Picking the right running shoes has never been easy, but in the past few years, the modern running shoe has undergone the greatest amount of change and challenge, since its inception nearly five decades ago, rendering the decision even more bewildering.
After years of trainers being designed to ‘control’ movement and protect us from the ground with a thick layer of cushioning, there has been a definite shift towards a more minimalist approach. I’m talking lighter, more flexible shoes with thinner mid-soles and a smaller ‘differential’ (the difference between the height of the shoe at the heel and the forefoot). The trend has moved away from the ‘bells and whistles’ approach and towards shoes that leave the foot freer, promoting a more natural foot strike. This has been accompanied by a resurgence of interest in running technique and foot strike.
Why the change? Traditionally, the running shoes major role has been to provide support and cushioning when you are moving forward. The extent of each of these features can vary hugely and, in general, shoes with a greater cushioning offer less stability and vice versa. The cushioning absorbs some of the landing force (twice to three times body weight), so you might think the more the better. But a growing body of research does not back this up. A recent study found that in 68 adults (who ran at least 15 miles per week), joint forces were lower at the hip, knee, and ankle when running barefoot. The theory is that lacking the tangibility of contact with a firm surface, the foot actually lands with greater force. The study also found that even on hard surfaces, barefoot runners generated smaller collision forces on impact than heel-striking shoe wearers.
Researchers speculate that runners adapt and modify their foot strike depending on the hardness of the surface or shoe. This is one of the arguments proposed by minimalist shoe barefoot enthusiasts and it indicates that proprioception (awareness and ‘feedback’ from the ground) has a greater role to play in attenuating impact than was previously known. All of which makes a wedge of foam between our foot and the ground suddenly seem less desirable.
A thick layer of cushioning can also compromise flexibility. A shoe should bend at the metatarsophalangeal joint (the ‘knuckle’ of the foot). This is where your foot bends, so you don’t want a shoe that prevents this or makes it difficult.
The other key role of the shoe, historically, has been to provide support to guide your foot towards a ‘neutral’ gait which, it has always been believed, will leave you less injury prone. Some shoes (known as motion-control or stability shoes) have lots of support features to ‘correct’ your foot mechanics, for example, a medial post (an insert of plastic on the arch side, to give extra support) or a dual-density heel, on which the material on the medial side is harder than that on the lateral side, to prevent the foot from over-pronating. Others (neutral or cushioned shoes) leave the foot more to its own devices.
While I’m quite a fan of the new minimalist running shoes and even enjoy running barefoot sometimes, I think it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bath water or disregard years of evolution in running shoe development.
Before modern running shoes, runners wore flat-soled pumps or plimsolls (not dissimilar to minimalist shoes) and didn’t get injured. But running was not the mass participation sport it is today. In other words, there were far fewer people running who weren’t ‘naturals’. Nowadays, people of all ages and abilities run distances from 5km to a marathon and some do need some cushioning and support from their shoes if only to make up for what they lack in technique. Without it, they may not be able to run problem free.
I believe there is a place for both types of running shoe from a featherweight super-minimalist racer to a solid stability trainer and everything in between. The question is, which pair is right for you?
Again, long-held wisdom on choosing running shoes has been challenged recently. It was once thought that if you had a high arch, you needed more cushioning, whereas flatter feet needed more support. But there are too many exceptions for such a systematic diagnosis to be acceptable any more, and studies looking at what feet do in motion have shown that its possible to have a high arch and still over-pronate like a flat-footed person.
So where does all this leave you when you go shoe shopping? You’ll find some guidance in my shoe shopping page. Your types of run and the surfaces you run on will also inform choice. There are shoes designed for running on rough terrain (trail or fell shoes), shoes for running fast (racing flats or for the track, spikes) and shoes for high mileage. You may need more than one pair to meet all your needs. That’s no bad thing as different shoes will demand a slight variation in your bio-mechanics, so you aren’t continually stressing the same areas.