On the Perils of Padded Shoes

I’m a believer in Phil Maffetone‘s approach to aerobic training, which is basically that you should do most training at no more than 75% of your max heart rate.

This doesn’t mean I don’t ever do anaerobic work, or speedwork, or anything else that elevates your heart rate past that. I just default my aerobic training to that lowered maximum. It’s also similar to the 80/20 approach that Matt Fitzgerald vouches for.

Maffetone is also in that esoteric ‘do everything barefoot’ camp, and it’s a key reason the Primal Blueprint’s Mark Sisson aligned with his beliefs in writing Primal Endurance. I don’t subscribe to that mostly because I live in cities where soft ground is often littered with hidden sharp objects, many of which can be very dangerous. I’ll trade the benefits of barefoot running for the needed safety of wearing shoes during exercise, thanks.

But I bring up Maffetone to talk about this piece on shoes that I’ve long since had loaded on a browser tab for discussion. Much like how Sisson wrote his “I hate endurance training BUT if I were to train for a marathon…” piece, Maffetone is anti-shoes but here he writes a piece on what kind of shoes you should get if you need them.

I’m always a supporter of the “not my thing but here’s a good way to do it if you must” perspective. I like being open minded to different approaches, even when I have convincing reasons not to follow them. I know others will follow them, and long as no one’s getting hurt or killed in doing so we’re typically better off helping each other maximize those efforts.

But, as I do, I digress. Maffetone raises a good point about what I call “The Hoka One One Problem”: We like padded shoes, but they’re not good for us.

Let’s never mind the Gaia-esque notion that we should be connected to the ground. Yes, I will vouch for thinner soles and more-minimal footwear (though I won’t go 3oz, Vibram toe-shoes far on that: Again, I want soles to protect me from sharp objects among other things on the ground).

The reason uber-padded soles are not good for many runners is because they can create or exacerbate foot and posterior chain imbalances that can lead to injury problems. Any existing problems you have, the soles will mold to accommodate them and make the problem worse. The soles themselves can throw you out of balance and mold with your footprint into a position that creates an added imbalance.

This offsets the benefit of the 30K-60K cushioned steps they give you in a marathon.

Now, this key caveat: I’ve always been at least in average shape as a runner. Most of the people I’ve run with have been average to lean in size. If you’re a heavier runner, thicker shoe cushioning is probably beneficial and possibly essential for you. Your legs, feet and posterior chain probably take more pressure running several miles than the legs of someone substantially lighter. Your feet benefit substantially more from heavily padded shoes than others.

If you’re working on losing a bunch of weight, or you just run at Clydesdale/Athena class, then I don’t fault your decision to wear Hokas, Nike, Brooks, or other thicker-sole shoes. It’s probably a good idea… and you can worry about the below advice if/when you get to a lower weight and want to step up your running.

Meanwhile, for other runners who may be average or leaner size… you don’t need the padding. Of course, most of the Hoka disciples I know are rather thin. They could and should run in a lighter shoe, and probably work on their mechanics if they feel they need the padding to protect themselves. They really need to work on their form and training habits.

Of the shoes I have in rotation (which reminds me: My shoe collection post is due for an update), most are lightweight and have thinner soles. I’m now at the point where I even feel a cushioned difference in the lighter weight “speed shoes” or “racing flats” New Balance shoes I still have. I have a couple pairs of Skechers my folks got me as a gift a couple years ago.

Sometimes when I take brief runs in the cushioned in-soled GORun 600’s, my left knee begins to bother me a bit. I’m not doing anything mechanically different than any of the other runs I take in the neighborhood, and I’m not dealing with any injuries or nagging anything. Usually, within a few minutes I’m fine, and any exercise I do after that I’m totally fine.

What’s happening is the cushioning puts my posterior chain and feet in a different alignment than they are in my more minimalist Topos and Altras. This leads to various muscles, ligaments, ranges of motion being constricted. This is where the incidental pain comes from, before I make subtle in-run mechanical adjustments and then everything’s fine. (This is also one reason to do most of your runs easy: This becomes more difficult and dangerous if you’re running at a moderate or hard intensity)

If as an experienced and fairly well trained runner I’m experiencing these things, I can only imagine the ripple effect it’s having on everyday people and other runners. Their many injuries can be the products of all sorts of form issues, training mistakes, etc… but the further effect of thick soled shoes probably also piles onto their problems.

Now, does that mean you need to throw out your Hokas and Nikes and immediately go find some Xeros or Topos or Altras, etc? No, don’t do that right away. In fact, if you’re not used to running in minimalist gear and haven’t transitioned into using it, you could create another imbalance and potential injury problem.

As Maffetone recommends in the linked piece, and anyone really would recommend… whenever you get new footwear, you should dial back your training and spend a few weeks sampling the new shoes in easy runs where you and your body get used to the feel. Maffetone suggests a medium-sole transition pair, but personally when I first started running in Topos, I had no problem just running in the actual shoes on easy runs every other day or so. I got used to them in about a couple weeks, and they’re my shoe of choice today.

So, what makes a good minimal shoe?

I will say, when I first got picky about running footwear, I aimed for shoes with a listed weight less than 10oz. Today I aim for 8oz or lower, and many of the shoes I wear are in the 5-8oz range. These are considered rather lightweight in the shoe industry. They do make shoes lighter than that, but I’d only wear them as racing flats, a special shoe. I still want a modicum of support, and shoes in the 5-8oz range provide it.

Also, and this is another matter, but you want shoes to have a minimal “drop”, meaning the height of the sole at the heel is not much higher than the height of the front of the shoe. Since our feet have zero drop when flat on the ground, an ideal shoe matches that drop as close as reasonably possible. A lot of posture and form problems are actually a byproduct of the elevated heel in people’s shoes.

Running with a low-drop or no-drop is closer to the experience of running barefoot and is more consistent with your natural posterior chain biomechanics. You run more naturally, plus you feel a more natural connection with the ground as you walk and run. And I certainly don’t get lower body injuries anymore since I made the switch.

Most shoes have a drop over 10mm, which doesn’t seem like much but actually has a marked effect. The highest drop I have in any shoe I have is 8mm, and at this point I even consider that kind of high and do feel a difference. Topos tend to have a 3-5mm drop, and some models have zero drop (0mm). Since I usually wear Topos, that’s the drop I’m used to, which is why I feel the difference at 8mm. Much like The Princess And The Pea, you will notice the difference after going to low/no drop.

Beyond that, things like how the shoe feels, not being too tight, having room in the toe box (a constricted toe-box is what leads to busted toenails, bunions, etc), are worth considering. But the big items to consider are overall weight and the drop.

The one time I will go heavier is with trail shoes, where the emphasis is on avoiding slippage and protecting the foot from rougher terrain… and rain shoes. Very few shoe models will keep your feet from getting wet in rainy or otherwise wet conditions.

This is when I will sacrifice drop and weight and go heavier on a shoe. The Topo Hydroventures are closer to 10oz and feel very heavy for me to run in, because the sole has a rock-plate for trail running and that gives the sole an unusually heavy feel. But their benefit is they’re among the few shoes that will keep your feet dry in most rain. I’ve only gotten my feet wet when stepping into deep puddles that splashed over the top lip of the shoe.

I’ve got things to do, so I will cut this little treatise on footwear short for now. I invite you to give the Maffetone piece a read and form some ideas of your own. I’ll probably have more to say on shoes sometime down the road.

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