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Do Running Shoes Cause Injuries?

runner on the street

Original post on RailRiders.com/blog. Republished with author’s permission.

A very insightful post that captures the history and future of running footwear. Hope you like it. Happy trails, David.

Let’s say that you have been away from running for years but suspect that your feet will need extra pampering now that that you’ve decided to make a return to fitness. So you head over to Footlocker or a specialty running store and purchase a $120 pair of high-tech running shoes constructed with space-age materials, super-soft cushioning, stiff wide soles, and rigid heel box. These plush-fitting shoes might feel like heaven inside the carpeted store, but once you’re pounding out miles on the road, trails or treadmill, the fancy footwear could be damaging your feet and legs– and possibly lead to Achilles tendinitis, shin splints, plantar fasciitis, or knee pain.

In a widely publicized 1999 study, Dr. Steven Robbins, a biomechanics expert at the McGill University Centre for Studies in Aging at Montreal, discovered that expensive running shoes aren’t worth the money and may even increase your risk of injury. Dr. Robbins found that overly thick soles cause a loss of balance. “It’s a myth that thick soles offer the most protection,” he said.

Subsequent studies by other researchers confirmed Robbins’ findings. Runners in thick-soled shoes were more than twice as likely to suffer injuries as runners in thin soles. Robbins even went on to suggest that athletic footwear should be classified as “safety hazards” rather than “protective devices.” His red-alert warning was certainly not the message footwear giants like Nike, New Balance, or Reebok wanted the public to hear.

The inherent problem with many running shoes can be traced back to what the human foot was designed for: provide a flexible yet durable platform connecting your lower body to movement along the ground. (Our arboreal relatives like orangutans and chimpanzees use their feet primarily for grasping and climbing.) For eons, man walked and ran barefoot. Even the Egyptian pharaohs went barefoot. Because the foot is not dainty or fragile, it doesn’t require a rigid box to protect it from repetitive-motion impact. But when encased in a protective sheath like an excessively built-up running shoe, the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in the lower extremities begin to atrophy, leading to what one exercise researcher called “wimpy feet.” Instead of the foot and lower leg acting as shock absorbers, it’s the shoe doing the work– which in turn causes a weakening of foot muscles, nerves, and tendons. Artificially supporting the foot contributes to its structural deterioration. Yet people who go around barefoot, observed Robbins, don’t suffer from chronic foot, ankle, or knee problems.

Bermuda orthopedic surgeon Dr. Joseph Froncioni wondered why he saw so many runners limping into his office. He blamed the flashy, built-up modern running shoe as the reason for their injuries. Instead, he recommends racing flats with minimal cushioning and arch support. On his blog Quickswood, he wrote, “Don’t listen to the store clerk who will try to dissuade you from buying a racing flat and he may even go as far as telling you that they are for elite runners and are meant to be used for one marathon only. Don’t believe him. I keep my flats for at least 400 – 500 miles with no problem.”

Optimally, you want to run on the ball or forefront of your foot, not the heel. But the thick soles used in today’s running shoes force you to land on your heels. Running on the heel is unnatural and will cause biomechanical stress throughout your foot and leg. Try running barefoot, and no matter how slow or fast you go it’s nearly impossible to land on your heel. Yet we often hear that heel-to-toe striking is the proper way to run. Wrong. Chase your dog or kid around the home with your shoes off, and you will notice that your heels barely touch the ground.

Footwear companies eventually began to address the paradox behind the sky-high frequency of running injuries and large number of new high-tech shoe models that flood the stores each year. Nike, for example, introduced in 2004 a thin-soled shoe called the Free that partially mimics barefoot running. It performed more like a lightweight slipper or moccasin than a running shoe. Newton Shoes, of Boulder, Colorado has recently developed a revolutionary lightweight shoe with a thin sole and built-up midsection that provides a touchy-feely rapport with the ground. It’s virtually impossible to land on your heel first. Then there’s the truly bizarre-looking Vibram FiveFingers which one running magazine reviewer likened to “a kind of below-the-ankle nudism that simulates not wearing shoes.” The FiveFingers is made with a thin, abrasion-resistant stretch polyamide fabric, lightweight rubber Vibram sole, and here’s the real kicker: small, individual green rubber sleeves encase the toes. Each of your little piggies has their own home. The shoe literally fits like a glove for your foot.

In response to the continuing glut of chronic running injuries, barefoot running is making significant headway around the globe, with numerous websites and blogs devoted to the subject Even Runner’s World suggested that runners might consider incorporating sessions of barefoot running into their training. “Running barefoot a couple of times per week can decrease your risk of injury and boost your ‘push-off’ power.” If you decide to go barefoot, start with small distances since your biomechanics are much different. Think of these short-training sessions as rehab or physical therapy that gradually strengthens under-utilized tendons, ligaments, joints, and muscles in your feet and lower legs. After awhile. you should discover additional barefoot benefits for your entire body such as better balance and posture.

Running barefoot, however, is nothing new. Most Kenyan children and teenagers run without shoes, and the African nation perpetually produces the greatest long-distance runners in the world. Even Olympians go barefoot. At the 1960 Rome Games, Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila won his first Olympic marathon and broke the world record while running barefoot. (One of the most amazing things I ever saw at the Hawaii Ironman was a barefoot, bearded competitor in 1985 wearing only a loin cloth adorned with a marijuana leaf during the marathon segment; he went sub-four hours on the scorching-hot asphalt to finish the triathlon in just under 12 hours.)

So when footwear companies make bold, extravagant claims that their newest pricey shoe model contains “deluxe anti-pronation and rear foot cushioning devices and an orthotic-like footbed cradle,” you should ignore the marketing hype, and go buy a pair of cheap, thin-soles shoes. Both your wallet and feet will thank you.

“The problem is, the fancy running shoes have allowed us to develop lazy feet,” Dr. Nicholas Romanov, a sports physiologist in Naples, Florida, told the New York Times in 2005. Romanov, an emigre from Russia, is best known for having created the “pose running method,” which retrains your body to run more efficiently by making you land on the forefoot in what he calls “controlled falling.” The forward-leaning, soft-landing action, coupled with a short stride and partially bent legs, allows gravity to propel you right along. Also known by some practitioners as “soft-running,” the Romanov approach, which first received a jolt of national publicity in a 2004 Runner’s World profile by Roy M. Wallack, has becoming increasingly popular among injury-averse, high-mileage triathletes.

And what about me? Several years back, when I prematurely thought I was going to start running again, I bought an expensive pair of New Balance 801 all-terrain trail running shoes. Product literature for the 801 boasted “lightweight compression molded EVA midsole for cushioning and flexibility” and an “aggressive solid rubber lugged outsole’” that could easily pound nails into sheetrock if I happened to misplace the hammer. I wore them only once. My feet seemed to lack any connection, or kinesthetic awareness with the ground. Was it a good thing that my feet could barely feel any of the roots, ruts and rocks along the trail? Was this cushy desensitization helping or hurting me? I wore these New Balance trail shoes only once. When I started running regularly, I decided to go instead with a pair of $39 everyday flat-soled sneakers with hardly any cushioning support. And so far, I have no complaints.

But the last word about footwear deservedly belongs to the Tarahumara Indians who live in small villages scattered throughout northern Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains. Impoverished and isolated, the Tafahumara depend on subsistence farming, make colorful crafts, love drinking fermented maize beer, and are known for running long distances. Tarahumara comes from the native word Raramuri, which means “foot runner.” From a young age, these reclusive people run as their primary mode of transportation and for social bonding, often covering between 70 and 100 miles on foot while kicking a small wooden ball. In 1992 and 1993, Rick Fisher, a Tucson-based wilderness guide and photographer, invited several Tarahumarans to compete in the Leadville Trail 100 ultra-marathon, which is held in the Colorado Rockies. Most of the course’s elevation is over 10,000 feet, The first time out, the Indians didn’t fare too well in the 100-mile contest, not because they were under-trained but due to other factors. “The problem, it turned out, was an unfamiliarity with the trail and the strange ways of the North,” wrote Runner’s World’s Don Kardong. “The Indians stood shyly at aid stations, waiting to be offered food. They held their flashlights pointed skyward, unaware that these ‘ torches’ needed to be aimed forward to illuminate the treacherous trail. And so on. All five Tarahumara dropped out before the halfway point.” But the following year, the first, second and fifth-place finishers were Tarahumarans. Victoriano Churro, 55, won the race in 20 hours, 2 minutes, 33 seconds. All three men ran 87 miles in open-toed sandals that were made from leather straps and discarded tires they had found at the Leadville landfill. At the first aid station, 13 miles into the race, the Indian trio removed the running shoes provided by Rockport, one of the sponsors. They then laced up their homemade huaraches, and continued on their way along the rocky trail,

–by Bill Katovsky, from his forthcoming new book, Return to Fitness (Spring 2010).

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Author:David

An instigator and barefoot runner since 2002.

25 Responses to “Do Running Shoes Cause Injuries?”

  1. Chad
    March 17, 2009 at 3:39 am #

    Good article. I will like to add a caveat, however. The transition to barefoot running won’t be as seamless as you might think. My experience in advising people what running shoes to buy has led me to believe that most people desire a shoe that gives them quick results without discomfort. This is especially true for those who haven’t run in years and think that the right shoe will quickly get them up to speed (no pun intended). I am currently supplementing my shoe-clad running with running in Vibram Fivefingers in an effort to strengthen my lower legs. So far so good. However, it ain’t easy. Been running for 14 years, and running sans shoes is challenging. Sore calves and quads are de rigueur, but I feel that overall the change is good. People who haven’t run much will have a tough time running barefoot, at least initially, as they are accustomed to shoes doing the hard work for them. My advice for the barefoot running newbie is to accept that the transition may not be seamless and will take time (months, perhaps) to get one’s leg’s strong enough.

  2. brian
    March 19, 2009 at 10:36 am #

    Excellent synopsis. I’m new to this site but I’m very excited to find it. I am an athletic therapist and contrary to the belief of many of my colleagues and friends, I have preached and presented to many sporting disciplines of the benefits of barefoot running. I even went as far as doing a thesis on the benefits of barefoot running in preventing plantar fasciitis. Without getting into technical details and quoting Dr Robbins (whom several of his articles appeared in my thesis), barefoot running decreases the stress from the head to the toes. There is a decrease in forward head posture, less stress on SI joint, hips, knees and ankles, and less eccentric loading on the muscles (tibialis anterior) shin muscles that very often are strained from excessive heel landing as seen from wearing footwear. The foot intrinsic musculature was my main study and through myographical studies we found that the foot is alive barefoot as opposed to the overloading of the foot extrinsics (muscles originating further up the tibia and fibula). I’ve worked with some top level athletes and the few walkers or runners or triathletes that I have managed to persuade to change over or at least train a few times a week barefoot, can not believe the difference. I’ve mainly told them to run in grass or on packed sand on the beaches initially and if they are brave enough they can try some roads, although where I’m from, the roads are bad enough shod never mind with no footwear. Anyways, great to see this site and info etc. I myself Grew up running barefoot and now mainly run in either nike free’s 3.0 on roads (too much glass where I am now) or barefoot while doing track stuff.

  3. March 23, 2009 at 6:25 pm #

    @Chad, you’re absolutely correct. Introducing barefoot running slowly is critical to secure true benefits including lifelong injury-free running. @ Brian, I’m interested to hear more of your involvement with athletes. Send me a note at barefootrunner AT gmail.com. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Happy trails, David.

  4. Robert Buckley
    May 19, 2009 at 8:34 am #

    I am an over pronator with bunions and flat feet. I think the flat feet came first, which caused over pronation and then bunions, but i´m not sure. I am facinated by the idea of barefoot running, or at least wearing running shoes with minimal structural support and padding, but I am very concerned with the effects this would have on my already “deformed” feet. Is there any evidence to support claims about the recovery of form. If I had a healthy foot, I would definately start barefoot running, but subjecting bad feet to barefoot running might not improve my biomechanics. It could indeed create tendon damage, increase the rate of growth of my bunions, and lead to an even worse case of over pronation. As I haven´t seen conclusive evidence which claims that running barefoot will cure over pronation or cease bunion growth, I would be very cautious about running without support.

  5. Robert Chambers
    August 27, 2009 at 6:53 pm #

    Hello Robert Buckley,

    I have a bunion and began taking BHT a preservative available in nutrition stores known for its ability to attack lipid based viruses. My Bunion has gone into complete remission. It has not shrunk but it is now totally benign and has not grown or been active or irritated for several years. this has led me to believe that the bunion is a manifestation of a virus. It is certainly worth a try. I am hiking and running barefoot for about 2.5 months now and am beginning to build up my foot strength and calluses. I have increased my flexibility because of my barefoot hiking and plan to continue. I have exper9enced no problems witg my bunion.

    Good luck and let me know if you tried the BHT and if it worked. Robert Chambers

  6. basinjoe
    October 26, 2009 at 11:15 pm #

    you definitely need to work into the vibram five fingers slowly to avoid pain. It’s not easy but once you do complete your initial vibram five fingers training properly, you’ll love it. I would suggest start walking a couple miles in them first then slowly increase your runs with the vibrams to a 2-5 miles in the span of 2 months.

    After that it’s not too bad. that has worked for me but obviously everybody is different. the KSO’s and sprints seem to be what is currently the most popular type of vibram shoes. Here’s a decent review on how they compare:

    http://barefootrunningshoes.org/2009/10/23/vibram-five-fingers-ksos-vs-sprint/

  7. Lemuel Saunders
    November 1, 2009 at 10:12 pm #

    @ Robert Buckley, I too have very flat feet, over pronate and have Hallux valgus (big toe variation to the outside of the foot, causing the Metaphalangeal joint to swell and enlarge: Bunions). I’m doing Remedial massage at the moment, and through anatomy studies have discovered through various books and websites, there are many people who believe orthotics cause your foot to get flatter, and your bunions worse.

    I would recommend you obtain: a copy of “The new rules of Posture: Mary Bond” ($25 AUD delivered to me home here in Melbourne Aust.), an old golf ball ($2.50 from a golf club down the road) and a cheap no name brand pair of Aqua shoes or socks ($10.40 from Target) and do some work on your feet/gait/posture …. total cost $38 AUD compared to $280-$800 for podiatry/orthotics. You could also add to the a solid wedge of rubber to put between your big and little toes.

  8. Mona
    April 6, 2010 at 10:55 pm #

    I find the nike barefoot frees fascinating. Though!! the higher up you go in the versions –3.0, 5.0, 8.0— the more padding is on the shoe and the less like barefoot it becomes.

    Another brand that’s taken great strides in barefoot technology (that I didn’t see mentioned in your article or the comments after) is vivo barefoot. They have some really excellent style options too.

  9. September 1, 2010 at 2:48 pm #

    As a runner I really enjoyed browsing through your website. Keep up the good work.

  10. Bob
    September 22, 2010 at 12:30 pm #

    What about running shoes with negative heel technology, like Earth shoes? I wear the Earth Kalso Lite for walking and such but haven’t done much running (or even really thought about putting in some miles) in them. I suffer from very low (mostly flat) arches and heard that negative heel shoes would be good for me generally, but I didn’t ask the sales person about running in them… as I’ve typically stuck to motion control shoes for that. (Currently I wearing Brooks Addition 8′s). I’d like to move into a minimalist running shoe but am worried that I’ll be doing more harm to my feet, joints, lower back, etc. Any thoughts?

    Bob

  11. Martin
    September 23, 2010 at 2:01 am #

    I had this one figured out in the 1970′s as evidenced by my choice of trainers for High School Cross Country, I ran 50 to 60 miles per week during the season in Onitsuka Tigers by Asics that possessed a sole that felt the ground better than all of the rest and although I didn’t set the world on fire with my times 9:20-45 average for two miles won a few meets for me.
    *
    Even back then in 1975 i scratched my head at the direction of these crazy looking running shoes with these thick padded heels and soles commenting to friends that they looked like a twisted ankle waiting for the right sized rock??

  12. September 23, 2010 at 3:58 am #

    Thanks for providing this inspiring read. Visit my own!

  13. October 3, 2010 at 8:23 pm #

    i use to run with no shoes but had to stop because of big rocks, plus i love trail running so these new 5 finger shoes are gods gift to me,,,,love them to death
    yes regular shoes with heels will screw up your back and joints, humans are meant to run with no shoes, using pure calf muscle and achilles tendon etc.
    if your a runner, i hope you make the switch :)

  14. October 21, 2010 at 9:03 am #

    I was just googling around about this when I found your post. I’m simply stopping by to say that I definitely enjoyed reading this post, it’s really clear and well written. Are you going to post more on this? It looks like there’s more depth here for future posts.

  15. November 21, 2012 at 2:11 am #

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  16. December 10, 2012 at 8:18 pm #

    (tibialis anterior) shin muscles that very often are strained from excessive heel landing as seen from wearing footwear. The foot intrinsic musculature was my main study and through myographical studies we found that the foot is alive barefoot as opposed to the overloading of the foot extrinsics (muscles originating further up the tibia and fibula). I’ve worked with some top level athletes and the few walkers or runners or triathletes that I have managed to persuade to change over or at least train a few times a week barefoot, can not believe the difference. I’ve m

  17. December 10, 2012 at 8:18 pm #

    design is actually Nike’s response to the criticism that their previous running shoes had designs contributing to more injury rather than prevent it. Frankly, I almost believed it. But thanks to the stiff price tag, I avoided [...]

  18. December 10, 2012 at 8:19 pm #

    – Bill Katovsky, from his forthcoming new book, Return to Fitn

  19. December 10, 2012 at 8:19 pm #

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  1. barefootrunner.com : natural running & healthy living » Lead Story » Do Running Shoes Cause Injuries? | Living Barefoot - November 13, 2009

    [...] By Al Gauthier ⋅ November 13, 2009 ⋅  Email This Post ⋅ Post a comment barefootrunner.com : natural running & healthy living » Lead Story » Do Running Shoes Cause I…: “Do Running Shoes Cause Injuries? By David • Mar 16th, 2009 • Category: Lead Story • [...]

  2. Marcus Can Blog » My own shoe talk - December 11, 2009

    [...] air-filled heels. Its design is actually Nike’s response to the criticism that their previous running shoes had designs contributing to more injury rather than prevent it. Frankly, I almost believed it. But thanks to the stiff price tag, I avoided [...]

  3. Running lightly on the earth, in minimalist shoes, part I « the Green cloud - May 3, 2010

    [...] – Bill Katovsky, from his forthcoming new book, Return to Fitness [...]

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