Not all shoes are created equally! Before you go out and purchase the first pair you come across, it’s important to understand how the shoes you wear impact your foot. Unfortunately, most stores you go to will have a very limited selection of shoes that are based on the newest marketing trend. Maybe you’ll even get an “expert” that sizes you up into an overpriced cast that will actually lead to more pain and bad running form. No one ever asks what the sales clerk’s qualifications are when they perform this service, do they?
The problem is that we’ve got the whole industry backward. We’re trying to squeeze our feet into shoes made to look a certain way instead of buying shoes that are made for our feet. If you don’t care about how well your feet can function, not having knee pain, or being able to run well, then skip this article. But if you’re interested in providing your body with the best tools to succeed, you’re in the right place.
After reading this you will feel confident about the biomechanics of running, how shoes help or hurt your performance, and what the qualities of a good shoe are. So let’s get to work! First, we’ll start with movement, biomechanics, and running.
Running is a skill. It requires strength, control, balance, coordination, and healthy feet, ankles, and knees. Anyone can go out for a run – all you need is a pair of shoes and a bit of space. That’s why running is considered a ubiquitous marker of health and fitness; it is accessible to everyone. Unfortunately, this also creates a problem. Just because you can go run, doesn’t mean you have the ability to run well. Without a focus and practice of proper technique, a solid foundation of strength, and a base of movement-specific conditioning, many people run themselves straight into injury. Pun intended.
As bipedal mammals (moving on two feet instead of four) there are two different types of movement patterns available to us: walking and running. The difference between the two is the introduction of the flight phase or time spent in the air. When we walk, we always have one foot on the ground. As you step from side to side you are just shifting your weight from one foot to the other. This is an amazing achievement for a mammal, allowing for several advantages in movement proficiency and a natural upright posture that four-legged animals do not have.
For example, switching from moving on four limbs to two freed up our arms to work with tools and hold things. And you can thank your heels for this. The ability to heel strike and maintain balance over a longer ground contact time as we step allows us to cover greater distances with minimal effort. But it doesn’t come without a cost. We lose a significant amount of speed and acceleration as bipedal movers… just go race a horse or dog.
In this walking pattern, we are essentially balancing on one foot at a time in constant contact with the ground. But the moment we transition into a jog, no matter how slow, we introduce flight into our stride. This means we are jumping from one foot to the other with time spent in the air. The literal definition of what constitutes race walking is that one foot appears to be in contact with the ground at all times. This transition to a flight phase requires a new movement pattern – the forefoot strike.
To help you visualize this, imagine you are jumping rope, with no shoes. You’re jumping on the front of your foot, right? Now shift to jumping on your heels. Not as easy and is pretty painful… Our ankles, calves, and Achilles’ tendons are designed to work as shock absorbers for our strides; allowing us to land softly, absorb force, and reproduce it repetitively without injury.
But it’s not as simple as only linear force absorption, our feet also pronate. Although much maligned by common marketing (just look for “pronation control” shoes next time you go to the shoe store), pronation is a completely natural and essential part of running and movement. Just as a parkour athlete rolls when landing from a big jump to dissipate force, our foot naturally rolls and splays across several bones to spread out the impact.
Unfortunately, even in the face of a large body of evidence, people continue to accept heel striking as a proper form of running. But just because you can do something, (even for a long period of time) does not make it ideal. For example, you can drive on a flat tire for a while, but that doesn’t mean it’s best for the car!
These pictures are taken while running at the same speed. Which one looks more effective to you?