Newsflash: Your Running Shoe Shouldn't Matter

I’m just gonna come right out there and say it: there is no such thing as the “right” running shoe. 

Despite there being countless articles and talks on “how to choose the right running shoe”, the reality is that your feet are DESIGNED to function without the modern shoe. 

How do I know this?

Running is one of the most basic functions of the human body, and humans have been running barefoot and with minimal footwear protection since the first human ran hundreds of thousands of years ago — just take a look at this minimalistic footwear a Mexican tribe, the Tarahumara, run in while completing the Leadville Trail 100 mile ultramarathon. 

Photo source: Sites.google.com. (2019).  Born to Run - American Literature 2 . [online] Available at: https://sites.google.com/site/songofmyself6/second-semester/born-to-run [Accessed 29 Apr. 2019].

Photo source: Sites.google.com. (2019). Born to Run - American Literature 2. [online] Available at: https://sites.google.com/site/songofmyself6/second-semester/born-to-run [Accessed 29 Apr. 2019].

Now, I’m not saying you should absolutely, 100% run barefoot; but I am saying that if there is something WRONG with your foot, a shoe cannot and will not fix that problem. 

Sure, it may alleviate pain while you’re wearing the shoe, but the “right” shoe will only lead to a greater DEPENDENCE on that shoe, potentially worsening your problem or causing a new problem. 

So, let’s get down to it: WHY do your feet hurt? 

You may have been told that it is because you are flat-footed, have a high arch, or you pronate, supinate, or have a neutral foot. 

That may be true, but it’s only part of the whole story. 

The reality is that you were not born flat-footed, with a high arch, with a neutral foot, pronating, or supinating. These are SYMPTOMS, often accompanied with pain, of a dysfunction in your movement patterns. The symptoms arise when you demand the same function from your body when it is already operating under less than ideal circumstances due to a tightness or weakness. The body is forced to begin compensating for the dysfunctional movement pattern in order to comply with your movement demand.

The bulk of these symptoms can be traced back to poor ankle or hip MOBILITY and/or a WEAKNESS of the muscles in the core, lower leg, or foot. 

The nature of a shoe cannot fix a mobility issue, and it certainly will not strengthen any weakened muscles. Wearing the “right” shoe will only allow for better compensation of the problem and a greater dependency on the corrective technology. 

Unconvinced?

Let’s look at some of the common running problems associated with feet that the “right” shoes attempt to fix.

Pronation, over-pronation, and flat arches are probably the most common symptoms that the “right” shoes are designed to alleviate. In many cases, a flat arch leads to over-pronation. But what causes the flat arch? Commonly, poor ankle mobility and poor lower leg and foot muscular strength cause a flat arch.  

Keep in mind that your flat arch and over-pronation is the RESULT of your body trying to find a way to compensate for the lack of ankle mobility and muscular weakness of your lower leg and foot.

So the big ticket question is: will corrective technology in a shoe fix your poor ankle mobility or strengthen weakened muscles that has manifested in a flat foot and/or over-pronation?

Not even a little.

In fact, when you use the corrective technology to support your arch and prevent it from flattening and/or over-pronating, you will likely cause a NEW problem. Here’s why:

When you “fix” a symptom without considering the problem, your body will just be forced to come up with another way to compensate for your lack of ankle mobility and/or lower leg and foot muscular weakness.

Do you have any guesses where you might experience a new symptom after trying to alleviate the initial symptom without putting any attention toward the source of the problem?

Remember, your body is all CONNECTED. So, a chief complaint after alleviating the symptoms at the foot is… knee pain! How can this be?

Well, since there is no longer mobility at the ankle and foot in order to move through the running motion, your body may begin flexing excessively at the knee, resulting in a strain to the knee. 

But this is not the only impending outcome of treating a symptom at the foot with the “right” running shoe. Depending on your body, you may just cause an injury to the ankle joint or the muscles of the lower leg. How?

Again, these SUBSEQUENT symptoms and injuries result from the ankle being forced to continue to move in a way that it’s not accustomed to moving after simply alleviating one symptom and not addressing the actual problem. 

Probably the most frustrating part of all of this is the fact that all of these subsequent problems can be prevented by just solving the problem in the first place. 

So, how do you SOLVE the source of your problem?

You have to begin by doing some detective work. 

The expert detectives for your musculoskeletal system are movement-based physical therapists.

But, a quick test to rule out problems at the hips, knees, ankles, and core is the deep squat. 

You should be able to perform a deep squat with your hips below your knees, heels on the floor, and spine in a neutral postural alignment. 

An INABILITY to do the deep squat indicates that you have poor mobility and/or poor stability motor control somewhere in the core and/or lower extremities. Identifying exactly what is preventing you from doing the deep squat will allow you to begin to address weaknesses and/or dysfunctions in your movement patterns. 

In the case of a mobility issue, you must first focus on exercises that will restore the mobility to the joint. In the case of a motor control dysfunction, you must focus on exercises that improve the strength and control of the affected joint(s) and the coordination of the movement pattern that has been affected by the lack of motor control. 

Once the root of your problem has been resolved, there will be no need for the “right” shoe for your feet.

Don’t get me wrong — even as a physical therapist, I got caught up in the '“right” shoe spiral a while back when I was first picking up my running mileage. When I started wearing the “right” shoe, I almost immediately noticed that my feet would just ache at the end of the day. It wasn’t until Born to Run was trending that I began to truly question the validity of the “right” shoe claim.

So, I decided to test it.

I stopped wearing the “right” shoe, started incorporating corrective, functional exercises specifically for my areas of weakness and poor mobility into my regular routine, and began wearing minimalistic footwear. It didn’t take long before my foot pain was completely gone. It’s been almost ten years since I last wore my own “right” running shoes, and I haven’t experienced a single foot issue after all this time. I’ve been training patients, including elite marathon and Olympic qualifying runners, how to SUCCESSFULLY break their dependency on their “right” running shoe ever since.

The reality is that if your body moves well the TYPE of shoe you wear will matter less, and you will significantly reduce your risk of injury while running. 

We should all ASPIRE to run in a shoe that provides as little support or corrective technology as possible. The only way to do this is to be sure your body moves well and has the strength, stability, and control to support itself under the stress of running. 

Do you have foot pain?

What have you done to address your pain?