Running Shoes 101

{By Taylor Cartee}

Running is one of the simplest ways to get great cardio, but if you know any number of  runners, you’ve probably noticed that injuries seem to be a part of the sport. In fact, Wake Forest University found that every year 79% of runners end up injured.

At this point, you’re probably thinking that running might be more risk than benefit, but the good news is that most running injuries are preventable. Over the next few posts, I’ll be talking about the prevention and treatment of common running injuries. But before we get into the injuries, let’s (quite literally) get to the bottom of the issue: your shoes.

The right shoes can make the difference in your speed, pain, and even muscle fatigue!

There are two competing views on running shoes, but the answer really boils down to two things:

  1. how you run and
  2. how long-term you’re willing to invest in your shoes.

A decent pair of good, traditional running shoes will cost you minimum $70. Think Brooks, Asics, Mizuno, Saucony. Major running stores often do not even carry Adidas, Puma, and other such brands because they are not as well-made. (Most Nike running shoes are not high-quality, but their newer quasi-minimalist options have a good reputation)

The common denominator between all these shoes is that they’re made for you to run with a heel strike: hitting on your heel and rolling towards your toes.

To accommodate this, they have about a 12 mm elevation from heel to toe. These traditional running shoes can be further split into three categories: neutral, stability and motion-control. Each of these is designed based on how much the runner pronates (how much the runner lands on the outside of their foot and rolls towards the inside.) Running with a heelstrike plus pronation creates a lot of wear-and-tear on the joints, especially the knees, so stability and motion-control shoes are structured to mediate this.

The technology that enables shoemakers to compensate for heel-strike running is pretty incredible, and it works for a lot of people. But why are all these technical accommodations necessary for such a natural activity? This is where the “how” of running factors in.

Check out the picture of the bones in your foot. See that great big heel bone? It’s called thecalcaneus. When you land on it, all the impact shoots up your leg, through your ankles, knees, hips, and even into your spine. To test this out, try running barefoot on asphalt. It’s pretty painful to run on your heels! Sure, traditional running shoes have cushy heels, but that’s still a lot of impact. The natural shock absorption of your feet is so significant that it nullifies the problem of pronation. In fact, researchers have found that many top African runners pronate severely but at no detriment because run with a nearly perfect mid-foot strike.

But what happens if you change your running form, and land on the middle of your foot? (think: the area right behind the ball of the foot.) See all those bones in the mid-foot region? When you land there, those bones actually act as a bunch of shock-absorbers, drastically decreasing the amount of impact that is sent up through your legs. Try it barefoot on asphalt and compare the feeling to when you landed on your heels. The benefits of a mid-foot strike are also mechanical—your feet are in a much better position to propel you forward into your next stride, so your running becomes much more efficient.

When you wear traditional running shoes, you are essentially taking away your ability to run with a mid-foot strike.

Some people make it work, but they are working against the shoe’s structure.

This is where natural or minimalist running shoes enter the equation.

The whole philosophy behind natural running shoes is that they are made without all the support, stability, and extra cushioning in the heel. They also are made with almost no height difference between the heel and the toe so that it’s easier for you to run on your toes, which is how God designed us to run.

When I made the switch to natural shoes, I went to Two Rivers Treads, home of the Natural Running Center, which is pretty much the world capital of all things natural running. Although TRT sells quite a few brands, they highly recommend Newtons.

I think the biggest turn-off to some people is the cost: Newtons run about $140-$200. That’s where the long-term thinking comes into play: Regular running shoes are only good for about 500 miles (due to their cushioning, etc), but Netwtons last 1200-2000 miles or until you wear through the sole, because the shock-absorption system is air-based. Do the math, and you’ll see that the price might just be worth it. Saucony and New Balance also offer natural/minimalist options, and some people like the Nike Free.

Cost aside, there is one major caveat to the benefits wearing natural running shoes. If you choose to take this route, you absolutely must be committed to running with a mid-foot strike. Because minimalist running shoes don’t have all the extra cushioning and stability of traditional shoes, you put yourself at high risk for injury if you run with a heel strike.

What do you think? What’s been your experience with running shoes?