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PicsArt_12-04-05.10.06In the ever-changing shoe industry, runners continue to have more and more options than they ever have before.  Trying to figure out which shoe is best for you can become quite a confusing process, especially when taking into consideration all of the differing of opinions that exist.  Moving away from the obvious variables, which include shoe aesthetics, type of terrain, climate, etc., let’s focus in on type of running shoe.  To keep it simple, I’m breaking this topic into 3 main categories: Minimalist/Zero Drop ShoesSuper Shock Absorbing Shoes and Super Supportive Shoes.  How do you know which grouping of shoes would work best for you?  Or, what should you be looking for in your next running shoe?  Unfortunately, when it comes to shoes, it’s not a one size fits all solution.  There are a number of factors to consider in addition to what you look like when you are running on a treadmill.  I have always been a fan of having some be “fitted” for a shoe by this process.  It’s a great place to start.  The skilled employee witnesses the end result of your body’s compensation patterns and recommends shoes that will help to lessen that end result.  This in itself has provided many individuals with relief if they were already struggling with aches and pains all too commonly associated with running.  However, in my opinion, the shoe is a temporary fix to an underlying problem(s).  The bigger question I have is in the “Why” is their body doing what it is?  The “Why” is the key to “fixing”, or at least improving, the problem.

Let’s Talk Shoe Types:

Minimalist/Zero Drop Shoes

The thought-process within this category of shoes is to promote more normal movement (biomechanics) of the foot while facilitating a low-impact technique that allows the feet to stay in a natural, relaxed position across any and all terrains.  Shoe brand examples would include: Altra, Vibram Five Fingers, New Balance Minimus and Merrell Trail/Pace Gloves.  These shoes have what is known as a “Zero” drop sole, which means the sole is the same height from the heel to the toe of the shoe.  They also, generally, offer a wider toe box.  This type of shoe is PicsArt_12-04-05.10.28what I most often recommend to my patients.

My general guidelines for shoe shopping:

  1. Needs to be Flexible – you should be able to roll it up into a ball and twist it from side to side without any real restriction.
  2. Sole needs to be relatively same height from heel to toe.

That’s it.  As a result of what proper biomechanics look like in the foot, this category of shoes would be what I suggest people work towards.  However, this recommendation is not necessarily the best place to start for everyone.  People who could benefit from this type of shoe would include individuals who are already used to going barefoot, maybe incorporate some barefoot training within their regimen, wear shoes that do not provide a lot of support, no current injuries or anyone who really wants to work towards this type of shoe style.  If you are going to go barefoot/minimalist for the first time, please do it SLOWLY.

Do not try this type of shoe initially if:

  • You rarely go barefoot
  • You’ve been in orthotics/arch supports for years
  • You wear heels majority of the time (Look at your shoes, casual/work included.  You’ll see most shoes do not have a zero drop sole, meaning you’re always walking in heels to some degree – guys included)
  • You wear flip flops or clogs/slip-ons that do not attach to your feet regularly
  • You have an existing diagnosis or recent diagnosis of plantar fasicitis or achilles tendonitis
  • You’re prone to stress fractures
  • You’ve been inactive for a period of time or are just starting to get into running
  • You’ve been in very supportive shoes for years

Super Shock Absorbing Shoes

The thought process with this shoe category is to provide maximum cushioning material in addition to a rocker bottom shape to help promote stability, better gait and more ability to rebound to next step on all terrains.  The rocker bottom decreases the amount of pressure on the midfoot when striking the ground that can be advantageous for someone who is prone to stress fractures or other midfoot injuries.  Shoe brand examples would include: Hoka One One and Skechers.  These shoes do not have a zero drop sole.  Most have a pitch of some sort, most commonly 4mm or more.  The increased “stability” is an aspect I’m not fully convinced of yet.  Based upon what I understand about biomechanics and compensation patterns in the body, putting someone on an unstable surface – the rocker bottom in combination with the super duper cushioning – will only bring out more instability in this person and may cause more breakdown than good.

Greg Roskopf, Biomechanics Specialist for the Denver Broncos and founder of Muscle Activation Techniques (MAT) says, “when you add instability to instability, the result is more instability.”

PicsArt_12-04-05.08.58Here’s a good self test to see how you might do in this type of shoe.  Stand on one foot, barefoot, and see how well you balance with your eyes open.  Repeat on the other foot.  You should not have to make a lot of corrections.  Then, to really see how well your nervous system is communicating (huge for injury prevention) repeat the test with your eyes closed.  Again, you should not have to make a lot of corrections.  You should be able to maintain these positions for 60 seconds fairly easily.  Now, put on a pair of these super shock absorbing shoes and repeat the tests again.  If you’re now more off balance than what you were in your bare feet, I would suggest not purchasing these shoes.  I’m not discounting the results people have had by switching to these shoes either.  However, if you refer back to my article “Debate Continues: Barefoot or Not,” I explain how these results may ultimately just be a redirection of stresses in the body and ultimately lead to more compensation.  This type of shoe could be a temporary “fix” for someone who is suffering from plantar fascitis/achilles tendonitis or are suffering from tight calves/hamstrings.  Again, if you’ve never worn this type of shoe before, SLOWLY transition yourself into them.

Do not try this type of shoe initially if:

  • You have poor balance – can’t balance on one leg very well
  • You have a past history or are suffering from a current ankle sprain(s)
  • You’re suffering from iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS), these may not be a great place to begin
  • You’ve been in supportive/corrective shoes for years
  • You actively wear orthotics/arch supports
  • You have very high arches and have never worked on foot strengthening

Supportive Shoes

The thought process with this shoe category is to help stabilize the foot by adding support to the shoe to help restrict excessive motion.  While the logic behind these types of shoes is great in theory, they fall short in actually “fixing” the person’s problem.  As stated earlier, when watching someone’s running pattern on a treadmill and then “correcting” their faults via shoes, the underlying issue has not been addressed.  The person will feel better, maybe even great.  This improvement could last for months, years until the body has no other ways to compensate and pain/injury shows back up or occurs in a new location.  The abnormal stresses have only been redirected.  This may be exactly what someone needs initially as well if they’re really wanting to keep running.  The key would be that they work on addressing whatever muscle imbalances, weakness, restriction of motion in the meantime to help improve the overall function of the foot and the rest of the body.

This category of shoes is very broad.  There are shoes that have huge drops in the sole height from front to back, have no flexibility at all in critical areas of the shoes (right where your foot naturally bends during toe off), built in arch supports all the way to shoes that have minimal drops in sole height, have decent flexibility and really no built in arch support.  This grouping of shoes offers the most variety and might be the best place to start for most individuals, especially if you have any of the above mentioned issues/lifestyle factors.  You can, if you so desire, easily transition your way to either of the other shoe categories from this category though.  An example of how to progress if you’ve been wearing a shoe that has a super high drop, no flexibility and built in arch support would be as follows:

How to progress your way out of Supportive Shoes:

  1. Start by walking barefoot about an hour or so per day and gradually increasing.  This will start requiring the muscles of the feet to do more work and get stronger.
  2. Incorporate “Toe Crunches” – simply curl your toes back towards your feet until you just barely begin to feel a burn in the feet.  Do this daily.  When this gets easy or takes a long time to get the burn, put a hand towel on a slick surface and pull the towel back towards you with your toes.  From there, start picking up objects like monopoly pieces and putting them in a cup.  Do this daily.
  3. Walk on your heels until you start to get a slight burn in your shins.  Do this daily.
  4. Slowly start wearing shoes that have a smaller drop in the sole height, more flexibility and less of an arch support.  Continue to decrease the drop, increase the flexibility and decrease the amount of an arch support until you’re in shoes that allow for more normal foot function/mechanics.

Hopefully this will help guide you a little better in your next shoe search.  Next week, Lauren Jones (Scott’s wife) and I will be on periscope talking about how to prevent/rehab back from ankle injuries.  I’ll be demonstrating a few key exercises you can implement into your regular routine to not only help strengthen the ankle, but strengthen the foot.  We will be doing weekly periscopes on Tuesdays around 2pm MST.  Please join us!  We always try to answer any questions you may have.



Scott is the founder of Becoming Ultra and spends most of his time with his family and ideas to get people moving!