Certain running shoes may actually do more harm than good. For instance, overpronation stability running shoes, which are made to completely immobilize the feet to prevent excessive foot motions (over-pronation) during running, may actually be a risky prospect in preventing injuries.
Most interesting, foot overpronation while running may not actually be a bad thing after all as many studies have found that overpronated feet during running doesn’t disrupt the kinetic chain up the leg and therefore may not be the highly injurious risk factor as once so strongly presumed. In fact, foot pronation is the body’s natural, built-in mechanical support that may be an important asset to impact protection as well as footstep stability, but if tampered with through the use of external support, you may be operating from a position of weakness instead of strength when you run.
One big problem with overpronation stability running shoes is they typically have an extremely unergonomic fit that goes against the natural shape and function of the human foot. For instance, these shoes are too narrow in the front, too inflexible and have a massively elevated heel. These negative factors add up to abnormal foot postures, altered foot-joint mechanics, sensory feedback deficits and because of the shoes rigidity and inflexibility, the foot’s muscles, tendons, soft tissues and bones are never able to fully engage functionally and effectively. Not to mention, widespread intrinsic muscle activity in the feet, essential for keeping the foot’s muscles functionally strong and tolerant, is dramatically reduced which leads to structural and strength deficits. This is why long-term use of motion control stability running shoes can be a grim situation for the feet.
Importance of Foot Strength in Running
The most important takeaway is that increases in foot intrinsic muscle activity, which is optimized when you’re barefoot, drives rapid developments in foot-arch strength and height as well as increases in the foot’s fat pad and muscle volume which provides greater protections on the small bones of the forefoot. These improvements in strength also makes the feet more capable of keeping pronation within a safe range, without the help of a shoe.
What is more, when the feet, especially the arches, are functionally strong, they’re not only more tolerant of more miles, but they provide better shock absorption, footstep stability, including better pronatory control, and reduced tibial (shin) accelerations during running, thereby helping safeguard the shins from shin splints.
However, if the foot’s intrinsic muscle activity is low, like it so often is in rigid, narrow stability running shoes, chronic dependence on these shoes may reduce the volume and functional strength of the muscles, fat pads and soft tissues in the foot which in turn may contribute to flattened arches, and the feet overall may be more prone to abnormal postures, movements and early muscle fatigue which easily leads to injury.
For instance, a 2015 study published in the European Journal Sport Science found that deficits in the foot’s intrinsic muscle activity was a significant producer of weakened components of the longitudinal arch which led to insufficient shock absorption during initial weight-bearing at ground-contact during running. These are defections that you don’t want to be sustained during running because it may not only reduce the elastic power of the arch, making the foot less spring-loaded and less economical, it may also spark hyper-pronation and amplify impact and torsional loads on the leg and may force the plantar fascia as well as the calves to work harder in attenuating shock and stabilizing the foot at each step.
Conversely, a strong foot and its arch may offer more pronatory support and therefore impact protection and footstep stability than overpronation stability running shoes. Evidence of this came from a study by Miller et al. (2001) which found that strong foot ligaments provide enough passive support to help keep pronation within a safe, tolerable range and maintains the structural integrity of the entire foot, suggesting that a stronger foot may be able to reliably manage pronation without the aid of any external intervention.
How to Increase Intrinsic Muscle Activity in the Feet to Keep them Strong for Running?
What’s scientifically interesting is the foot’s intrinsic muscle activity largely depends on the amount of ground sensory inputs infusing through the underfoot as these sensory inputs activate a range of underfoot nerves that directly switch on a range of responses within the foot, including intrinsic muscle activation, responsible for functionally strengthening the feet.
If you follow the evidence, you’ll notice there’s enough data showing walking and running barefoot is very, if not the most effective means in providing the sensory richness needed for optimal intrinsic muscle activity responses in the feet. This means the real potential to promote a natural, re-building of functionally stronger, more enduring feet is with increased barefoot activity indoors and outdoors as its proven to have a stronger influence on meeting the sensory needs of the feet that goes into more enhanced muscle activation as compared with thick cushioned stability footwear.
- Part of the optimized sensory input when barefoot includes direct deformation of the underfoot surface which is very essential because it directly increases muscle activity throughout the foot, but in footwear with thicker soles, direct deformation of the underfoot surface is blocked, rendering underfoot sensory nerves much less active and less able to stimulate intrinsic muscle activity.
The Take Home Message
Paradoxically, improvements in injury prevention are often mixed in runners who wear motion control stability running shoes because these shoes may force the feet into extreme positions, resulting in overpronated feet. These shoes also restrict natural foot pronatory patterns, pushing the kinetic chain from the natural order up the leg, while simultaneous causing the feet to progressive weaken. Because through barefoot running and walking, the foot can develop its own motion control protections and improve pronatonary abnormalities, is why I always suggest to make barefooting a common practice for yourself!
If you’ve enjoyed my content on barefoot vs shoes, you’ll love my content over at my YouTube channel, here, where I talk at lengths about the health and performance benefits of barefoot running and I also discuss the latest research on the hot-button topic, heel strike vs forefoot 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!
Mann, R., & Inman, V. T. (1964). Phasic activity of intrinsic muscles of the foot. Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, 46, 469 – 481.
NIgg, BM. The role of impact forces and foot pronation. Clin J Sports Med, 2001; 11(2):2-9
Noh et al. Structural deformation of longitudinal arches during running in soccer players with medial tibial stress syndrome. Euro J Sport Sci, 2015;15(2):173-181.
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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.