Are Cushioned Running Shoes Really Necessary

What does it take to avoid running injuries? Although there are many factors at work contributing to running-related injuries, many runners believe that the most cushioned running shoe provides the most protection from harm. But what you wont read in Runners World is that a large body of research confirms that shoes with good cushion and support contribute a greater extent to injury-risk in runners.

There’s also a special relationship between running shoes with a thick padded heel and heel striking during running, shown below.

Are Cushioned Running Shoes Really Necessary?
To make running safer and reduce injury, running in thickly cushioned running shoes sounds like an obvious solution, but it turns out to complicate things.

Why is landing heel-first (heel striking) during a running problem? There are countless links between impact-related injuries, such as long bone injuries and heel strike running on account of heel striking at touchdown during running unleashes a mix of impact forms, some in unusual high amounts, that wear-down the shins, knees and hips and can quickly turn the lower leg into a sloppy, ineffectual spring that may eat into good running economy. This is why heel strike running may slow your motor and increase your vulnerabilities to injury.

Are Cushioned Running Shoes Really Necessary

Lets zero in on all the specifics pertaining to how most standard cushy running shoes cause reckless mechanical habits to take hold and reduce functional strength of the feet and from all that, may fundamentally be the primary physical stressor causing most running-related injuries.

Here are the links to the articles on the structural components in most standard running shoes that may damage your injury prevention efforts by either disrupting the natural, functional outputs of the foot/ankle complex or by impairing leg swing and foot strike mechanics during running.

As I just briefly mentioned, cushioned running shoes that are loaded up with the latest gizmos may cause your running mechanics to have rough and damaging synchrony by negatively altering your foot strike and leg swing mechanics. For instance, one visible difference between runners who run barefoot and runners who run in cushy running shoes with a stacked padded heel is that most shod (shoe) runners land heel-first whereas most barefoot runners make initial ground-contact on the balls of the foot (forefoot strike) during running. To date, the best available primary evidence has found that the scale of impact production and over-stress on the leg when heel strike running in heavily padded running shoes is actually much WORSE than running barefoot with a forefoot strike!

Is it OK to Run Barefoot?
Barefoot running actually makes you land more safely on your feet as compared with running in thickly cushioned shoes. When you run barefoot, the brain uses the strong sensory cues and tactile feedback from the ground to set the reflexes in motion that produce significantly less impact-intensive foot-ground interactions. This includes a forefoot strike landing while the knee of the landing foot is kept bent and flexed which collectively buffers against damaging impacts and may work best for sustaining better as a more effective means for impact-protection as compared with thickly cushioned running shoes. Ultimately, this (forefoot striking) is the natural course of the lower leg mechanics seen in most barefoot runners who tend to injure less than shod (shoe) runners. Forefoot running is also commonly seen in many of the best runners in the world, from East Africa, most of which grew up running barefoot and hold most world records and consistently place in the top 3 on the world stage in most races (from 5-km to the marathon), which may suggest that their efficient, tough-to-beat running style was curated by running barefoot during critical stages of development. Bottom line, there’s hard, conclusive evidence showing that the sensory cues that flow from running barefoot are linked directly with triggering reflexive mechanisms in the body that drive specific mechanical outputs that are strongly protective against many impact force variables underlying most common running-related injuries. This is why barefoot runners are able to run worry-free of injury, in the absence of underfoot protection, because its partly the forefoot strike that causes them to NOT generate any more impact, regardless of surface hardness! The opposite appears to be true for most shod runners in that increased underfoot cushioning is on record for driving more force-intensive and unbalanced footsteps during running. This is why many experts confirm that efforts to reduce injury-risk should focus on running in shoes that give a more natural connection with the ground (i.e. run barefoot or in shoes that feel as if you’re nearly barefoot).

Probably one of the most well-known complicating matters of cushioned running shoes is the raised, thickly padded heel often knocks your forefoot strike off its natural course during running, resulting in an unintended heel strike and other mechanical insufficiencies that may over-stress the lower leg. These shoes do this by interfering with ankle plantarflexion at touchdown and instead forces ankle dorsiflexion (forefoot lifting) at touchdown, shown below:

Are Running Shoes Necessary?
A popular explanation for how heel striking comes about during running is the padded raised heel in most standard cushy running shoes forces the landing foot to fling out farther in front of the body upon touchdown. At the same time, the toes and forefoot of the landing foot points up towards the sky (ankle dorsiflexion) at touchdown, making it very easy to strike heel-first (heel strike). Runners who run in this way (greater ankle dorsiflexion at touchdown, and therefore heel strike) tend to have greater frontal assaults on the leg and have similar injuries that include runner’s knee and long bone injuries, like shin and femur fractures as compared with barefoot runners who commonly utilize a forefoot strike and a shorter stride which seems to work best for limiting impact production and injury.

Below are the links to the evidence-based articles listing the injuries related to shod-induced ankle dorsiflexion (heel strike) during running:

Here are more examples of how cushioned heeled running shoes contribute to injuries during running:

Even worse, dependence on thickly cushioned, arch-supportive running shoes can quickly weaken and eventually collapse your foot’s aches! The consequential outcome of running with weak, flattened feet is over-pronation (abnormal foot motions) may ratched-up dramatically during stance which may increase impact severity and over-stain the feet, ankles and knees. Its also a well-known risk factor for many common lower leg injuries.

To give you an idea of the scope of the strength-robbing, arch-collapsing effects of such footwear, one study found that runners who ran in arch-supportive, cushy running shoes showed stark reductions in arch-height immediately after a long distance run, suggesting that such footwear may harm your chances of developing stronger, higher, more powerful arches.

Last but not least, minimalist shoes (shoes that mimic the barefoot-condition) are the next best choice for those wanting to acquire stronger feet, sturdier balance and better running form, but don’t want to go barefoot. The big problem however is that not all minimalist shoes are created equal. Some minimalist shoes have too much cushioning and stiffness to even be considered minimalistic. In fact, below are links to well-written articles showing that certain running shoes marketed as ‘minimalist’ and ‘barefoot-like’ actually have strikingly similar design features and feel as most standard running shoes.

I hope by now its obvious that relying on thickly cushioned running shoes is not the surest way to get you out of injury as the factual conclusions, full of negative results, are enough to raise concerns about the health-harming affects of such footwear. Lucky, ongoing research on barefoot running is providing us with a fuller understanding of how running without shoes produces quieter, more low amplitudes of impact, giving you the best chances at avoiding injury, especially when upping your mileage and intensity. And to some degree, the same advantage remains when you run in minimalist shoes, too! 

Speaking of which, below are the true minimalist shoes that are a complete compliment to the shape and function of the human foot that also delivers a similar megadose of sensory input that you get when you’re barefoot. These are the key components that every minimalist shoe should have to keep your leg swing mechanics and reflexes as well as foot strike awareness in an activated, awakened state. This is how you become more skilled at forefoot running!

NEW Trail running and hiking shoe -- TerraFlex by Xero Shoes

If you’ve enjoyed this post, you’ll love my YouTube channel (here) where I talk more in-depth about the positives of forefoot running vs heel strike running as well as the advantages of barefooting and minimalist footwear.

If you’d like, you can also support Run Forefoot and help keep it going strong, in full-force, by making a donation in any amount of your choosing:

Bretta Riches

"I believe the forefoot strike is the engine of endurance running..."

BSc Neurobiology; MSc Biomechanics candidate, ultra minimalist runner & founder of RunForefoot. I was a heel striker, always injured. I was inspired by the great Tirunesh Dibaba to try forefoot running. Now, I'm injury free. This is why I launched Run Forefoot, to advocate the health & performance benefits of forefoot running and to raise awareness on the dangers of heel striking, because the world needs to know.
Bretta Riches

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Recommendations For Lifelong Foot Health
  2. Cushioned Running Shoes and Osteo Knee Pain: From Correlation to Causation - Actionable Insights

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