Do Running Shoes Cause Injuries?

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. 

Do Running Shoes Cause Injuries?

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.

Do Running Shoes Cause Injuries?
On the basis of the best available evidence, increases in intrinsic muscle activity in the foot correlates to increases in foot functional strength whereby certain running shoes strongly affects the foot’s intrinsic muscle activity thus affecting foot functional strength development. In anti-pronation running shoes, the feet are too immobilized and the muscles are functionally disengaged which means the foot’s musculature is under-stimulated and intrinsic muscle activity is greatly reduced. This is why developments in foot functional strength is sharply limited in these shoes.

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. 

Barefoot Running Benefits

  • 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.
Walking and Running Barefoot Improves Pronation and Overall Foot Functional Strength
When you walk or run barefoot, especially on harder surfaces, the ground puts deformation pressure on the underfoot which prompts stronger activation of the underfoot nerves (pressure and mechanoreceptors). This specific type of ongoing sensory engagement and nerve activation is directly linked to enhanced intrinsic muscle activity throughout the foot which was found to be one of the best ways to get immediate improvements in foot functional strength. From this, when your feet are strong, the foot’s pronatory control is strong and therefore your stability is strong and when your stability is strong, your chances of injury decreases!

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!


References:

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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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!

1 Comment

  1. I started running with minimal footwear around 2013, my first pair was merrell true glove. Prior to running minimal I suffered from lower back pains and knee pains. After I started running with the merrell and changed my stride style. Everything got better, no more pain in the back and knees 🙂 I also read born to run and got influenced. For a year or so everything was brilliant. From a couch potato to 5k, 10k and who knows? but I never passed 10k. I remember vividly the first time I run 10, the time was 56 minutes. I was so high after that night. So high that I completely didn’t notice the pain in my feet. I couldn’t run for several days after that. New pains replaced the back and knee pains. especially in the arch of the feet and the lower ankles. So I started treating trigger points and massages my feet quite often. I tied all kinds of strengthening exercises, endlessly trying to evolve my running pose and gate. For the next 3 year I couldn’t run more than 6-7k without pain. I run 3-4 times a week – when i wasn’t in pain. I tried 10 different minimal shoes from merrell, inov-8 and mizuno. Last summer I tried to upper the running distance to 10k and after several runs U started to develop plantar fasciitis. That mot me depressed for a couple of months. After that period – about 3 months ago I joined a running group. The first sentence the coach said to me “buy support shoes”. so I did. Against everything i believe (believed) in. Went to the shoe store and bought the first shoes that weren’t all terribly awful. pearl izumi H3: 30mm stack high – not flexible at all high and steep drop shoe. It wasn’t my type, but I got used to it quite quickly. I run longer, faster and injury free since. By the way, the running style remains the same – forefoot strikes and all. The coach isn’t against minimal shoes, some of the best runners in the group (sub 3 hours marathons) run in minimal footwear. He don’t even care if I run in minimal supportive shoe (like the brooks pure cadence). But I don’t feel like changing anything just now. My point is this: minimal footwear is great for some an perhaps awful for others. There is no silver bullet!

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