Injury Free Running Starts with Less Cushioning

Injury free running is an attainable goal and in large measure, begins with your footwear! How do we know this? Ongoing research into running injuries have concluded that material properties of a shoe powerfully influences how the foot interacts with the ground during running.

The evidence is growing that less cushioning under your feet can help you pin down safer, sturdier footfalls during running because thinner running shoes, especially those that simulate the barefoot-feel (aka minimalist shoes) allows accelerated strengthening of the foot/ankle complex, giving you a more stable forefoot strike landing platform, and also permits the foot to dial back costly excessive foot over-pronation (abnormal foot motions) during running as compared with thickly cushioned running shoes.

Less Cushioning, Means Safer Running
To a very large extent, your injury prevention efforts in running can either succeed or fail based on your footwear. The more you can feel the ground when running, that is, the thinner the underfoot cushioning of a running shoe, the better the sensory flow at the feet which is good for reinforcing more stable landing control, but also helps drive a forefoot strike that’s more on target and more light in impact during running.

Injury Free Running Starts with Less Cushioning

To avoid running with damaging impact forces and excessive over-pronation of foot, avoid wearing running shoes that look like this:

More Cushioning, More Problems for Running Injury-Free
Thick cushioned running shoes may negatively affect foot strike pattern and landing intensity and may also interfere with other protective mechanisms the body naturally has to keep impact low during running. For instance, thick cushioned running shoes may interfere with moderate (healthy) levels of foot pronation which is natural movements of the back of the foot (rear-foot) necessary to allow for the impact forces to be absorbed during the stance phase of running. Thick cushioned running shoes may also hinder the retraction-withdrawal reflex in the leg necessary for the prevention of hard impact footfalls. These are just a few of the many examples in which running in thick cushioned running shoes can easily provoke mechanical insufficiencies that may double your risk of injury during running.

The thicker the underfoot padding, the greater the landing instability, the greater the impact production and the poorer the pronation control during running which may result in added risk of injury!

How do we know this?

A study by Sterzing et al. 2015 (study is linked down below) found that medially softer underfoot cushioning induced greater rear-foot motions (i.e. more foot pronation), a greater maximum vertical loading rate (more impact loads on the leg), a higher force-time integral (greater loading that lasted longer on the foot and leg) as well as longer ground contact time (foot spent more time on the ground) during running, suggesting that thicker cushioned, soft-feeling running shoes may reduce the stability of the landing surface, may result in greater downward force of the foot at touchdown AND may force the foot into extreme positions, resulting in unusual foot postures and motions during running.

Why is this so?

  • The softer and thicker the cushioning of a shoe may cause prolonged compression duration of the cushioning from the foot during the stance phase of running. In other words, the foot spends a longer time in stance because its pushing through more compressible material to reach the ground. Unfortunately, the impact increases derived from this landing condition may set the stage for an over-use injury!

Whats even more concerning is that the runners in the study did not perceive these mechanical negatives induced by soft, thick cushioned shoes as troubling or painful! The runners were virtually unaware that their landing surface was made more unstable with greater mid-foot cushioning!

In contrast, harder medially cushioned footwear was associated with less rear-foot inversion (less excessive foot pronation) and everison velocity of the foot was smaller during running, too, suggesting that harder cushioning (i.e. cushioning that feels like the hard natural ground on your bare feet) creates a more stabilized landing condition during running.

So, the moral of the story is that minimalist shoes that are too soft, and too thickly cushioned may backfire. The results suggests that you are better off running in a shoe with a ‘harder-feeling’ underfoot, but remember, the shoe must be flexible.

One thing I would really caution if you are a new forefoot runner is don’t go for the trendy shoe cushioning because you need to feel the ground as clearly as possible and thick shoe cushioning makes this difficult. Spend your time during your beginning stages of learning forefoot by experimenting with barefoot running until you make sure you can maintain your forefoot strike in running shoes. We need to build your forefoot running from the feet up, and it cannot be done if you have too much cushioning separating you from the ground.

More From Run Forefoot:

How Cushioned Running Shoes May Cause Metatarsal Fracture

Thick Cushioned Running Shoes Are Energy Draining

How Cushioned Running Shoes Affect the Nerves of the Feet

Runners Land More Forcefully in Thicker Cushioned Shoes

References:

Sterzing et al. Segmented midsole hardness in the midfoot to forefoot region of running shoes alters subjective perception and biomechanics during heel-toe running revealing potential to enhance footwear. Footwear Sci, 2015;7(2):63-79.

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

P.S. Don't forget to check out the Run Forefoot Facebook Page, it's a terrific place to ask questions about forefoot running, barefoot running and injury. I'm always happy to help!