Can Running Shoes Hurt Your Feet?

One way in which most, not all, but most running shoes can hurt your feet is the narrow, constraining, inflexible fit of most conventional running shoes reduces the functional engagement and therefore strength of the muscles, tendons, soft tissues and fat pads of the foot which may in turn contribute to flatten, inefficient arches that may also increase the risk of damaging movement patterns of the foot (over-pronation or hyper-pronation) which may create mechanical chaos at the ankle, knee and hip-joints during running.

Why do flat feet (collapsed arches), excessive foot pronation and increased injury-risk during running all get linked together?

Generally, flat feet often indicates poor foot strength and health whereby weak feet and collapsed arches often co-evolve with long-term use of motion control, stability footwear because these shoes have strong repressive effects on the engaging activity of the foot’s muscles and soft tissue groups, especially at the arch.

  • If the muscles and soft tissue groups that line the arch become weak, they cannot sufficiently uphold the arch and the arches eventually fall into a collapsed state.
  • Overall, long-term use of cushioned, stiff, overly protective footwear locks the feet into a tightly constrained state that significantly shuts down much of the muscular engagements necessary to keep the feet, especially the arches, functionally strong.

Finally, weak foot muscles and arches lose their grip on suspending pronation during running, potentially resulting in hyperpronation. Out of this may trigger abnormal foot motions and postures during the touchdown and stance phases of running, which may lead to tissue and muscular over-strain of the foot, lower leg and knee and therefore a hotbed for injury.

Can Running Shoes Hurt Your Feet?
They may look safe, fast and comfortable, but most standard running shoes actually wears down the functional strength of the feet over time because of the overall limited capacity for the foot to function normally in such footwear. The raw facts are the feet won’t get stronger and more powerful on their own if they’re constantly entombed in running shoes loaded with motion control, stability constructs which profoundly diminishes the foot’s muscular activation and engagement, resulting in major reductions in arch height profile and functional strength. Also out of all this comes feet that are ill-adapted to handle high-mileage walking, running and hiking and could mean trouble for injury prevention.

Bottom line, running with weak feet is not a way to get you out of injury! To give you a good idea of how quickly foot health deteriorates in running shoes with excessive cushion and support, a 2013 study in the journal Foot and Ankle Research found that runners who wore running shoes with arch support showed reduced arch height right after a prolonged run, suggesting that the strength-robbing effects of stability running shoes are alarmingly fast-acting!

The researchers went on to underscore that poor foot strength may prompt frequent changes in arch height profile upon weight-bearing activities, like running, and may result in poor weight-bearing responses of the foot. In other words, when the feet are weak, the harder it is for the foot’s arch to be upheld, the more easily strained and likely the feet are to injure under normal loading conditions.

The researchers also cautioned that weak foot muscles may cause the anti-pronatory muscles in the foot to become increasingly unstable and unreliable at delivering corrective pronatory support. This contributes a greater extent to over-pronated feet that become more vulnerable to fatigue and pain during long distance runs.

What is more, this data fits into a continuum of complementary findings showing that weak, low-arched feet increases forefoot abduction (forefoot shifts away from the mid-line, while the heel dramatically bends inward) during the stance phase of running. This mechanical entanglement is known to unleash greater torque and strain to ripple out from the foot, up the leg during running.

The researchers noted that all this frontal assault, which partly stems from the change from high to low arch-height, on the foot as well as the lower leg and knee, adds up over time and may result in an out-sized risk of bone, joint and soft tissue damages if running were to continue.

According to the researchers, much of the soft tissue groups in the feet act as motion stabilizers of the foot-ankle complex. Strengthening and conditioning these tissue groups would depress abnormal foot motions. The best way to strengthen these sectors of the foot is to keep them active.

Can Running Shoes Hurt Your Feet?
In most conventional running shoes with corrective support, the engaging activity of the foot’s muscles, tendons and soft tissue groups is more offline and is barely adequate to sustain strong muscle tone, healthy muscle volume and optimal functional health of the feet. This is how arch height and function gets worn down and leads to dangerous rises in pronation, impact production and balance instabilities during running.

From this, its easy to understand how supportive, cushy running shoes may actually disadvantage a runner’s injury prevention efforts, and is something not often heard in Runners World. But after the barefoot running movement boom, strengthening the feet by wearing less on them has since quickly gained acceptance and appraisal by many. In fact, many habitually shod (shoe) runners who switched to minimalist running and/or barefoot running have showed strikingly similar improvements in not only running form, but in foot functional health.

Help for Flat Feet: Go Barefoot
Much of the ongoing research on foot health and running mechanics hints that to sustainably strengthen the feet and develop higher arches, at the very least you should be walking barefoot. Comparatively, running barefoot is a fast entry point to reverse extreme flat feet because barefoot running involves a forefoot strike landing which encourages greater arch compression and extension which has known, fast-acting effects on boosting arch-height.

By now, it should be obvious that to give your feet the best start at boosting arch height and functional strength in a sustainable way is to avoid wearing motion control stability cushioned running shoes, and instead, aim for wearing minimalist running shoes which are shoes that aren’t filled with structural support elements, permitting the foot to move in its natural motion more fully and are sculpted to accommodate to any unique foot structure. This is how minimalist shoes keep the feet in an ongoing engaging state for the benefit of undoing the functional and structural damage caused by modern footwear.  

As I just briefly touched on, foot strike pattern when running may have a big role to play in influencing arch function and height. Because of the particularly way the arch engages (3-point bend) with the ground at touchdown in a forefoot strike landing, may grow the arch stronger every time you land forefooted, not rearfoot (heel strike) during running.

How Running Without Shoes May Fix Your Flat Fee
How you land on your foot during running may dramatically influence arch strength, height and function. Landing with a forefoot strike, like most barefoot runners and elite runners, loads the arch differently as compared with landing heel-first (heel strike) during running. Running with a forefoot strike puts the arch to work in a more functional manner that makes it stronger, taller, more able to store richer elastic power and better able at securing foot pronation. This is why adopting the forefoot running technique may be a sufficient starting point in transforming weak feet into strongly arched feet more fully armed to handle more mileage on any terrain.

All in all, there’s no reason for runners, or anybody, to have weak, painful, flat feet. Getting your feet to work independently via barefooting or minimalist shoes is a big part of the sustainable solution, but not the entire solution. One of the greatest outcomes in adopting the forefoot running style is it may really finish the job in preventing a loss in arch height by engaging the feet in a mechanically competent manner critical to healthy functioning arches.

If you’ve enjoyed this content, you’ll love my content over at my YouTube channel, here, where I talk at length about the benefits of being barefoot, especially running barefoot! I also discuss more on the advantages of forefoot strike running over heel strike running.

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:

Cowely E and Marsden J.The effects of prolonged running on foot posture: a repeated measures study of half-marathon runners using the foot posture index and navicular height. J Foot Ankle Res, 2013; 6(20):2-6.

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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!

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