Overpronation Stability Running Shoes May Actually Damage the Feet

Are overpronation stability running shoes really effective and is too much foot pronation during running really a bad thing?

The main job of overpronation stability running shoes is to completely immobilize the feet to prevent excessive foot motions during running, but research is now beginning to show that such footwear immobilizes the foot too much and may actually be a risky prospect in preventing injury. 

Most interesting, foot overpronation may not be a bad thing after all as some studies have found that overpronated feet do not disrupt the kinetic chain up the leg and may not be the highly injurious risk factor as once so strongly presumed. In fact, foot pronation overall, is the body’s built-in, natural mechanical support that may be an important asset to impact protection, and if tampered with, you may be operating from a position of weakness during running.

Overpronation Stability Running Shoes May Actually Damage the Feet

How Overpronation Stability Running Shoes Weaken Your Feet

Another big problem with overpronation stability running shoes is that because they immobilize the feet too much, and these shoes also typically have an extremely unergonomic fit such that they’re too narrow in the front, too inflexible and have an elevated heel, the foot’s natural postural arrangement along with its muscles, tendons, soft tissues and bones are never able to fully engage effectively. Not to mention, widespread intrinsic muscle activity in the feet essential for keeping the foot’s muscles strong and tolerant, is dramatically reduced. From these consequences, structural and strength deficits to the feet may easily arise and more structural and functional strength problems will build with more long-term dependency on these shoes. This is why over-reliance on motion control stability running shoes can be a grim situation for the feet.

On the basis of the best available evidence, running shoes strongly affects the foot’s intrinsic muscle activity whereby increases in intrinsic muscle activity correlates to increases in foot strength. Conversely, the less intrinsic muscle activity in the feet, the less the foot’s musculature is being stimulated in which case rigid, narrow-fitting overpronation stability running shoes directly cause the foot’s muscle activity to be more offline which is why developments in foot functional strength is sharply limited.

Why Its Important for the Feet to Be Strong for Running

The most important takeaway is that increases in the foot’s intrinsic muscle activity is absolutely essential to maintaining adequate foot-arch strength and fat-pad volume protecting the small bones of the forefoot. When the feet, especially the arches, are functionally strong, they can provide better shock absorption, reinforce sturdier landing stability and also safeguard the shins by reducing harmful tibial (shin) accelerations during running.

However, if intrinsic muscle activity is low, like it so often is when the feet are always entombed in rigid, narrow stability running shoes, the foot’s muscles, especially the arch become progressively weaker and more prone to early muscle fatigue during running which can over-complicate injury prevention and economic sufficiency.

Now a study finds that deficits in the foot’s intrinsic muscle activity is also a very significant producer of weakened components of the longitudinal arch and insufficient shock absorption during initial weight-bearing at ground contact (Noh et al. 2015) during running. These are defections that you don’t want to be sustained during running because it may reduce the elastic power of the arch (less spring) and may amplify impact which may make the plantar fascia as well as the lower leg muscles work harder in attenuating shock.

What more can a strong foot do in addition to driving a significant amount of balance control and helping bring down impact during running? Strong feet may offer more pronatory support than overpronation stability running shoes. Further evidence by Miller et al. (2001) found when the foot’s ligaments are strong, they provide enough passive support to help keep pronation within a safe range as well as maintain the structural integrity of the foot, suggesting that a stronger foot may be fully able to 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 that the foot’s intrinsic muscle activity largely depends on the amount of ground sensory inputs infusing through the bottom of the feet as these sensory inputs activate a range of plantar (foot) nerve cells that switches on a range of responses within the foot, including intrinsic muscle activity.

If you follow the evidence, you’ll notice that there’s enough data showing that walking and running barefoot seems to be the most effective means in providing the sensory richness necessary for optimal intrinsic muscle activity responses throughout the foot. What this means is that the real potential to promote a natural rebuilding of a stronger, more capable foot is with increasing your barefoot activity indoors and outdoors as its proven to have stronger influence on meeting the sensory needs of the feet to help you have more enhanced plantar muscle activity as compared with thick cushioned stability footwear.

  • Part of the optimized sensory richness when barefooting includes direct deformation of the plantar surface which is directly tied to immediate increases in plantar muscle activity whereas thick soles of a stability shoe blocks direct deformation of the plantar surface, rendering the plantar sensory nerves 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 bottom of the bare foot which is essential for stronger activation of the pressure and mechanoreceptors that line the bottom of the feet. This specific type of ongoing sensory engagement helps you have more enhanced intrinsic muscle activity switched on throughout the foot which was found to be one of the best ways to get immediate improvements in foot strengthen. From this, when your feet are strong, your stability is strong and when your stability is strong, your chances of injury could decrease.

The Take Home Message

Because the foot can develop its own motion control protections and improve pronatonary abnormalities through barefoot running and walking, is why I always suggest to make barefooting a more common practice for yourself. 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 or these shoes can restrict natural foot pronatory patterns, pushing the kinetic chain from the natural order up the leg. 


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.


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.

If you’d like, you can support Run Forefoot and help keep it going strong by making a donation in any amount of your choosing: https://www.paypal.me/RunForefoot

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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