Choosing the Right Running Shoes

Choosing the Right Running Shoes


 Zero drop, rocker, minimalist, stability, shock pad, motion control, you've heard it all before. There are a lot of running shoes out there with fancy trademark features and an abundance of crafty marketing materials suggesting that this shoe will help you run faster, further, and without injuries. But what does all that stuff actually mean, and is there a shoe that can actually live up to the claims? 

running injuries

Running gives us a lot; exercise, mindfulness, competition, accomplishment, community, but also a lot of injuries. In fact, its estimated that 74-82% of distance runners experience an injury each year (4,5). Running generates massive forces across our joints (2.5 x Body Weight) and also places a lot of stress on our muscles and tendons (1).  There are a number of factors believed to influence running injuries, including age, BMI, and neuromuscular control (4). More recently foot landing patterns and footwear have been increasingly investigated (1-12). 

running biomechanics

The shoe is the interface between the foot and the ground and the forces generated when the foot contacts the ground are experienced all throughout the body. Our natural inclination is to think we run the same way no matter what shoe we wear - maybe a little slower in a heavy stability shoe but with more shock absorption, a little quicker in a light minimalist shoe but with more force on the joints. Well, not quite.

Recent evidence has demonstrated that the type of shoe you wear while running can affect your gait mechanics, especially your foot landing pattern, and the resultant forces experienced by your joints (1,2,5,7). Rearfoot (heel striking) and forefoot landings have distinctly different loading patterns (1-3,7-9). Furthermore, you may be more likely to habituate a rearfoot landing pattern in a traditional running shoe because all that cushioning material between your foot and the ground is absorbing the shock. Conversely, minimalist running shoes lend themselves to a forefoot landing pattern where natural foot mechanics are relied upon for shock absorption. However, while its clear that biomechanical differences exist between these landing patterns, the long term effects on joint health and injury incidence is unclear (1-3,6-9,12). There is some evidence that injury rates are higher in heel strikers (4) but other studies suggest that the different landing patterns just lead to different types of injuries (2-4,8,9). 

Alright, time to wake up from the biomechanics coma and move on to the shoes!

STABILITY Running shoes

Sometimes described as motion control or support shoes, the stability shoe incorporates tons of cushioning, arch support, and stabilizing features such as dual density foam and posting. Motion of the foot is the stability shoe's enemy. This shoe style attempts to do all the shock absorption work for you, while leaving the foot supported and comfortable. The heel is often elevated relative to the forefoot by 12 mm or more, referred to as the heel-to-toe-drop, to accommodate all the shock absorbing materials. If you are a habitual heel striker and have no plans of changing your landing pattern, or have instability issues at the foot and ankle, then this could be the one for you. Brooks running shoes have carried the torch for stability running shoes for a long time, epitomized by the Beast 14 for men and the Ariel 14 for women.

rocker Running Shoes

Rocker refers to the geometry of the shoe's midsole and outsole, and the design is intended ease your transition from heel strike to toe off by rolling your foot forward as it contacts the ground. Rocker shoes also often feature thick midsoles for shock absorption and a wide, stable base. There is evidence that shoes with a rocker profile can reduce load on the achilles tendon and may be beneficial for individuals managing chronic achilles tendinopathy (10,11). Hoka One One is synonymous with rocker running shoes and one of their most popular models is the Bondi 4. This shoe is extremely popular with competitive runners because it allows the foot to behave naturally within the shoe but provides cushion and propulsion when fatigue sets in at the end of a race.

NATURAL Running Shoes

Some may throw this style into the minimalist category, but there's still some heel-to-toe-drop and noticeable midsole cushioning which prevents these from entering full blown minimalist/barefoot territory. This style of running shoe encourages a forefoot landing pattern and natural foot mechanics to provide most of the shock absorption. There is some thickness and cushioning in the midsole to protect the foot without completely disrupting the foots sensory interaction with the ground. Heel-to-toe-drop is typically in the range of 0-4 mm, and when on the higher end of that spectrum, can be a good transition shoe for someone moving from a high heel to zero drop shoe or rearfoot to forefoot landing pattern. Newton running shoes embody all of these characteristics and are a popular choice in the competitive running community. It's not uncommon to see an athlete crossing the finish line first in a pair of Distance Vs. A history of running in traditional shoes can cause strength and mobility deficiencies, so the transition to a natural shoe should be gradual and involve comprehensive strength, mobility, and gait work. Check out Jay Dicharry's book, Anatomy for Runners, for a deeper dive on running biomechanics and how to make that transition. 

MINIMALIST running shoes

Think barefoot running with some material between your foot and the ground. Zero heel drop, maximum interaction between your foot and the ground, and toes are not constrained by one big toe box. If you want to run barefoot but are concerned about what you might be stepping on, the Vibram FiveFingers V-Run is what you're looking for. Similar to natural running shoes, transition to a minimalist shoe or barefoot running should be gradual and involve comprehensive strength, mobility, and gait work.

Cheers to many fun, PR filled, injury free miles in your new pair of running shoes!

Now get out there and live a Strong, Healthy, and Happy life!

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  1. Altman, A.R. and Davis, I.S., 2012. Barefoot running: biomechanics and implications for running injuries. Current sports medicine reports, 11(5), pp.244-250.
  2. Boyer, E.R. and Derrick, T.R., 2015. Select injury-related variables are affected by stride length and foot strike style during running. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 43(9), pp.2310-2317.
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