Can Your Running Shoe Save Your Joints?
It’s an age-old discussion: Does the equipment you use have a significant impact on your athletic performance? We’ve seen golfers blame or praise their clubs, cyclists tweaking their bike tires’ PSI by single digits, and skiers texturing their skis by miniscule millimeters to improve speed.
That may make some sense when you are talking about actual equipment, but does footwear actually make a difference when it comes to running? Shoe manufacturers are, of course, heavily invested in convincing you that their trainers can increase both speed and finesse. In fact, Nike is determined to make a shoe that can help elite runners break the two-hour marathon record.1
\While this remains up for debate, there is the very real question of your running shoes’ impact on your joints. Does the amount of cushioning have an impact? Does it matter if you pronate or supinate? And what about barefoot running, and the claim that your gait is altered for the worse when you run with shoes on versus unclad.2
To answer these questions and more, researchers put 35 runners to the test to determine what role your shoes ultimately play when it comes to your gait and, more importantly, your joints.
A Shoe By Any Other Name
In a study published by the American College of Sports Medicine, researchers set out to determine how different shoes (or no shoes at all) affected joint mechanics in groups of runners as well as individual runners.3 They looked at three-dimensional images of both knees and ankles of 35 runners wearing barefoot and while wearing three different types of running shoes.
Researchers noted differences between running shoes/barefoot, as well as the percentage of individuals who exhibited less than a 2-, 3-, and/or 5-degree threshold difference in knee and/or ankle motion with each shoe/barefoot option.
As it turns out, the biometrics spewed by shoe manufacturers is marketing hype. Researchers found that the motion of both ankle and knee joints were similar between all three shoe choices. While there was some difference in how the ankle flexed versus pointed (ankle dorsiflexion), as well as when the knee is bent (knee flexion) during a stride, 80 to 100 percent of runners maintained virtually the same joint motion (less than 3 degrees difference), regardless of running shoe.
There was one difference in movement and gait when runners were barefoot versus wearing a conventional running shoe. In this cases, both ankle extension and knee flexion differed by more than three degrees, causing researchers to note that the percentage of runners who maintained their gait depends on the magnitude of the change introduced by the footwear condition.
In other words, the greater the difference in cushioning (i.e. barefoot versus a traditional running shoe), the greater the percentage of people who saw their gait change. But when it comes to a shoe-by-shoe comparison, researchers found that runners tend to stay in their “preferred movement path,” regardless of what trainers they happen to be wearing.
Buy the Shoe, Not the Hype
If you are an elite, professional runner, then a 2-3 degree difference in joint motion may be relevant. But if you are just an average Joe or Jane who runs on the treadmill or does a few miles on the trail each week, then the so-called biometrics of your shoe appears to be more sales than substance.
Given this, when looking to buy a running shoe, there is really only three things to consider:
1. Does it fit your foot well?
2. Does it feel good when you run?
3. Will you actually use it?
Because while there the shoe and joint motion debate is mostly hype, there’s no question that you need to move those joints on a regular basis.
3. Nigg BM, et al. The Preferred Movement Path Paradigm: Influence of Running Shoes on Joint Movement. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2017 Aug;49(8):1641-8.
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