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If the Shoe Fits: Footwear for Running

Running shoe, minimalist shoe, or just taking it all off and going bare? Take a walk with us as we share how the type of footwear you wear impacts your running style and how to choose the right footwear.


The amount of support provided by a running shoe comes on a continuum – full rigid support to bare foot. While all shoes have their pros and cons, it is important to know about your feet, your biomechanics of running and the distances you aim to run, in order to pick the best pair for you.


Our foot mechanics


To understand how footwear affects our body, first we must understand our feet. The human foot is an extremely complex structure with 26 different bones, 33 joints, about 24 intrinsic muscles which don’t cross the ankle joint, 10 extrinsic muscles which cross the ankle joint, and countless sensory receptors – with the sole purpose of helping us move efficiently by absorbing and creating forces,  all while offering a dynamic balance between stability and mobility. As a society, we cram our feet into shoes from childhood, reducing our strength and mobility of our foot. Furthermore, we have dampened sensory input from the ground on the sole of the foot which shifts the jobs of cushioning and stability into the footwear, or our hips and back. Ultimately, our shoes lead us to have lazy foot mechanics.


Running Mechanics       

Increased cushioning in the sole of a shoe encourages runners to use a rear-foot or heel strike as the first contact with the ground. However, measurements show that when we run, heel strike transfers 3x our body weight through our ankle, knees, hips, and back. Comparatively, when we use a mid-foot or forefoot strike forces of only 0.6x our body weight are sent through our joints. When we compare this over 5km, 10km and especially your marathon distances, the impact on your joints is hugely magnified in a heel strike gait pattern.


Full Support shoes

While full support and well-cushioned shoes were designed to decrease running injuries by absorbing some of the shock through each stride, one might argue that the changes in our biomechanics have ultimately led to more injuries. Full support shoes tend to lead to:

  • Elevated heels produce poor posture, foot and joint pain throughout the kinetic chain.
  • A padded outsole weakens the intrinsic muscles of the feet to support our arches.
  • Enclosed shoes interfere with ground sensation resulting in a loss of proprioceptive feedback (tactile responses) from our feet.

Therefore cushioning in the modern running shoe may reduce heel strike forces; it also encourages people to land on their heels when running and develop different biomechanical running patterns. Majority of shoe runner use a heel strike strategy but there has been many proposed reasons: shock-absorbing cushions, stability of the shoe preventing excessive movement in the foot joints, and running economy to maximize stride length. If we have the opportunity to simultaneously reduce impact forces and potential injury risks, should we consider a transition into a minimalist-type shoe which encourages a mid-foot or forefoot strike for endurance running?


What is a minimalist shoe?

A minimalist shoe has a negligible heel which makes in lighter, but it offers less cushioning, and less side-to-side stability. The minimalist shoe also has a “zero drop” which means there is no differential from the height of the sole at the heel to the height of the sole at ball of the foot. The most notable benefit to minimalist shoes is the promotion of a “natural” running pattern which involves a mid-foot first stride. If you are looking for more information on the biomechanics of running, there is a documentary called “The Perfect Runner” which outlines the mechanics of running in populations that are not prone to using shoes.


Transitioning to a Minimalist Approach

The most important guideline is to transition slowly – to build a solid foundation, develop good technique, and finally add training volume. Too many people transition too quickly and begin with long distances without the necessary pre-requisites and end up getting hurt.

There are many steps to the transition: gaining proprioception, rediscovering your small foot muscles, strengthening your calves and hip flexors, learning new running mechanics and then slowly adding the distance. If you skip any one of these steps, or progress distance too quickly, you could end up getting hurt. Some injuries being bone bruises, fractures, strained ligaments and fascia. Remember, you’ve been wearing supportive shoes for many years, and your body needs LOTS of time to adjust.

If you’re interested in switching to a minimalist shoe, please consult a health care professional in order to be assess if this type of footwear is appropriate and have a transitional training program designed specifically for you!


Article by Lesley Cuddington, BHK, MPT  – Registered Physiotherapist for Teamworks Health Clinic

Our collective of highly qualified and accredited healthcare practitioners share a passion for professional collaboration and comprehensive patient care. Come and meet us at the clinic.