If the Shoe Fits: The Search for the Perfect Running Shoe

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What if you don’t find the “perfect” shoe – can the “wrong” running shoes be causing your injury? 

When injury disrupts training, runners will often go to their usual suspects as the likely reason behind it. In some cases the blame is well deserved – I think I did too much, too quickly.

Other times the search for something to blame is a little more abstract – I wore my long run shorts for a speed session. Rightly or wrongly, running shoes are often high on the list of causes of running injury – maybe these aren’t the perfect shoes for me?

Shoe prescription and the great fallacy of finding the ‘perfect shoe’

A few decades back, shoe brands would have us believe that we could buy the one ‘perfect shoe’ and all of our running injuries would be solved. The perfect shoe was based on our “foot type” which they could determine from creating an imprint of our foot and categorising us into feet with ‘normal’ arches, feet with high/rigid arches and feet with low/flexible arches.

The problem with this approach is that it ignores the complex and dynamic nature of foot mechanics during running, our ability to adapt to training and loading patterns and plenty of research confirming that this approach won’t improve our risk of injury.

The truth is that traditional shoe prescription doesn’t work and the one ‘perfect shoe’ for a given runner just doesn’t exist. There is a range of shoes that are suitable for any individual, although some have more variety to choose from. Some runners need a wider toe box to accommodate a broader foot, so their range of options becomes limited to broader shoes.

Criteria for selecting the shoe for you

First and foremost the shoe should be comfortable straight out of the box – that’s a ‘not negotiable’. Secondly it should fit well with the right size to feel snug but not tight. If either of these criteria aren’t ticked off, shoes become an injury risk factor – they might cause or contribute to a future injury. 

The research also suggests that rotating different shoes is helpful in reducing the risk of injury. So when you find a shoe that’s comfortable and fits you well, buy another one with similar specs and rotate your shoes regularly.

Shoes don’t matter… until they do

It’s widely accepted that with consistent and sustained training, we build resilience, strength and fitness.

These changes highlight how adaptable we are as humans.

A runner’s aerobic fitness improves with consistent training, and the same can be said for feet, getting stronger and more tolerant of running with consistent loading. In response to these adaptations, it is also reasonable to assume that the shoe preferences of a runner may change over time.  

Our ability to adapt is compromised with rapid changes, with the body struggling to adapt faster enough. Foot mechanics and shoes are no exception.

With sudden and/or significant changes in running shoes, the risk of injury increases as we don’t have enough time to adapt. For example, the minimalist running shoe craze of 10-15 years ago saw runners the world over adopting flat, highly-flexible, minimally-cushioned shoes. Many of those runners however, especially the inexperienced ones, unwittingly jumped from heavily structured, plush, cushioned shoes into minimalist shoes, resulting in injuries. 

The lesson learned?

Just like our training, changes to our running shoes should be gradual.

 

Authored by Physio and avid runner, Matt McFadden