Running shoes: Which are the best?

01st February 2016

This weeks blog post is written by our physiotherapist Paul White:

I get asked this question daily and there is no simple answer, but I will give it a go. It is much easier to start with advice for children.

If you are 8 years old I would recommend a lightweight shoe, with as minimal cushioning as possible. I believe that most children run well biomechanically and by having a lightweight shoe it encourages the child to continue to use what is a very complex movement pattern to create an efficient use of the body's muscles, tendons and fascia. My advice for young people is based on the idea that children learn quickly, repair their body quickly and they adapt - a great combination.

A child is far more in tune with listening to the body's function through feeling, and feeling movement. They learn through feel and constant feedback loops. When running feels easier it feeds back as ‘this is easy’, ‘this feels great’ and that positive enforcement is encouraging. By having a positive experience the child will continue to want that sensation. At the other end of the spectrum something that doesn't feel great, feeds back quickly ‘I don't like that’,’this feels hard’. Examples that demonstrate this is the contrast of running in bare feet on firm grass, or running in wellies on a boggy field. Most people will have a clear understanding about which of the two examples feels easy and which does not. I believe we can answer why this difference occurs using sound logic with a scientific basis.

Running is made up of a complex involvement of almost the entire body to propel you in a mostly forward direction. When we analyse fast runners we see similar patterns of movement in all of them. These athletes use not only their muscles well, but what really sets them apart is the use of their tendons. Tendons help attach muscles to the body and have a unique and specific role in running. Tendons (and fascia) have the property of elasticity. If you pull on them, like a rubber band, they will want to recoil. If you can harness this recoil within your running motion you are able to reuse energy and run more efficiently. One of the conditions for this elastic recoil in our tendons is that the tension must be applied over a short period of time. If the tension is too laborious it loses its ability to recoil. Running quickly barefoot on firm grass versus running in wellies through mud helps illustrate the contrast in this recoil property.

So my hypothesis is that children ‘feel this recoil’ - they feel the ease in which movement comes. Their brain then coordinates this complex process relatively automatically.

So, how does this apply to running shoes? Well if you are eight years old with no past or current injuries, you should run barefoot, or as close to barefoot as possible. Rugby/football boots with no cushioning are good examples, as well as the barefoot running shoes. This will give the kids the opportunity for the recoil to work at its best.

Most shoes that I see in my clinic on children are hindering their natural development. I feel strongly that given the simple change in footwear their running efficiency will be given the best chance. Children can then learn efficiency naturally through their normal play and games.

It is often stated that cushioning is required to soften the impact and therefore prevent injury. At face value this seems logical but I believe this to be untrue. If you don't make the most of your tendons natural properties you can overload your joints and muscles, but given the chance to work appropriately your body has its own 'built in' shock absorption system.

Shoes for adults

Ok so what about the rest of us? Let’s try to finish the other half of the story from above. If you are not effectively harnessing the power of your tendons, you are then using only your muscles. It is possible to run like this, but it is not what they are designed for.

When you use your tendons appropriately in the running motion, the muscle attached to it has to hold a static muscle contraction. This static contraction of the muscle is far more energy efficient than using a muscle that changes length during the contraction. If your muscle doesn’t hold relatively statically, then the muscle completes a lengthening and shortening motion. This movement has a greater ability to create tears within the muscle. As a by-product of this process I see many runners in clinic with very tight calves and hamstrings. This is because those runners are not maximising the function of their tendons, and subsequently they are creating micro trauma to the muscles. Other common running injuries such as ITB, patellofemoral joint, greater trochanteric bursitis and achilles tendonopathy can be attributed to this ineffective use of your muscle/tendon units.

Barefoot demons (for example the Evo Pure): This is too much for most people. After training for some time you might attempt running in these shoes. (If you check out most track athletes shoes, they really don’t look much different to these, just add some spikes...)

Medium cushioned shoes (such as the Asics Gel-DS): For most people these will be lighter and have less heel height than current shoes. A good transition shoe, best for most people.

What does this mean? What Shoes?

If you want increased performance then choose a lighter shoe with less heel height. Heavier shoes will make your muscles and tendons need to work harder and won't utilise the very specific natural characteristics of your body. For this reason I never recommend shoes with excessive cushioning (such as the Asics Gel-Foundation).

However, it's not as simple as getting yourself a pair of flat shoes and off you go. If you have been using thicker sole running shoes for a long time, all your muscles, ligaments and tendons will have slightly re-aligned over time to cope with these shoes. So if you dramatically change the height of that heel and you go for a long run, your body may not cope and you can find yourself in some pain.

One option at our disposal is adapting the shoe, to help you tap into a more efficient and safer way to run. A lighter shoe and a small decrease in heel height from your current shoe can help this, along with some advice to allow you to utilise your elasticity in your tendons.

I truly believe we are born to run. For kids walking is just too boring; they run, skip, jump. I believe they do this because they feel the magic of their own free energy recovery system. So I say let's encourage this.

Many of us have lost some of that natural ability we had as 8 year olds. But there is hope, I believe we can recover this. Some of that can come in the shape of a new shoe, but just buying the shoe does not guarantee this. Working on your running technique and improving the efficiency through maximising your tendons can develop, and then you will truly love running as we did when we were kids.

Appointments with Paul can be made on:

  • Monday: 2:00 - 8:30pm
  • Tuesday & Thursday: 2:00 - 8:30pm                     
  • Wednesday & Friday: 8:00am - 2:00pm
  • Alternate Saturdays: 9:00am - 12:00pm


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