But to me — a runner for nearly 30 years, a coach for 20, and a physio for nearly 15 — I no longer have a simple answer to that question. In fact, I tend to reply, tongue in cheek, “What type of run should you do?”
There’s real truth to that question in that the type of shoe depends on the type of run you choose, and the character of your body on any given day. So, just as we vary our running routes’ terrain, distance, and speed, why not vary our running shoes to the same degree?
Inflexible Feet from Inflexible Shoe Selection
Rather than poor shoe selection or fit, I more often see an issue with runners who run in only one very specific type of shoe. Whether it’s high or low drop, or cushioned or minimal, those runners who run all their miles in the exact same type of shoe tend to have more issues — both at the foot and above.
Why? The specific cause is unknown, but I theorize that the foot-ankle complex — and, in part, the whole lower chain — can get locked in by the specific parameters of their shoe of choice. Too supportive can create a sort of hypersensitivity to change, while chronic under-support can result in a sort of foot overtraining.
On one end, if a shoe is too supportive, the foot and ankle can lose their mobility and dynamic strength. In such cases, the foot and ankle are less able to adapt to terrain challenges such as slanted rocks, sharp road canter, snow, sand, or other technical terrain. Just as common, a shoe company makes changes in the same model from year to year, and devotees to that model are so locked in that even small changes in the same model can cause aches, pains, or strains.
Conversely, if a shoe is too minimal — zero drop, zero stability, and minimal cushion — the static and dynamic strength and stability systems of the foot and ankle are constantly at maximal loading. Like training hard every day, this becomes a high intensity workout for the foot with every run and can lead to chronic soft tissue strain.
Footwear as Workouts: Structured, Intentional Variety
Veteran runners, or those under the direction of coaches, often have large variety in their training. They do short and easy runs, long runs, and faster runs. They run up and down hills, and do terrain-specific runs. Most structured training has these runs routinely scheduled. Why not do the same with footwear?
It’s one thing to wear the best pair of shoes for any given terrain or workout. And we each have our preferences for what’s best on dirt, rock, and mud. But are you varying your footwear based on foot or leg fatigue? Or intentionally wearing more minimal shoes to challenge strength and mobility?
Part of an holistic training plan should include varied, intentional training of the foot, too. Give the foot different workouts, stimuli and stresses, and rest days. Indeed, medically sensitive runners with foot or lower leg injuries often need a specific shoe type. However, unless they have a severe sensitivity or insufficiency, footwear variety is a key aspect of improving post-injury resilience, and a metric of improvement. And despite myriad foot stretches, strength exercises, and massage techniques available, simply varying running footwear provides potent mobility, strength, and proprioception — balance and agility — stimuli that is obtained simply by running.
Types of Footwear Stimuli
The following are running shoe selection strategies based on the types of training run, with each providing a different stimulus from the shoe, itself. But first, some definitions of footwear variables:
This refers to the amount of foam and shock absorption a shoe provides.
- Pros: More cushioning reduces impact stress to the feet and legs.
- Cons: More cushioning tends to make shoes heavier and less responsive — less able to feel and respond to the ground beneath your feet.
This refers to the amount of built-in motion control a shoe provides.
- Pros: Stability shoes help limit foot and ankle tissue strain and pronation movement.
- Cons: Increased stability tends to make shoes heavier and less responsive. It also tends to increase foot and ankle joint and soft tissue stiffness.
This refers to the amount of elevation and downslope a shoe has, from heel to forefoot. Drop can range from zero to 15 millimeters.
- Pros: Zero drop shoes place a significant stretch to the Achilles tendon, foot, and calf, compared to conventional footwear. A higher heel decreases that stretch and is useful for acutely sensitive feet and lower legs.
- Cons: High drop is believed to be less biomechanically efficient (less ankle dorsiflexion is associated with less hip extension in pushoff) and may be a long term stress to the lower leg, foot, and ankle.
On Easy Base Training Runs, Use Shoes with Low to Moderate Cushion, Low Stability, and Lower Drop
For easy base training runs on either roads or flat, mellow surfaces, a moderate cushion, low stability shoe should suffice. This will provide enough cushion to support easy mileage. Lower stability will allow enough play for the toes, midfoot, and ankle to athletically move.
In such foundational runs, neither heavy cushion nor stability are required. In fact, if the foot is healthy and rested, a low cushion, low or no drop shoe may be more useful, to challenge the foot and legs to absorb more of the impact, thus enhancing resilience.
On Medium to Fast, Long Tempo Runs, Use Shoes with Moderate Cushion, Moderate to High Stability, and Moderate Drop
Runs like this are typically anaerobic threshold or race-paced runs of moderate volume — often incorporating two to six or more miles run faster than easy, aerobic pace. This pace and volume would benefit from both moderate cushion and moderate to high stability, especially if your form tends to be challenged by many miles at up-tempo paces. Additionally, a few extra millimeters of drop may help to avoid acute lower leg strain.
This type of shoe provides important foot support and prevents excessive strain, especially in an early training build-up, allowing the foot and ankle to build strength and resilience. Advanced runners with mobile, strong, and resilient feet may choose lower stability and low or no drop to challenge the lower leg even further.
On Short, Fast Intervals, Use Shoes with Low Cushion, Low to Moderate Stability, and Low to Moderate Drop
Short speed sessions, such as track workouts or paved hill sprints, are the domain of the original minimalist shoes: track spikes and racing flats. Minimal shoes are the lightest and most responsive running footwear, allowing maximum speed and responsiveness. And since the footing is smooth and consistent, and the volume typically only a few miles or kilometers, such minimal support and protection provides a robust but limited training stimulus for the foot.
On Recovery Runs, Use Shoes with High Cushion, Moderate Stability, and Moderate Drop
When the legs and feet simply need a rest, this is where high engineered shoes are useful, or shoes with substantial cushioning to rest the legs, and both stability and drop to rest the foot and ankle.
On Long Trail Runs, Use Terrain-Specific, Race-Specific Shoes
For race-specific long runs, this is where terrain-specific shoes are most important. A runner’s shoe preference in such cases could be highly variable based on the race.
With so many types and specialties of shoes out there, there is a shoe for every course, every foot, and every proclivity. Paradoxically, some runners love somewhat minimal road running shoes for mountain ultras, while some of today’s carbon fiber trail shoes feel just as good on roads as trails.
On Very Short Recovery Runs, Run Barefoot
A terrific strength and mobility stimulus for the foot and lower leg are short, barefoot sessions. I recommend these take place at athletic fields. Comprising either natural or artificial grass, these are usually a consistent surface and free from rocks, debris, or other things that might cause pain or injury if stepped on.
A typical dose of barefoot running might look like a warm-up jog in standard footwear to the park, a small amount of shoeless running — as little as five minutes, to upward of two to three miles once you become adapted to barefoot running — and then shoes back on to finish the run.
Barefoot runs are terrific training stimuli for the feet, but also useful for the overall stride. Running barefoot on a soft, trusting surface often allows us to open our stride, improving posture and hip mobility.
Non-Running Footwear Strategies
I often say, “The best time to work on running is when you’re not running.” Even during heavy periods of training, we spend a lot more of our time not running. This time can be used to establish or reinforce good running habits or abilities. Non-running life is a great time to support or challenge our feet. And as with running, different activities — at home, work, or out running errands — or different states of sensitivity or fatigue, might demand different non-running footwear.
If your feet and lower legs are fatigued, sensitive, or injured, more support is better. Indeed, when treating a case of acute or severe plantar fasciitis, I recommend the stiffest footwear with a high drop — strategies to limit the strain of the plantar foot. This is hugely important, as standing and walking in a flat, soft shoe can impart nearly as much strain to a foot as a long run.
For acute sensitivity, more is more. But like a crutch, there will come a time when less support and more motion is important for full recovery.
If fully healthy, non-running footwear is a great avenue to improve foot and ankle mobility, strength, and proprioception via more minimal footwear. Having minimal cushion, stability, and drop all at once still represents an acute load and should not be the daily routine. However, a terrific strategy to improve ankle mobility and Achilles, plantar fascia, and calf mobility is to wear zero drop non-running footwear. Especially if coupled with moderate cushion and good stability, such zero drop shoes can help keep the lower leg and foot mobile and make either zero or low drop running shoes more tolerable.
The converse, wearing very high drop footwear during a non-running day, can be a setup for pain and strain if our running shoes are significantly lower drop.
Vary your non-running footwear as much as possible. Or choose non-running footwear so it aligns with the characteristics of your favorite running shoes.
Varying running footwear can provide substantial benefits. Just like a varied training plan, footwear variety provides a useful training stimulus of strength, mobility, and proprioception.
Moreover, besides having more athletic feet, experimenting with a variety of footwear both avoids the rigid pigeonholing of a single shoe, and just may help you find the most optimal type of shoe for all your favorite runs.
Call for Comments
- Do you vary your running and non-running footwear?
- What shoes do you find best for specific runs and rest periods?