Selecting the best running shoe for you can be a daunting process. The following relates to technical guidelines that may help the process. However, there is not a “one size fits all approach.” Some people may well follow the complete opposite to what is proposed here. For those individuals, they may well be adaptive to their footwear and quite resilient to loading forces (pressure from the ground when running) and injury in general.
- Comfort: Above all factors, footwear must be comfortable. Research suggests that if an individual picks a shoe based on their perceived comfort, they are less likely to get injured. There are many factors (some of which will be discussed in further detail) that can impact comfort. One of the most important factors is “fit.” A good running shoe store can help you to ensure your heel is held firmly in the shoe and your forefoot is not too compressed. Ensuring adequate depth, width and length of your footwear is vital. If your runners are too tight, you may lose the ability to properly move your toes and contract the associated musculature. This can have a detrimental effect on your load capacity (your ability to withstand running forces) and running efficiency in general. When your toes have space and can move without impediment, deep musculature of your legs and feet are able to work more efficiently than if your toes are constricted.
- Alternating footwearAlternating footwear has been shown to decrease injury rates. By using footwear with different features, weight bearing load is varied to the body. For example, increasing the pitch of footwear (higher heel), you may decrease loading through the forefoot and distal leg. Conversely, a lower pitch runner (flatter pitch) may increase the loading of the forefoot. An example of alternating footwear could be: An experienced runner of around 80-100km mileage per week alternates three different types of athletic footwear:
1. Standard 10-12 mm pitch runner chosen based on comfort to perform easy runs on a daily basis
2. Refined footwear of lower pitch and bulk in general- used for key speed sessions
3. Maximalist footwear- cushioned footwear (e.g., Hoka) used for recovery sessions
3. Footwear selection based on age
All things being equal, the older you are (very generally speaking!), the less resilient you may be from weight bearing exercise. Good training may counter advancing years.
For older athletes, they are more likely to have adapted to wearing positive heeled (heel elevated in relation to the forefoot) footwear over their lifetime. Additionally, older individuals are more likely to experience stiffness of all components of the musculoskeletal system (calf muscles, achilles tendon etc). This is further exacerbated by a lifetime spent excessively in a flexed position (sitting at work, working on computers).
With these factors in mind, it will generally be safer for older athletes to wear footwear with higher pitch (or maximalist footwear). Stiffness and footwear adaption is not set in concrete. Mobility can be improved and footwear options may change based on an individual’s range of motion and resilience to loading.
Younger athletes generally have less history of injury and better mobility. As a result, their musculoskeletal system is able to cope with a greater variation of footwear features. From a personal perspective, I like the concept of more minimalistic footwear to prevent footwear from generating contracture in soft tissue. However, I am very aware of the natural fallacy (the concept that natural technique like barefoot running or minimalistic footwear is best). This approach is flawed as there is not a one size fits all approach.
4. Footwear selection based on mobility
Leg stiffness- If someone has excessive leg stiffness, it is generally excepted (but not necessarily supported by research…. yet!) to wear footwear with higher pitch.
5. Footwear selection based on History of injury
Achilles injury- use higher pitch footwear or footwear with forefoot rocker (e.g. Hoka)
Plantar fascial injury- higher pitch footwear
Forefoot pain-higher pitch or maximalist footwear
knee pain- minimalistic footwear. Minimalistic can help a runner strike beneath their centre of mass which can decrease loading forces through the knee. However, in this case, running assessment is key. It is vital to ensure running cadence and sagittal biomechanics are assessed to ensure decreased knee forces. Low pitch, minimalistic footwear can help but guidance may be required. For example, a runner with degenerative knee issues may also have history of Achilles pain. In this case, the individual may have to choose footwear features which are not entirely assistive of one of the pathologies. Reverting back to perceived comfort may help decide what footwear features the runner ultimately decides on.
6. Footwear selection based on history
Footwear history is an important consideration in deciding what shoe is best for an individual. For instance, if someone has been wearing a shoe with a particular feature like rearfoot support`** for a prolonged period of time (e.g., 10 years) without any injury, it may be unwise to change the type of shoe.
7. Footwear selection based features such as support
Medial support is footwear feature often used to control foot pronation (“rolling in”). Most research does not support the notion of such features reducing injury risk. However, in certain cases, it is accepted that shoes stronger on the medial ( midline side) are vital. For example, in those with tibialis posterior dysfunction, a serious foot and leg pathology, it would be recommended to wear footwear with such supportive features.
One final note. Good footwear alone will not prevent injury. Good training principles focussing on gradual overload, strength and resilience and optimal health are vital.
** Footwear features such as medial support do not always equate to changes in body biomechanics (kinematic and kinetic changes).