Last Updated: December 2nd, 2019
What is the most important gear in running? It is your running shoes. You put a lot of thought in purchasing it. Also, time to time you try to purchase something affordable or some shoes which will help you to deal with your feet problems…But have you ever stopped and wondered, are they really that good for you? Well, here is the answer…
Are running shoes bad for you?
Running shoes are not bad for your feet if they have a wide toe-box, zero-drop and less cushioning. This way they don’t interfere with the natural functionality of your foot reduces chances of injury and keeps your feet protected from the stones and debris on the tracks.
Why are running shoes bad for your feet?
Before you understand why running shoes are bad for your feet, let’s understand your foot’s anatomy and workings:
The foot is the only part of your body that supports your whole body weight and help you to move forward…duh!
However, to move forward, the last phase of your gait cycle is toe-off.
The toes have shorter bones and have a lot of joints. This makes them incapable of supporting your entire body weight during toe-off.
To offset that, during evolution, your forefeet became wide and they become even wider during toe-off as they spread.
Also, during the toe-off phase, your big toe (hallux) presses against the ground, tackles or halts your pronation and directs the body to its sagittal plane to maintain your form and balance.
[Note: Sagittal plan or longitudinal plane is an imaginary anatomical plane, which divides your body into two halves, lengthwise. If the plane is at the center of the body, then it is called the mid-sagittal plane. If it is away from the center, then it is called para-sagittal plane.
Any valgus or deformity of the big-toe, shift the weight of the body somewhere else. This is usually on the outside of the feet.
This shift can give rise to other problems like knee pain, hip pain, pelvic twisting, etc. Also, it puts additional pressure on other joints and they may also suffer injury.
How does your running sho contribute to this problem?
When you are using a running shoe with a narrow toe-box, it is essentially restricting the normal functionality of your big-toe.
Your big toe becomes incapable of directing the body weight properly during running.
Another important aspect to help your feet function correctly is the distance between your big toe and your second toe.
During running, a runner who wears an incorrect shoe has a distance of 6.28 mm (men) and 5.39 mm (women) between their big and second toes.
Whereas a barefoot runner has a distance of 23.73 mm (men) and 19.38 mm (women) between their big and second toes.
This gives your big-toe the needed angle to provide sufficient pressure for toe-off.
It is impossible for it to function this way if you wear a narrow running shoe.
The below picture will show you clearly what I mean.
The first part of the diagram shows, how your feet look like when wearing a narrow running shoe.
The second part is how a barefoot runner’s feet look like.
This elevation interferes with its natural ability or your toes to absorb, store and release energy.
In a natural condition, your foot will give you 17% energy return with each stride.
When you are using a shoe with toe spring, you are not letting your feet work naturally.
So, the other tissues like Achilles’ tendons start to compensate. If you overdo it, then inflammation of this tendon may occur.
Then you will have no choice but to use running shoes for Achilles tendonitis.
This may also cause muscle atrophy and also the connective tissues become fibrotic.
When you walk, your body works like an inverted pendulum.
When you run, your feet’s spring action takes control. This automatically happens when you are barefoot.
However, when you wear a cushioned running shoe, it interferes with this mechanism.
During walking, when your heel strikes the ground, you get immediate feedback of the force with which you are pounding the ground.
If you are too hard on the ground like when you pick up speed, your chances of getting injured increases.
To combat that, your body will tap into its spring action motion automatically.
However, a cushioned running shoe essentially dampens this feedback.
This helps you to increase speed but your heel strike also increases.
Again your body is out of wack and the other tissues try to help you out, increasing your possible chance of injury.
What type of running shoes are bad for you?
To be honest, most of them fall into this category.
They are more focused on fashion and less on functionality.
As a result, they interfere with the normal workings of your foot and can even cause serious injuries.
Here are the features in running shoes you should avoid if you want to have the most natural running experience:
- Narrow toe-box – They will squeeze your toes and will inhibit the big toe to work in its intended fashion. This can also lead to unwanted pain and with prolonged usage, bunions may also develop.
- Additional Toe Spring – Interferes with the natural energy return capability of your feet.
- Extra Cushion – Dampens the ground feedback and opens you up for more possible injuries.
- High Heel to toe drop – Interferes with your natural form of running as you will always be inclined forward. Also, it encourages heel strike and may lead to more injuries.
What to look for when choosing a running shoe?
However, since we are dealing with how to exclude the bad running shoes and to choose the one which will provide you with most natural experience, here is what you should look for apart from the details shared above article.
- Wide toe box – This will let your toes spread during toe-off. This will also, not interfere with the natural functioning of your feet. Also, there are running shoes like Altra Escalante or Vibram Five Fingers, where each toe space is separately carved out. For Vibram, it is external whereas for Altra it is internal.
- Zero Drop – This means your heels and the balls of your foot should be at the same level from the ground. If you don’t like a zero drop shoe, then go for a low drop shoe which will have a heel to toe drop of around 4 mm. However, don’t go beyond that, else you will defeat the purpose.
- Minimal to low cushioning – The goal that we are striving for is to have the most natural running experience. If you have higher cushioning, you will never be able to achieve that. Also, you will not be more of a heel striker and will end up having possible more injury.
- No to minimal toe spring – This will help you to use your feet natural energy return and spring action, thus making it your best natural running experience.
What are the signs that your current running shoe is causing you damage?
The most obvious sign that your running shoe is causing you damage is that you are having repeated aches and pains.
Places you will commonly feel pain are:
- Foot arches
- In and around your ankles
- Achilles Tendons
- Calf muscles
- Side of the shins
- Balls of the foot
Also, watch out for these signs:
- Observe your gait. You may be striking with your heels rather than your forefoot or mid-foot.
- You are not getting proper response from your shoes, aka they are not responsive.
- Too much pain at the base of your big toe.
- Calluses may have started developing on your forefeet in the area between your big toe and second toe.
- If you are an overpronator, you may be twisting your ankles more as there is less support from your big toe.
- The gap between your big toe and second toe is very less.
- During toe-off, you feel more restricted than other phases of your gait cycle.
- You get blisters on your pinky toe and the base of the big toe.
- Your feet have started changing its shape and a hard bump or a bunion has started forming at the base of the big toe.
Should you use a barefoot shoe for running?
So, all of your toes will have individual space of their own. Also, it will let your feet expand and collapse naturally.
This way it could be the most natural motion that your feet can have other than going naked.
The top of these shoes is generally made from materials like lycra, which has a bit of spandex mixed into it.
This makes them fit onto your feet naturally and you will feel it as a second skin.
Sole of this running shoes are ‘Vibram’ and is tough, yet pliable. They will protect your feet from stones, sharp objects and debris on the track.
Also, their thickness is never more than 3 mm, so it is not exactly a cushion.
This makes them perfect for people wanting to experience a barefoot running but doesn’t want to run with the naked foot.
However, this is not the only running shoe that can give you a near barefoot running experience.
Some of the shoes from brands like Merrell, Altra, Joomra also has shoes that ticks of the right checkboxes.
The only thing is, they are more traditional looking and doesn’t look like feet.
Can they also be bad?
Since your body is already accustomed running in one way, it needs to recondition itself to get habituated to your new shoe.
If you make a full switch at once, then you may end up having more leg and feet injury as you will suddenly change the way you run.
When you run in a cushioned running shoe, you tend to hit the ground with your heels first.
However, when you are using a minimalist running shoe, you tend to become a forefoot or a midfoot striker.
So, it is a huge change as far as your running form is concerned.
Another problem is if you have had foot injuries in the past, then you should see your doctor before making this switch.
Otherwise, you are risking the chance of relapse.
Only if your physician gives a go-ahead, you should take up this adventure.
Now, let’s say your physician is OK for you to make this change.
In that case, you need to make this change slow.
You can tackle this change in two ways:
- Start by switching your regular shoes with you barefoot or minimalist shoe by 1 day a week.
- Do this for a couple of weeks.
- Also, let your body expect that it is up for this challenge on a particular day. So make the switch the same day all the weeks to come, let’s say Wednesday.
- If your body starts to accept that this change is going happen on a particular day, it will make the necessary adjustments to make it as smooth as possible for you.
- Once you have done this for 3-4 weeks at a stretch, add in 1 more day per week as repeat the entire above process.
- Keep on adding 1 day every 3-4 weeks until you have made a full switch.
- This is where you gradually start transitioning to a thinner sole with each purchase.
- Every time you buy a new shoe, shave off some millimeters from your sole. For example, if you are currently wearing a HOKA, the next one can be an ASICS or BROOKS. After that move onto ALTRA or anything with a thinner sole. The next switch can be a BROOKS PURE series. Then you can move to Marrell or Vibram.
- This way, you are progressively making your body used to thinner soles and also conditioning it at the same time to make a full switch.
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