Ok. Let’s fight. I’m going to build the case for how you should select your shoes both for running and for life. This is the kind of debate that will start fights. Whataburger or In-n-Out? Coke or Pepsi? Backstreet Boys or N*Sync? Did Dez catch it or not (he did)? Maximal or minimalist shoes? Brooks or Asics? These are the deep questions in life that keep people up at night and end friendships. Do me a favor and read this to the end. Understand that the science behind a lot of this is anecdotal because the high quality research just does not exist- yet. 

One of the most common questions I get as a runner PT is “what is the best running shoe?” We will get into the weeds on this, but the short answer is “what ever is the best for your foot and how you run.” We are going to discuss what is best for your foot and how you run, hopefully dispelling some misconceptions that are out there. That answer can be broken into 2 different time frames. There is what is best for your foot now and then there is what is best for your foot in the long run. Some things are good now, or in the short term, but over a longer period of time they can actually be detrimental to your foot health and running. 

The first thing I want to do is reframe our view of what a shoe is and what it should do. A shoe is a tool. It is a piece of equipment that we use in order to complete a task. A shoe is not a brace or a support. Many people, myself included, have used shoes in an attempt to correct deficiencies in our own feet. A hammer does not fix the loose boards on my fence. I use the hammer to help me fix the fence. A shoe does not fix our deficient foot muscles or under utilized hip muscles. We use the shoe to help us run as we address the shortcomings in our form and strength. If you are using the shoe to try and stabilize your form it may help in the immediate time frame but you are neglecting the deficiencies in the kinetic chain that led to the problem in the first place. You always need to address the root of the problem and not just treat the symptoms. 

Another analogy I have heard for a shoe is that it is a “foot coffin”. When we wear traditional shoes, the muscles in our feet are not being utilized because the support and properties of the shoe do not require them to be used. Our feet “go to sleep” and the problem with this is that a lot of the muscles in our feet actually originate in the leg, which means they are used for balance, stability, and performance. If you are not fully utilizing these muscles, you are limiting your performance and actually putting more demand on other muscles (typically the gastrocnemius and soleus) to accomplish your goal. Yes, those are the two main muscles that blend into your achilles tendon. And, yes, if they are working harder it can lead to achilles related issues. Guess what else? The Achilles tendon and the plantar fascia actually connect as well. It’s not uncommon to see plantar fascial pain truly stemming from dysfunction in the gastroc and soleus. Now remember, rigorous scientific studies are lacking in this area, but when you consider anatomy alone, you see patterns and connections that exist between our shoes and problems that develop because of them. 

Not only do the muscles of our feet become weaker and underutilized from wearing our traditional shoes, the standard 8-12mm heel drop of most running shoes puts us in a 1cm “high heel” as we wear them (heel drop is the difference in thickness of the shoe between the heel and the midfoot meaning the heel is higher off the ground than the midfoot). Your body adapts to the stresses placed on it or removed from it. So, when you raise the heel 1cm for 10-16 hours a day while wearing your shoes, the body responds by shortening the Achilles tendon. If you have restrictions in your calves, which is more effective: the, maybe, 2 minutes of stretching you did today or 10 hours of lengthening and walking on that shortened tissue? A shortened Achilles will limit ankle mobility which is huge during the terminal stance phase and toe off as well as in allowing proper squat form. 

The case we are building is that traditional running shoes are not great for your feet throughout the day. Remember, shoes are tools. Just like most people do not walk around the mall holding a hammer (that’s probably a really bad idea by the way), you really shouldn’t walk around all day in running shoes. The key is to create variety in your footwear. Running shoes when you run. Barefoot as much as you can to allow your feet to move, spread, and strengthen. If you wear “work shoes” try to find time to take them off and walk around your office without them or even just at your desk. 

The rule of thumb I employ is to wear as little shoe as possible during the day and run in what I like to run in. That way my foot can splay out a little, strengthen, and stretch over the long duration of the day, but when it comes to running I can run. My favorite running shoes are typically the  “tempo” type shoe that is somewhere between a clunky daily trainer and a super light and typically stiffer racing shoe. However, even during my mid week runs, I vary my shoes. I run in a Nike Pegasus for about half my runs and an Adidas Adios (not the Pro version) for the others. Those are fairly different shoes and subsequently my foot adapts and adjusts as I go. This keeps it from learning how to be lazy in one type of shoe. 

I find strict rigidity to be silly. There are some who would say you should ALWAYS wear a minimalist shoe or NEVER wear a certain type of shoe. That is ridiculous. Wearing my cowboy boots to church isn’t going to permanently shorten my Achilles. Your body can adjust and adapt. It’s what you do with the majority of your time that is going to impact you the most. If you want to wear pointy toed heels for the evening, go for it. If you have some awesome lifestyle shoes you want to show off, do it. Just spend the majority of your time (or life) letting your feet be themselves in a more minimalist fashion or learn to go barefoot at home. One disclaimer is that the more you do go barefoot and the more your foot isn’t smushed inside a modern, poorly shaped, shoe the more uncomfortable some of your old shoes may feel because your foot is taking on it’s more true shape. 

So is it wrong to wear a minimalist shoe when you run too? No, not necessarily. The big difference between walking and running with shoewear is that when you walk, your leg typically experiences 1x-1.5x your body weight with each step. However, when you run your landing leg will experience forces 4x-6x your body weight. That is a large increase in force through your body and the foot takes every bit of that because it’s the closest to the ground. If you decide to start wearing minimalist shoes, do so slowly. There are “transition” protocols out there for safely making the change and they all take a long time. This is because every part of your leg has to adapt to the change- muscles, ligaments, joints, tendons, and bones. That’s a lot to change and some take much longer to adapt than others. If you switch too quickly you will have imbalances in the kinetic chain that can lead to injury. 

Going from wearing traditional shoes all day to barefoot can be uncomfortable at first. Consult with a PT (Hi, I’m Dr. Zach. Have we met?) or knowledgable health professionals for a unique plan based on your own needs to safely make the changes. My general recommendations start with having people wear only socks or be barefoot at home for an hour a day. I normally have people do this for a week or 2 before we increase their barefoot time. It then follows a slow progression where once daily activities are well tolerated we then look at doing exercise without shoes or in a low support shoe. 

My definitive stance on shoes for now is to wear very little shoe during the day and run in a more traditional shoe. The traditional running shoe is a tool made to cushion against the harsh concrete and asphalt we run on most of the time. The other 96% of our day when we are not running, we need to let the foot spread and strengthen. This helps improve balance, improve running economy, and can help prevent some of the most common running related injuries when done correctly.

Dr. Zach Ginnings