When it comes to footwear, there are many things to consider… foot type, training surface, injury history, movement patterns… In fact, improper footwear and rougher surfaces can both be barriers to movement efficiency considering how we detect impact forces through vibration. Though, ideally, we anticipate the impact force and create the appropriate stiffness before you strike the ground.
Our fast-twitch muscles can take up to 70 milliseconds to activate and impact forces enter at a rate of 50 milliseconds. And that’s just too fast for our brains to handle. So when we’re running, we have to be able to anticipate the ground in order to properly adjust to it. This is done by visually assessing the ground ahead of us and analyzing the ground we’ve already covered.
With high-cushion, overly supportive shoes, however, the information we’re analyzing is inaccurate or delayed. So we strike the ground harder, creating unnecessary stress on our bodies in the process.
There are many considerations and features in a shoe, including:
Heel to toe drop: Many standard running shoes are 10-14 mm heel to toe drop. A transitional shoe is 4-8 mm and a zero drop is 0-4 mm. How high is your heel to toe drop?
- Heel counter (the back of the shoe): Can you squeeze the back of the shoe? Is it stiff or flexible?
- Cushion:Do you have maximum cushion, stability design, motion control, or minimalist?
- Forefoot design: Is the shoe able to allow your toes to splay at push off? (Men- 5 mm, women-3 mm)
- Torsion: Can you ring your shoe out like a towel?
- Midfoot motion: Can you bend your shoe in half?
And not every shoe is going to fit every person in every situation.
Yes, your body can neuromuscularly adapt over time to some degree, but why force it to work harder if it doesn’t have to? For instance, with a high heel-to-toe drop – typically 10 to 14 mm, the foot’s subtalar joint can remain in a locked rigid position, making it difficult to appropriately load forces. It can also force a rearfoot strike pattern.
The key is that we match the appropriate stiffness to the impact coming in. Many surfaces vibrate when pushed against. And, according to Dr. Nigg’s muscle-tuning theory, our muscles do their best to match/ harmonize vibration by modulating stiffness.
That makes hardwood floors, like those used for basketball courts or dance studios, great to perform strength or bodyweight training on because of their higher vibration levels.
Another excellent training surface is the NabosoTM Barefoot Technology, which is a small nerve- proprioceptive mat. Obviously, you can’t actually run on such a small surface. But remember: You want to be thinking like an athlete, not just a runner, which means you’re keeping more than just your legs toned.
On the other end of the surface spectrum, concrete, marble and asphalt don’t vibrate at all. So if you’re running on any of those, you might want to look for a little extra cushion.
When training, natural terrain is indeed ideal. Though even then, we do need to pay attention to properly adapting to uneven terrain. The same applies to drastically changing the kind of sneakers we use (e.g., going with a more minimalist shoe).
You’re highly recommended allowing for an extensive transition period (six months to a year) when shifting your running conditions to that degree. For some, it could be more than that, and that is totally okay if it’s going to prevent injuries going forward.
We also recommend owning and rotating more than one running shoe at a time, as there is evidence that this reduces the likelihood of injury.
Ultimately, we want to control our surfaces. They should not be controlling us. This entails understanding the impact forces we’re subjecting them to and tuning our muscles to match them.