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?
When we heel strike (contacting the ground with the heel first) we lose the benefit of the shock absorption complex. As a result, the force of impact is sent straight up the body – starting at the ankle, next to the knee, up the hips, and then to the back. At lower thresholds (jogging in thick-soled shoes) some runners may be able to get away with this. However, over time this will lead to overuse injuries, shin splints, and muscle strains in the lower leg and hip from improper loading.
Much like the modern-day office chair promises ergonomic features and gimmicks to reduce back pain, today’s shoes promise stability, performance, and safety. But just like back pain hasn’t been fixed by improving chair technology, poor running and leg injuries aren’t going to be fixed by more shoe technology.
The vast majority of footwear today is built around aesthetic appeal and marketing. Please, try to explain the difference between a running shoe, a training shoe, a tennis shoe, and a walking shoe… We’ve been led to believe for decades now that the next jump in performance or foot pain fix is a new pair of shoes. We’ve been sold pronation control shoes, insoles, stability shoes, and ankle support shoes that were supposed to have fixed all our problems. But I don’t see the incidence of foot pain and overuse injury getting any better, do you?
To help you understand this better, let’s discuss the three categories of footwear that shoes fall into:
Aesthetic Shoes are simple shoes that look good. High heels, dress shoes, and almost every type of “training” shoe that is sold at typical footwear stores fall in this category. Outside of aesthetic appeal, these shoes have little to no value and almost always come at a cost to your foot functionally.
Competition Shoes provide a specific benefit to your foot that is helpful for gaining an edge in a specific environment like football boots or spikes to grip the ground, stiffer midsole to enhance force, or straps to keep the foot braced. These are part of the game and athletes wear them for a reason. While these are essential for some sports and protect the feet in many cases, they generally work by improving one performance aspect at the expense of another. Sacrificing health for performance is part of the game at some point, but it’s important to understand that they take a toll on your foot and aren’t meant to be worn for long durations.
Everyday/Training Shoes are designed around functionality. Walking, training, shopping, yard work, etc. These should be flexible and provide your foot with ample space to function well. The big problem is that most people confuse aesthetic shoes with everyday shoes. As a result, the foot becomes weak and loses function. For example, these shoes, though popular, are aesthetic shoes – you will roll your ankle if you try to wear them for anything athletic. Case in point below:
Though shoes can provide an advantage, the reality is that there is no shoe that can do for our feet what our feet should be able to do for themselves. In reaction to the minimalist shoes I wear, people ask me “But what about the support? How do you move? You run in those too?? They don’t look very comfortable…” It always makes me laugh. Your feet have built-in support through a beautifully designed arch which is a composition of fascia, muscle, and bone. You just have to put in the work to develop it. And that takes time – it takes toddlers 1-2 years to build requisite foot strength. Your shoes are either supporting this process or prevent it.
Now, I am not suggesting that shoes aren’t beneficial! I wear shoes every day and am super grateful when I don’t cut my foot or bruise when I step on a rock. But I am saying that the industry has gotten carried away and people have fallen for the simple fix that’s too good to be true. When it comes to your feet and shoes, we’ve gotten it backward. The shoe should be made for the foot, not the other way around! Ideally, the shoe is a tool that allows your foot to naturally maintain function and strength, not a cast that impedes movement.
But if you’ve got foot pain or weaker arches from years of ankle sprains, what can you do to fix this? First, you need to set yourself up for success by choosing shoes that allow your feet to move naturally. Without this, you’re basically shooting yourself in the foot (pun intended). The shoes you wear create the milieu that your feet live in. It doesn’t matter how strong you are if you’re smashing your toes into footwear made for an elf. Want some evidence of this? Take a quick Google search of “Chinese Foot Binding” and see what happens when you don’t give your feet adequate space.
But just having good shoes isn’t enough. You have to put in the work to develop the skill and strength required to reclaim functioning feet. That means developing the intrinsic musculature of your feet (toe taps, toe spreading, toe flexing, and extending) and building up strength in your lower leg, specifically the calves and tibialis muscles. And if you’ve been sedentary for a while, you’ve likely got some work to catch up on.
(And if you want a fantastic program that will fix your broken feet and ankles, I’ve got your next step. This is a great opportunity for me to plug the Walk Away From Plantar Fasciitis protocol. It’s the program I used to fix my feet after sprains, shin splints, plantar fasciitis, turf toe, among other issues. Now I can sprint barefoot. I’m not special, so if I can do it, so can you! Check it out here!)
This leads to the question of what shoes to buy? Ultimately, it’s a personal decision on the tradeoff between function and aesthetic appeal. The sad part is that it’s almost impossible to buy a functional pair of shoes at an actual footwear store. Most of the space on those racks is devoted to whatever overstuffed trend is happening at the moment.
Almost everyone picks out a shoe based on two questions – How comfortable is it and how good does it look. Of course, I’m not saying that these are bad metrics, but they aren’t sufficient. In addition to this, you have to ask “How well can my feet function in these shoes?” “Are my toes squished in a narrow toe box?” “Can my foot bend at all?” “Would I sprain my ankle if I stepped on uneven ground with this big cushion?” To help you define better metrics, these are the most important factors to consider for any shoe choice:
1) The shoe needs to be wide in the toe box – This means that the front of the shoe where the toes are should be wider than the heels. When you put the shoe on you want to be able to wiggle and move the toes with room to spare. Your toes are meant to spread and engage with the ground in the same way that your hands are built to spread and engage with objects. This space for movement is critical in building balance and stability at the ankle. If you tied your fingers together how well would you be able to write? You can still achieve a firmer fit of the shoe by tying the laces tighter at the ankle and leaving the lower laces loosened for toe movement. This keeps the shoe in sync with the foot during movement to grip the ground well.
2) The shoe sole needs to be thin – The more proprioceptive (tactical) feedback your foot receives from the ground, the more you are able to adjust to the footing. It’s similar to wearing gloves, you’ll have a better grip and control over what you’re doing if you have thin, form-fitting gloves than if you wear thick mittens. Also, the higher platform you are on (the thicker the sole of the shoe is), the more likely you are to roll an ankle laterally. A Ferrari is less likely to roll over in a turn than a school bus.
3) The shoe needs to be flat – This means that the heel and the toe need to be on the same level as they would be if you were barefoot. This is called the “drop” of the shoe. A 4-Inch-high heel would have a 4-inch drop. The closer you get to a zero drop, the better, but anything less than 1cm (.4 inches) is acceptable. Higher sloped shoes limit ankle mobility – when the heel is elevated, the ankle doesn’t have to bend as far. Over time this leads to stiffer ankles that can cause knee pain and limit mobility in a squat or lunge position.
4) The shoe needs to be flexible – This means that the shoe should be able to bend through both the midsole (middle of the shoes) and twist rotationally (rolling left and right). Football boots and competition shoes have a stiffer midsole that aids in speed by acting as a spring to propel the athlete forward. This is fine during competitions but keeping a stiff board in the shoe that prevents full range of motion at the feet will weaken the foot over time and potentially lead to plantar fasciitis. You need low levels of motion to build mobility and your everyday shoes are the vector for encouraging this. If you’re walking with inserts that limit motion, you lose this.
The thickened sole is an adaptation strictly for comfort. If you’ve been wearing shoes with dense material underneath for years, you’re likely not going to enjoy the feel of a more minimalist shoe at first. But just as the feel of a shirt on your skin is soon ignored, this will become more natural. Think of it like being more connected to the ground! If you walk on a pillow all day long, your body has no ability to adjust for the force of impact. In the same way that you pick up an empty cup with less force than a full one, this adaptation to differing levels of force is essential for regulating the amount of stress that your joints, bones, and muscles can deal with.
A quick note about flip flops and slides… These are not good for athletes. As you step your toes naturally splay out to grab the ground. This is important to keep the fascia and muscles mobile. When you’re wearing shoes without a heel strap, this doesn’t happen because the toes are forced to squeeze together and grip the shoe. Over time this causes excess tension in the foot, stiffness in the tendons, and loss of fascial motion. I know, it’s not fun to hear, but the simple solution is to footwear with a heel strap. Remember, it’s a constant tradeoff between function and aesthetic – you choose your battles. I’ll say it this way: None of my athletes wear slides.
“So you’re saying NOT to wear insoles, arch supports, or ankle braces? What if I’m dealing with injury or pain like plantar fasciitis? Why would my doctor or podiatrist tell me to get an insole if they don’t work?”
These are all good questions. While these can be extremely beneficial as short-term crutches, that is all they can do. The biggest problem I have with the entire industry surrounding foot “support” is that it’s all symptom treatment without actually addressing the root cause. Moreover, these treatments rarely have a plan to egress.
Nothing frustrates me more than hearing a story about a kid being prescribed insoles for their foot pain. It’s far too common for a doctor in their 50’s or 60’s to frivolously throw out inserts as a recommendation simply because they wear them. It’s insane – you’re telling a young athlete that they have to now wear this thing for the next 70-80 years of their life? This is almost a guarantee for future knee pain and ACL injury. Rarely, if ever, is this part of a comprehensive program to strengthen the feet. It’s like being told you have to use crutches for the rest of your life simply because you have patellar tendonitis. Or another example, how many people would sign up for dental braces if you had to wear them for the rest of your life? Not so attractive anymore, is it?
At best, the industry is misguided. At worst it’s full of charlatans that are wasting your money on expensive shoes, custom inserts, and pointless treatments. I understand this is strong language, and I do not disagree that these supports can be acutely helpful in very short-term uses for a specific pain reduction. But I have never seen a successful, long-term rehabilitation story where the foot is able to restore function because of the supporting device. You don’t see doctors recommending stiff braces to fix a bad posture anymore (hopefully!) because we understand that the core and posture muscles are the key to supporting a healthy spine. Why is it different for the feet?
The simple truth is that this quick-fix mentality is only going to exacerbate your problems.
“So, if shoes are that much of a problem, should I just run barefoot? I’ve heard that barefoot running is a thing, should I go and try that?” Short answer – no! You’re not ready for that. If you want to do the months of work to strengthen your feet and lower legs to withstand the load and stresses, then absolutely go for it. But anything less than that will lead to stress fractures and injury from overuse. If you’ve spent the majority of your life in shoes, it’ll take some time to undo that.
I don’t want to present this as a mutually exclusive situation – shoes are incredible technological inventions that protect our feet and provide a significant movement advantage. I still wear shoes and don’t plan to stop anytime soon! That being said, if you never spend time barefoot, you’ve got a problem. Being unshod is how we were meant to interact with the world. There is a significant portion of our proprioceptive feedback that’s designed to engage with texture in our environment. Earthing, or grounding, is a process that conducts electricity through contact with the Earth’s surface when barefoot. And yes, it’s a legitimate thing.
The major point is that we are mammals, born without shoes. Most people spend the majority of their life completely disconnected from the nature they evolved from. Health is impossible when disconnected from nature. This doesn’t mean you should start barefoot running tomorrow but it does mean that spending more time barefoot around your house and in your backyard can have huge benefits.
Shoes are not the enemy. But they are also not natural. If you have to wear shoes that limit the natural movement of your feet and ankles for competition purposes, you HAVE to do extra work around training to make sure that your feet and ankles stay healthy. A few simple ways to accomplish this are to do your weightlifting barefoot, do your warmups/cooldowns for training barefoot, including a quick foot/ankle session as part of your post training routine, and spending more time walking around barefoot in general. Now, without further ado, let’s get to my top recommendations for footwear:
P.S. – Want better feet and ankles? Check this out.