Biomechanical Podiatrist and running coach Mick Habgood provides insight into running shoes and a guide to picking the correct ones for you!
Running as a recreational sport is still relatively young and is constantly evolving. Maybe even more so now that we can have real-time feedback from Garmin-like systems or even smartphones attached to our bodies. Despite the range of feedback available, opinions are constantly divided as to whether we actually need shoes and if we do, what is the most appropriate shoe. To confuse things even more then came along this minimalist theory of running shoes. Compare that to the “Hoka” running shoe with a mountain of midsole cushioning, the not so minimalist MBT, the barefoot “five-finger” shoe and of course let’s not forget the shoe that attempts to mimic a barefoot scenario (but actually it’s still just like any other running shoe). Oh yeah, did I mention I’m a Podiatrist? So that means everyone must also need an orthotic in the running shoe, right?
I’m never going to be an orthotic evangelist. I fully believe in the use of orthotics when they are valid and required but I am also running coach. I believe in proper technique.
Some years ago I experienced a defining moment in my career. This was during an appointment with a client for a running orthotic check-up. The client had very positive feedback to the point where he was running symptom free again however when I saw him running my concern was no longer if he would get an injury again but when. His running style had a heavy, definitive heel strike. It was loud and thunderous each time he contacted the treadmill. His strides were long and almost bunny-like between each step. Even though though he was ‘supported’ by the orthotics I knew that without making changes to his running style we would always be playing “catch-up” rather than preventing injury in the first place. Suffice to say it was this gentleman that made me realise I both wanted, and needed, to become a running coach.
Let’s face it… 99% of us need to wear some sort of shoe when running. Why? Because we have simply become accustomed to it.
We no longer have hardened skin on the under surfaces of our feet from years of adaptation to being barefoot. Each year every running shoe company develops more “innovative” and lightweight shoes with more and more cushioning. Back in the early noughties Adidas even brought out a running shoe with a battery powered cushioning unit in the heel that adjusted to the forces at each heel strike. That’s all that needs to be said about that!
There is one primary feature I look for in a running shoe which does not involve owning a shoe with a battery inside of it to work!. The shoe must flex at the forefoot and be stiff in the arch.
Shoe companies haven’t made it particularly easy for us to buy the right shoes either but you can’t really blame them. Each foot has 26 bones which make up almost a quarter of all the bones in the human body to create a fascinatingly complicated structure. Below, I’ve listed the three major categories of running shoes on the market. All of them are “cushioned”. What differs between them is the level of additional “support” that’s added to assist the runner.
It doesn’t matter how good the shoe is meant to be. If it doesn’t fit the foot properly it won’t be of much use. Note this: Brooks are typically based on a medium width foot (D for men / B in women) but they have quite a tall toe box which lends itself to fitting quite wide. Asics on the other hand are based on a wider foot (2E for men / D in women) but they have quite a shallow toe box which lends itself to fitting narrower feet. What I’m saying is that there is a shoe for every foot and there’s value in not shopping online for things like running shoes.
So why is it beneficial for the shoe then to flex only at the forefoot and not in the arch? Because the foot should tell the shoe what to do rather than the shoe doing the talking. The function of the big toe joint when walking and running plays an enormous role in the health of the foot. If you have the time google “The Windlass Mechanism”. See if it fascinates you as much as it does me. Put simply when the big toe joint can flex up between 60-70° when moving forward it compresses all the joints behind it thereby locking the foot and preparing it for propulsion. If the joint cannot bend sufficiently it won’t pivot against the ground to allow efficient movement through the big toe joint and the body will simply find a way of moving around the joint itself. This is when the initial mechanism of the injury can occur.
Minimalism in footwear is incredibly valid. So do we drop the shoes we’re wearing and start running in a piece of rubber that resembles a sock? No, because we won’t have the intrinsic strength to do so straight away. Wearing a shoe that best represents our foot types and allows our feet to function to their best ability can be the first step to minimising unnecessary injuries.