Do Cushioned Running Shoes Cause Injuries?

There are a number of factors contributing to running injuries, and thick cushioned running shoes may be one of them because they have been found to push foot pronation out of tolerance during running.

What is foot pronation and why too much of it during running can be a major risk factor for injury?

Foot pronation in general is the natural side-to-side motions of the hind-foot (back of the foot) during the touchdown and stance phases of running. When it stays within a safe range, foot pronation during running does what nature intended: its one of the body’s natural mechanical defenses that helps reinforce sturdier ankle stability while at the same time, it attenuates shock (reduces impact) during running. So always know that foot pronation puts you on a more strong and stable foundation and is essential for shock absorption during running.

However, most consequential, thick cushioned running shoes may push foot pronation beyond a safe range, resulting in over-pronation, or hyper-pronation, which may cause the ankles to work harder in keeping foot-steps steadied through the touchdown and stance phases of running. Not to mention, this increased mechanical work at the ankle may spill over onto multiple sites of the leg, like the shins and knees and may be a net contributor to many common running-related injuries, such as ankle sprains, shin splints and runners knee.

Do Cushioned Running Shoes Cause Injuries?
Running in thick cushioned running shoes may impair the functional use of foot pronation by forcing the feet into extreme positions, easily creating the conditions where instabilities and high amounts of joint and bone torsional and load stress may take hold on the leg.

Some studies have found that thick cushioned running shoes caused a longer ground-contact duration period of the foot that spurred on greater shifts in straining foot motions which doubled pronation-inducing torque during running as compared with running barefoot or in barefoot-inspired running shoes.

This piece of data suggests that footwear strongly affects how the foot interacts with the ground during running whereby immobilizing the foot too much with motion control stability running shoes may cause mechanical displacements at the foot/ankle complex that may alter the kinetic chain of events up the leg, easily setting the stage for injury. Bottom line, this line of evidence makes it clear that not all running shoes play the role that they are marketed to play in preventing injury!

This finding can also be added to the seemingly growing list of injurious risk factors caused by most conventional running shoes and how such footwear may progressively tear down the proper function of the feet.

How Barefoot Running Helps

In barefoot running, even though the feet have full freedom of movement, pronation is sharply limited. This is because when you run barefoot, it often naturally brings into line functional, low-impact mechanics, such as a forefoot strike landing, a higher cadence and a shortened stride length which collectively have proven to reduce ground-contact time of the foot, thereby keeping a tight rein on foot pronation. This is one of the important reasons on the mechanical front, you’re always making progress when you run barefoot.

Barefoot Running Benefits: Less Overpronation
Whether you’re running barefoot or in barefoot-like running shoes, you’re automatically put on more solid, balanced footing. This is because your feet and ankles rapidly strengthen the more you run barefoot and you gain better stride control too, all of which are directly tied to better pronatory control that results in massive reductions in rotational, tensile and torsional loads on the feet and legs. Another contributing factor to improved pronation control while running barefoot or in barefoot running shoes is it forces you to pick up your feet more quickly which reduces foot ground-contact time which can sharply limit the time of unwanted foot motions.

This is what makes barefoot running or running in barefoot running shoes so effective in narrowing the time the foot lingers on the ground, making the foot better able to avert, or at least blunt disordered foot motions, like over pronation.

Knowing this reminds us that less protection may be the best protection on the feet when it comes to safeguarding and improving your footstep mechanics. 

If you want to know more about the health and performance benefits of barefoot running, you’ll love my content on my YouTube, here!

P.S. Don’t forget to check out my Run Forefoot Facebook page here! It’s a terrific place to ask questions about forefoot running, barefoot running and injury. I’m always happy to help!


References:

Daoud et al. Foot strike and injury rates in endurance runners: a retrospective study. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2012; DOI: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3182465115

Denoth J. Load on the locomotor system and modeling. In Nigg BM, editor. Biomechanics of the Shoe. Champaign IL: Human Kinetics, 1986. p. 64-116.

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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!