Matt Phillips

Written by Matt Phillips

12 COMMENTS

Choosing the Right Running Shoes: A Look at How Trainers Affect Training and Running Performance

Following last week’s article “Foot Types & Foot Wear,” I have had quite a few runners ask me the same question, with words to the effect of: “Ok, if the whole overpronation shoe model thing has no evidence, what the hell do I run in!?”

A very good question! But first things first…

Why do we need running shoes at all?

Relax, I’m not going to start preaching about barefoot running (although I’m not going to dismiss it either). But in order to discuss how we decide which trainers are suitable for us, it is useful to re-evaluate exactly what we are buying them for.

With that in mind, over the last couple of days I have been asking the runners I meet what they are looking for when they buy trainers. Collectively, the majority of them produced the following three reasons: protection, support, cushioning.

Protection

If by protection we are referring to avoiding glass & syringes, then wearing something on our feet obviously makes sense. This may well be the main contributing factor as to why, at least in my experience, it is rare to see runners training or racing in no shoes on at all.

Many of us could probably find less hazardous routes on which to entertain the theoretical benefits of barefoot running, but until clearer evidence supports such theories, most of us will probably pass.  However, if we’re talking about protection from running on hard surfaces then we are essentially looking at cushioning (more on that shortly).

Support

By support, most people are referring to stopping the medial arch of the foot “collapsing,” which brings us back to the whole supination/neutral/pronation paradigm used by most running shops to prescribe you a “suitable” trainer after watching you walk or run for a couple of minutes (or in some cases just standing you on a pressure pad, which in itself has no connection to how your foot acts whilst running). I am sure you are already familiar with the process:

  • If the arch of your supporting foot drops “too much” you are labelled an “overpronator” and assigned a motion-control shoe that will in theory reduce the “overpronation”.
  • If your arch does not drop “enough”, you are said to be an underpronator (or supinator), and assigned a flexible, cushioned shoe to absorb some of the shock that underpronator is said to cause.
  • If you are somewhere in the middle, you are said to have normal pronation and are recommended a “neutral” shoe that in theory provides just the right amount of stability and cushioning.

As we saw last week, this model is heavily flawed and unsupported to date by any evidence. It is important not to let fear of injury or promises of recovery persuade you to be herded into one of the three pens (motion control, stability or neutral) however persuasive the sheepdog/sales person may be!

Cushioning

If you regularly run on hard surfaces like pavements, tracks and treadmills, you would think cushioning makes sense. Running shops can be very quick to stress this point if they “see” you as a heel striker. And yet, studies show (Scott, 1990) that peak loads at typical sites of injury for runners (Achilles, knees, etc.) actually occur during midstance (when your bodyweight passes over the supporting leg) and toe off (when your back leg pushes away from the ground).

These studies suggest that impact force at heel contact has no effect on the peak force seen at typical injury sites.

There is also growing evidence that when faced with higher impact forces from a harder running surface, your body makes natural adjustments to deal with the change in impact force – changes in joint stiffness, changes in the way the foot strikes the ground, and also via a concept called “muscle tuning” (pre-activation of muscles prior to impact).

Based on information received visually and from the previous foot strike, the body adjusts how strongly the muscles in your leg contract before the foot hits the ground again. Imagine jumping on a trampoline – your legs naturally stiffen in preparation for the soft landing.

Now imagine yourself jumping onto concrete – your legs naturally become less stiff in preparation for the hard landing. This natural adjustment is the result of sensory feedback from not only the eyes but also from the feet. In other words, the theory is that sensory feedback from the feet following one foot strike helps prepares the body for the next foot strike. If this is indeed the case, could excessive cushioning at the bottom of a trainer inhibit this natural sensory feedback?

Cushioning & injury prevention

The role that impact actually plays in running injuries is not at all clear. Studies by two highly respected biomechanics researchers, Dr. Irene Davis (Director of the Running Injury Lab, University of Delaware) and Dr. Benno Nigg (Co-Director of the Human Performance Laboratory, University of Calgary) have produced contrasting results.

Whilst Dr. Davis’ research links high impact loading rates with plantar fasciitis and tibia stress fractures, Dr. Nigg has found that overall injury rates are slightly lower among runners with high impact loading rates.

One possible interpretation of the above is that leg stiffness, as we considered earlier, is an important factor with certain injuries. Dr. Davis’ research linked runners who had suffered tibia stress fractures with higher impact forces and higher leg stiffness.

If tibia stress fractures are a consequence of high leg stiffness (for which I hasten to add there is as yet no evidence) then maybe runners susceptible to them should try wearing a less cushioned shoe and run on harder surfaces.

Just as we saw in our “landing on concrete” example earlier, in preparation for the harder surface, the body will reduce leg stiffness, which if the theory is correct could reduce susceptibility to tibia stress fractures.

At this stage it is all theory, and I draw particular attention to the words “maybe” and “try”. Always introduce changes slowly and gradually! Give your body a chance to tell you how it feels about the change before you do any harm to yourself!

So what trainers should I buy?

For those of you still clinging onto the hope that I or indeed anyone is going to be able to give you a structured model for trainer selection, I should probably put you out of your misery. There is no model. But do not despair. See it as liberation as opposed to a hindrance.

Yes, some people are recommended trainers and their injury disappears, but plenty are given the same advice and the injury continues. The journey to injury free running is best started with acceptance & application of the following mantra, as used by running coach James Dunne of Kinetic Revolution: Form Before Footwear.

As far as trainer selection goes, Pete Larson, anatomy professor, writer & runner with self diagnosed shoe obsession sums it up nicely: “I can run in just about anything as long as I’m careful to take things slowly and listen to my body.”

This is what I mean by “liberation.

Part of Pete’s Running Shoe Collection, 2010. (Photo Courtesy of P. Larson)

Part of Pete’s Running Shoe Collection, 2010. (Photo Courtesy of P. Larson)

In my opinion, one of the best things to so far emerge from the barefoot debate is the much larger variety of designs of shoe you can now choose from.

Having seen that heavy cushioning is not necessarily helpful to everybody, you should now hopefully be more confident to test, for example, some lighter trainers. Again, the secret is experimenting to see what feels comfortable for you. Bear in mind that a trainer that suits you for one distance, terrain or speed may not work as well for another.

You could also try trainers with a slightly lower Heel-Toe Drop than you are used to (the difference in height between the heel and the forefoot).

Traditional running shoes have a heel-toe drop of about 12mm. Vibram Fivefingers have pretty much a drop of 0mm. Going straight from 12mm to 0mm is not taking things slowly or listening to your body! There are plenty of 6-10mm transitional trainers on the market which will allow you to experiment more gently.

Though there is as yet no direct evidence for benefits of a lower drop, I personally see much logic in the argument that exposing your feet and legs to varying forces (in a controlled, sensible manner) could potentially make you a stronger runner and reduce injury.

Remember to listen to your body

If you run too far, too often, or too fast in a new pair of trainers, your body will let you know. Many of the running injuries we see in clinic are linked to a runner buying a new pair of trainers and thinking they can pick up their training program from where they left off. It’s more than that. Most runners actually run faster or further the first time they put on their new trainers (we all love new toys!).

  • It is vital to respect the fact that your body will often need time to adjust to a new style of trainer. Put on a minimalistic shoe for the first time and run too far and your calves will soon let you know about it! It’s all about taking it slowly and listening to your body.
  • If you experience a slight discomfort, treat it as a thoughtful message from your body that you need to break the new trainers in a little more gently. Put them away for a while. Go back to your favourite trainers then re-test the new ones with reduced time or intensity.
  • Obviously, if the pain is persistent and affects your running whilst wearing other footwear then get it checked out by a professional, but in my experience most running injuries are the result of either ignoring a warning sign (not listening to the body) or too quick an escalation in frequency, intensity or time.

It may be the shoes, but it’s more likely to be you pushing yourself too much, too soon. Which brings me to my next point…

Use more than one pair of trainers

In order to break in new trainers, you will need to have your all time favorites at hand to wear in between. Your body will warn you if you are doing too much in your new trainers. Listen to it. Put them away for a week, continue with your regular trainers, then go back to the new ones.

Many runners I work with report that exposing their legs & feet to different forces via rotating the trainers they run in leads to (or at least coincides with) less injury. Given that the majority of running injuries are the result of repetitive strain, mixing it up kind of makes sense (and that goes for running surfaces as well). Invest in a few pairs of different style trainers – the chances are you will get your money back by less need for injury treatment!

Have you experienced success by changing to a new style of trainer? Maybe you already rotate different style trainers as part of your running program? We are always keen to hear from you and look forward to reading your comments.

Happy running!

Matt Phillips is a Running Injury Specialist & Video Gait Analyst at StrideUK & Studio57clinic. Follow Matt on Twitter: @sportinjurymatt

References

1. Magness, S.: Why Running Shoes Do Not Work. 2011
http://www.scienceofrunning.com/2010/01/why-running-shoes-do-not-work-looking.html
2. Griffiths, I.: Choosing Running Shoes: The Evidence Behind the Recommendations. 2011
http://www.sportspodiatryinfo.co.uk/blog/?p=409  02/02/2011
3. Davis, I. et al.: Biomechanical and Anatomic Factors Associated with a History of Plantar Fasciitis in Female Runners. 2009
http://www.runsnrc.org/RUNSNRC/Clinic_-_Supporting_Research_files/Pohl_PF_09.pdf
4. Davis, I. et al.: Biomechanical Factors Associated with Tibial Stress Fracture in Female Runners. 2006
http://www.runsnrc.org/RUNSNRC/Clinic_-_Supporting_Research_files/Milner_MSSE06.pdf
5. Nigg, B.: The Role of Impact Forces and Foot Pronation: A New Paradigm. 2009
http://www.footscienceinternational.com/images/stories/Research_Papers/niggnewparadigm.pdf
6. Davis, J.: Running Surface and Injuries: The Role of Leg Stiffness in Running Injuries. 2013
http://runnersconnect.net/running-injury-prevention/running-surface/

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References

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12 Responses on “Choosing the Right Running Shoes: A Look at How Trainers Affect Training and Running Performance

  1. Dear Matt, great article,

    but does the body at a certain point not get used to shoes with support (or to whatever shoe. With going from 12mm to 0mm you suggest that it does). In that case, to change to a different shoe would mean having to buy new shoes–perhaps multiple pares to go from one side of the spectrum to the other–of which one is not sure they will be as good as one hopes, meaning we have to buy a new version of our first shoe.

    The same goes for different distances. How do we know if some shoes are better for long distances before actually buying them, trying them out, finding out that they are good or bad for us.

    In other words, how can we pick the right shoes for the right run without having to go to the bank to lend money, or is there simply no way. (Again, if the answer would be “try them in a store”, then the distance is the problem. If the answer is “over the years you find out” then the body getting used to a specific type of shoe is a problem.)

    Best,
    Peter

    • Hey Peter. Some very valid questions indeed. There is a strong argument that once you have found a pair of shoes that you get on with, stick with them. In other words, “if it ain’t broken don’t fix it.” On top of that, in my experience improving running efficiency & lowering the incidence of injury are both more commonly associated with developments in our body’s conditioning as opposed to a change in footwear. It is probably for that reason that there is still no evidence that links type of footwear with either performance or injury.
      For that reason, I enjoy regarding footwear as a tool that can be used to help condition the body, as opposed to solve any issues you may have. Yes, changing to a new design of shoe may coincide with the disappearance of an issue you have been suffering, but the fact that somebody else with the same issue was not saved by wearing that shoe suggests that there is more to it than the marketed benefit of that particular shoe.
      So, as well as ensuring you are following a tailored conditioning program outside of running, rotating the surface you run on and the type of trainer you run in are two more tools that can be used. (How many tools you buy are up to you!) Your body only adapts (progression depends on adaption) when given reason to do so. Rotating footwear can stimulate adaption. You just have to make sure you don’t tnrust too much of a new challenge onto your body too quickly.
      Research shows that different types of footwear impose different demands on our bodies. Research also shows that running injuries are often the result of repetitive strain. Rotating footwear (with suitable modifications to frequency, intensity and time) may increase the chance of your body receiving the specific demand and therefore conditioning it needs.
      I see running as a bit like life. It’s not about the destination – it’s about what you do on the way.
      I hope there are some answers in tnere somewhere for you!

  2. I definitely agree that having a bunch of shoes to vary is a good thing. I run mainly in Mizuno at the moment, but they are kind of hard and sometimes my feet get that tired feeling, so then I change to something like Nike air Pegasus which is way more cushioned. It also does depend on how much mileage I am doing though.

    b.t.w

    “As we saw last week, this model is heavily floored and unsupported to date by any evidence.”

    I think you meant flawed :).

    • Hey Jonathan. Thanks for sharing your experience. A lot of runners feel owning more than one pair of shoes is too much of an expense but as you say a change is often called for depending on the mileage you are doing, and if we listen carefully our body often lets us know!
      As for “floored”… schoolboy error for which I humbly apologise. Well spotted!

  3. I was coaxed into a specific type of running shoe at a very popular running store along with insoles and kept having hip problems and lower backaches and pains,etc. My chiropractor told me that sometimes using shoes and extra insoles to correct overpronation (my problem) sometimes force your foot to overpronate even more and going to a more neutral shoe helps. I got rid of my inserts and now run in a more neutral shoe with the shoe’s own inserts and haven’t had any aches or pains since. My chiropractor seems like he tends to agree with you. Love your articles, btw.

    • Hey Carrie. Thanks for sharing. Experiences like yours can help others avoid potentially prolonging discomfort for fear of not listening to the advice given in a shoe shop. And that’s what this article is all about. The salesperson means no harm, they almost always really want to help but the model tney use is flawed. Sometimes the trainer you are recommended will work. But there’s no guarantee. Experiment, listen to your body. Great story Carrie!

  4. Great series of articles on foot type and footwear. As a fairly flat-footed runner, I have found the world filled with myth and misinformation regarding what kind of shoe one should or should not wear based on the (overly) simple logic of foot type. Your analysis of the research and mechanics of running should be mandatory reading for all (especially those helpful folks working in the shoe stores).

  5. As I have always tell friends, don’t worry whether you overpronate or supinate.It is a natural reaction of your body to absorb shock. Just like when you fall, you will have natural reaction to break the fall. All those branded shoes which says will help you to stablize, motion control or prevent supination or overpronation are all rubbish. Just a marketing gimmick to entice you to part more money. I have been wearing rubbered sole shoes which cost less than USD20 since young and had not serious injuries other tha blister ( I prevent this using thick socks). Now the most expensives shoes I have is a racing shoes( with thin sole) and it much cheaper.

    • Hi KM, thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.
      As far as basing shoe selection on degree of pronation, it is a hit and miss process. Many people follow the advice based on the foot type model and have great results, but the fact that others don’t shows that the reasononing applied is floored.
      You may be interested in the latest news from Brooks in which they recognise that the traditional model is floored and that shoe selection is a very personal, individual process that can not be based on”norms”. There’s a lot of retail fluff in the report and as yet all words no trainer, but it’s a step in the right direction. Should be able to download it from this link: http://db.tt/4pFuaZXJ

      Enjoy!

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