Lace ‘Em Up: Making A Minimal Shoe Into A Stability Shoe

Stay the CourseOn another dreary, wet Oregon afternoon, I was running alongside fellow Eugenian and veteran ultrarunner Lewis Taylor. We were running hill repeats in preparation for Lake Sonoma 50, dreaming of warm, sunny skies and something other than thick, slick mud beneath our feet. At the bottom of the hill, I quick-planted, intending to hop a short, plastic fence back to the road. However, my trail shoes–incredible for hardscrabble–weren’t up to the task of saturated grass and dirt. My foot shot out in front and I went back. On my butt. Quick down, and quick up. No harm, no foul. We continued on.

I couldn’t blame the shoe, the Pearl Izumi E-Motion N2 Trail. It’s the most comfortable, versatile, all-round best shoe I’ve worn in years. But after that slip, I turned to Lewis and said, “Wish I had the Salomon Speedcross right now!” The Speedcross, with its heavy, chevron treads, are incredible in slick mud (and, as we’ve found out in Eugene this winter, snow). However, the Speedcross have very little rock-plate protection, and generally sub-par cushioning. And so it goes. The Shoe Talk.

Taylor, who’s been running ultras for going on 10 years, has seen his share of trail shoes. And, as we shuffled around the bend to start another repeat, we both concluded that trail shoes have improved enormously over the past half decade: in the arms race for the top of the sport, shoe companies are emerging with new innovations offering greater comfort, support, tread, cushion, and stability. Anything you want, there’s a shoe out there for you. We debated which shoes are best, and for what: Salomons for adverse terrain, the Pearl Izumi line for lightweight-ness and protection; we spoke of the merits of Montrail’s new Flex-foam technology, the emergence of the Altra and Scott brands, and bemoaned the explosion of Hoka One One and its hyper-cushioned wares on the running universe.

But we agreed upon one thing: shoes are better because they’re now highly specialized. Gone are the days of the ‘everything-to-everyone’ trail shoe: huge tread, strong, stiff, cushioned, supportive, waterproof, and breathable shoes. The ‘one-size-fits-none’ shoe is gone. And good riddance to it. They were frequently too stiff, too heavy, too bulky, too ‘protective,’ and ultimately too much shoe for their own good. Jack of all trades, master of none. While some flat-footed runners needed the bulk and stiffness of a motion-control shoe, most didn’t. On the other end were the stiff-arched folks who responded better to a softer, more pliable shoe.

The late 2000’s brought forth the ‘minimalist shoe revolution.’ On the trail side, innovations were led in large part by New Balance and the emergence of the Minimus series. Other companies followed suit, such as Montrail with the Rogue Racer and its lighter, more minimal predecessor, the Rogue Fly. What developed in their wake were highly specialized shoes: each make and model were created for a specific trail condition and foot type. And while the minimalist boom has come back to Earth, the ‘less-is-more’ philosophy remains: lighter is better. So, Lewis and I concluded, shoes are better, not simply because of technological advances, but by the concession by companies that they’re better off making a shoe that is excellent at a few specific elements, and leave it to the runners to decide which they like best. More specialization, less generalization.

But where does that leave the runner that loves their specialized, lightweight shoe, but–either due to aches and pains, or a previous injury, or greater security–desires more support? Orthotics may be the answer, but no matter how lightweight they are, they invariably add weight and subtract comfort from a shoe. So, then what? Foot taping? Braces? Straps?

How about lacing?

A Tale of Two Foot Types

The average foot has an average amount of arch–the shock-absorbing midfoot structure that, for most of us, remains elevated above ground when standing still. The midfoot arch serves to help absorb, then release energy from the ground as we impact. It is supported by both active (muscles, tendons) and passive (ligamentous) structures.

On either extreme of the average are the flat, hypermobile, pes planus foot and the rigid, high-arched, pes cavus foot.

The flat-arched foot gets a lot of blame for the ills of foot pain, but amongst runners I see clinically, they represent less than 10% of the population. The low-arched midfoot can result from genetics–hypermobility (of the whole body in general, or specific to the foot)–or simply from inefficient stride mechanics that overstress the foot. Either way, both the active and passive structures are continually stressed by the ‘collapse’ (or relative flat-ness) of the flat arch.

Flat foot. All photos courtesy of Joe Uhan.

Flat foot. All photos courtesy of Joe Uhan.

Stability and motion-control shoes were developed for these runners, in order to protect the midfoot arch from continual collapse. While this strategy generally ignored the strength and biomechanical factors involved in the arch stress, they were–and are–effective in helping stabilize this structure. However, since the majority of runners do not have a significantly flat foot, the stability/motion-control models–featuring stiff, plastic ‘roll cages’ and heavy, bulky, dual-density midsole foam–are entirely too much shoe and are too stiff, heavy, and uncomfortable.

On the opposite end, the rigid, high-arched foot can also be genetic (or congenital, as some are developed in vitro, often unilaterally), but tends to result from similar gait inefficiencies–or simply stiffening from high-mileage days and weeks.

Rigid foot.

Rigid foot.

A stiff arch may seem preferential; however, a flexible arch is crucial for adequate shock absorption. But more importantly, the foot must be flexible enough for the ball of the foot and the big toe–collectively known as the ‘first ray’ to engage with the ground. Biomechanists and movement specialists believe that a strong engagement of the first ray with the ground is critical in maximizing hip extension–that a strong push-off begins with the first ray. Given what we know about the importance of ‘hips and gluts’ in running performance and injury prevention, a stiff, rigid, high arch may be just as detrimental to successful running as a flat foot. After three decades of pronation-phobia, there are few shoes that actively promote first-ray engagement.

Research on shoe type and injury prevention is highly equivocal: indeed, given the variability of individual needs, personal comfort is the most important factor in shoe selection. So, if a runner has found a truly comfortable shoe, they may still benefit from more support or enhancement. What to do?

Look to the Laces
One of the most overlooked components of the shoe are the laces. While some trail-shoe companies have improved lace engineering to prevent knotting and unlacing, and increase comfort at the top of the foot, little thought has been put into how lacing can affect shoe performance. What most runners don’t realize is that the shoe laces can be a tool to enhance the shoe: to make it more stable, and to enhance how the foot and the hip function in the run stride.

Pronation and Supination Lacing Techniques

Specific lacing techniques can enhance stability and promote foot contact.

The Flat Arch
Most runners realize that a flat foot benefits from arch support: mid-foot support prevents overstretching of the plantar fascia, medial tendons, and decreases wasted motion and energy. The shoe-insert and custom-orthotic industry is based on this premise. However, if a runner wishes to avoid heavy, stiff, and uncomfortable inserts, there is another option.

The Stiff Arch
On the flip side, a stiff, high-arched foot frequently fails to adequately engage with the ground. First-ray engagement is crucial in leg extension, and ultimately push-off power generation. Runners with stiff arches tend to land only on the lateral foot, and this limits that push-off power: it’s like driving down the road with only the lateral aspect of your tires on the road: less power, less stability. Thus, techniques that actually decrease the arch and increase the medial foot contact will improve running economy.

Lacing Techniques
I first learned of these techniques in a lower extremity manual therapy course through the Institute of Physical Art. The original creator of these techniques is unknown. Both techniques begin the same.

First, unlace the top hole of each side of the shoe. Then, make ‘rabbit ears’ on each side, looping the lace into the open hole on the same side:

Rabbit ears

Lace each string through the opposite hole:

Rabbit ears 2

This creates anchoring loops:

Rabbit ears 3

From here, the techniques diverge.

Finishing the ‘Inside-Out’ Technique for Flat Arches

This set of instructions finishes the ‘Inside-Out’ Technique for flat arches.

After pulling each lace equally taught, pull the inner lace firmly across to the lateral part of the shoe:

In-side out lacing technique start

Maintain tension in that lace, then tie as usual:

In-side out lacing technique finished

This creates a firm, supportive wall of support on the midfoot–frequently the very place that is most irritated with hypermobile overpronators!

Finishing the ‘Outside-In’ Technique for Stiff Arches

This set of instructions finishes the ‘Outside-In’ Technique for stiff arches.

Lace the shoe similar to above, except now take the outer lace and pull firmly across to the medial part of the shoe:

Outside-in lacing technique startMaintain tension in that lace, then tie as usual:

Outside-in lacing technique finishThis technique creates a outside-to-inside force that helps the stiff-arched foot create greater contact with the ground, avoiding excessive lateral foot striking, and–through consistent whole foot contact–improves hip extension and push-off power.

It’s that simple, but enormously successful in enhancing individualized stability and performance in an otherwise minimal, lightweight, comfortable performance shoe!

General Recommendations for Foot-Specific Lacing Techniques

The following are general recommendations for the foot-specific lacing techniques:

‘Inside-Out’ Technique
Foot type: Flat, hypermobile arch
Injury issues it benefits:

  • Plantar foot pain
  • Bunion pain
  • Medial arch pain
  • Medial shin pain
  • Medial knee pain

‘Outside-In’ Technique
Foot type: Stiff, high, and/or rigid arch
Injury issues it benefits:

  • Lateral foot pain
  • First toe pain and stiffness
  • Lateral shin/knee/thigh pain
  • Postereolateral hip pain, ‘weak glutes’

Make your favorite running shoe even better–and enhance your own biomechanics–by trying these techniques! Good luck!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Has anyone tried this lacing technique before? If so, what has been your experience with it?
  • If you test one of these techniques, report back and let us know how things worked out for you.
Joe Uhan

is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Eugene, Oregon. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 20 years. He has a Master's Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50 Mile in October 2010, was 4th place at the 2015 USATF 100K Trail Championships (and 3rd in 2012), second at the 2014 Waldo 100K, and finished M9 at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe owns and operates Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon, and offers online coaching and running analysis at uhanperformance.com.