These products usually extend cushioning life significantly. More recently, the running research community has begun to note that this midsole thickness may not be as important as landing with a flexed knee and using our quads to absorb shock.

DTS-Stability Shoe: Stability shoes have one or more features in their design to attempt to limit both the amount and rate of pronation in the running footstrike. Pronation is a natural and desired occurrence in the foot. It is a triplanar motion that very basically is the foot’s rolling inward and down upon contact with the ground. It is a key component in both absorbing shock and adapting to the support surface. I may have to reserve the topic of pronation for a separate blog as it can get lengthy.  Suffice to say that a little pronation is a good thing, but too much, or overpronation, can be a potential problem in the runner. So most of these shoes have plastic reinforcements at the heel or arch, and/or a second, higher density (known as durometer in the shoe industry) midsole material  to resist pronatory motion in the foot. When these types of shoes were first being developed in the 70’s and 80’s, they had fairly wide heels. One would think that a wide heel would be more stable, and this may indeed be true once the foot is flat on the ground. However, because almost all feet make initial contact with the ground on their lateral border, these shoes actually increased or accelerated pronation due to their outrigger effect.

DTS – Motion Control Shoe: These shoes are much like stability shoes on steroids, and were designed for severe overpronators and/or heavy runners. They usually have all the stability-enhancing features (whether they work or not) that can be built into a shoe. Up until the 2000’s, most running shoes had fairly wide heels and somewhat pointy toes. This is the opposite shape of the human foot as seen when we make a wet footprint. This lasting, or shape of the shoe, always perplexed me and seemed to cause many runners discomfort. Apparently, shoe designers began to look at our footprints and build their shoes around that shape over the last 10-15 years, at least to some degree, but I think they can go further in this direction.

The Trail Shoe: As the name suggests, this shoe is designed for off-road running. Originally, these were merely road shoes with a different “paint-job,” but eventually they received more aggressive and traction-enhancing outsoles, more protective uppers, and other features which made them more suited for trails than roads.

The Minimalist Shoe: This type of shoe has been very popular since the late 2000’s. A minimalist shoe is exactly what it sounds like—a shoe without much midsole, outsole, upper, etc. They are thin and light and they don’t try to overly protect, cushion, or stabilize the foot by design. Research shows that while minimalist shoes don’t quite duplicate the barefoot condition (biomechanically), they allow and encourage the lower extremity to function more like it was barefoot than if the runner was wearing a “beefier” shoe. The less substantial shoe a runner wears, the more barefoot-like his/her running becomes. That is fairly obvious. A reduction or elimination (zero-drop) in the heel-forefoot differential  encourages the foot to strike more on the midfoot and utilize the Achilles tendon to a greater degree. The Nike Free was one of the first shoes of this type, and the extreme example was the Vibram Five Fingers shoe. Every major brand now makes some type of minimalist shoe.

The Maximalist Shoe: These are the shoes with the thick midsoles that are currently most popular. The original design was the Hoka One One. The idea behind these shoes was that more midsole could potentially be more shock-absorptive and protective of the foot. Most of the major manufacturers are now producing a shoe of this type. They often have a noticeable rocker to the sole (like a rocking chair) which helps to offset some of the midsole height by letting the shoe “roll” through the stance phase of the gait cycle. Current research indicates that this shoe can decrease ground reaction forces, or reduce impact, in runners who are “heavy hitters.” For example, I have a friend who is a talented runner but he has the habit or technique of pounding every footstrike as though his goal was to shatter the earth and extract its magma (OK- that is an exaggeration). But he hits hard, man, and I mean hard. You can hear it and feel it when you are running next to him. He has destroyed several treadmills and local fitness club owners cringe when he walks in the door. It makes some sense that this individual would get a benefit from a maximalist shoe and he indeed does. He reports that he can run significantly farther and feel fresher with these shoes and doesn’t feel as “beaten up.” My case in point.

Having identified most of the classifications of shoes, now we can more clearly try to answer the question: “Which one should I choose?”  If we rule out competition shoes for now and focus on the training shoes, we can see that the shoes of today have blended into three main categories:  a minimalist shoe, a “traditional daily trainer,” or a maximalist shoe.

Minimalist shoes are often preferred by runners who are lightweight, biomechanically efficient, and who simply don’t need much shoe. They are also a nice option for most runners who want to do some limited training that strengthens the foot and lower leg, and helps to improve form. The downside is that most people can’t run as far in these shoes (at least without breakdown) as they can in more substantial shoes. This is where we saw a huge wave of injuries when the minimalist craze struck a few years back. We had people who were not necessarily light and efficient wearing these shoes for long runs on concrete and asphalt. Metatarsal stress fractures, Achilles tendinitis, plantar fasciitis, and medial tibial stress syndrome were occurring frequently in the minimalist shoe wearers. I’ll be the first to say that many of these problems could have been prevented by having these runners simply progress more slowly with wearing the shoes, reduce and then slowly rebuild mileage, and use better training methods. But, as I mentioned in the last blog, runners don’t want to run less. They don’t want to cut back. They became their own worst enemy.

Traditional daily trainers are still probably the best choice for most people, whether they be geared toward the lightweight, cushioned, trail-specific, or stable models. We’ve seen these shoes benefit the most from the research, wear-testing, and development of materials and technology. This is a broad category and it requires a little trial and error to find the shoe that works best for each person. Number one is fit. Each brand has a last upon which they create their shoes, and most runners generally find they like the shape and fit of one or two brands best. Stick with those brands. Unlike full leather shoes, running shoes don’t really break in or mold to the foot very much so finding that fit and feel is critically important.

The topic of stability is an interesting one. While improving  running  form and fitness can enhance mechanics, some runners do benefit from a shoe that has pronation-reducing features (although a good strengthening program can accomplish similar benefits in many cases). Just like fit, though, the features of a particular shoe need to target how a specific foot functions. Not all shoes are designed with the same pronatory pattern in mind.  This is where professionals like me come into play. A shoe recommendation can be made with the understanding of a runner’s body type, foot structure, training patterns, and gait mechanics. It is very important for a shoewear advisor to have a significant amount of gait biomechanics education and running experience. However, in most cases, a runner can figure it out for herself/himself, but if there is an injury history or anything exceptionally unique about the runner, professional assistance may be warranted. A small investment in expert advisement can pay huge dividends in injury prevention and successful training.

The maximalist, or thick-midsole shoes, may have some cons to go with their pros. As stated previously, they can reduce impact forces at footstrike in certain individuals. However, the height of their midsoles do put runners higher off the ground. This can lead to a slight destabilizing effect, particularly in someone who is already a bit hypermobile. If the foot and leg “wander” a bit when they are on the ground, showing an increase in medial-lateral and rotary movement, we can see ankle, knee, or hip injuries in this condition due to the increase in shear forces.

So what does all of this really mean? We have a lot of shoes from which to choose. They are designed for both specific types of running and all kinds of runners. Most people can use the information stated above and select a shoe for their needs. Figure out the category of shoe you want, how substantial a shoe you need, and try on multiple brands until you get the best fit. Think about your training goals and commonly-used terrain, and make a choice that feels good on the foot and right in the mind. But perhaps most important of all is being smart with your training. It’s actually less about the shoe and more about how you train.

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