Web Workshop: How To Choose Running Shoes

Thanks so much for having me, guys. This talk today is a small part of something that came out of our frustration that there are so many different running shoes,  so many different brands, so many different sponsors for all of that. How do we make sense of it? And so we kind of talked about let’s get back to the basics. My name is Rita Chorba, I’m a physical therapist and athletic trainer, and I’ve been in the field for about 15 years. I started out  working with runners at the University of Arizona, and they taught me a lot about really high-level, elite-level running. And then for the last several years, I’ve been working as a civilian for the military. 

So what we want to talk about today is the anatomy of a good running shoe to avoid shoe-related foot pain, and there’s a couple of things we want to talk about: the shape of the shoe, the toe break, and the heel counter. So I’m going to show you what those things are on a shoe, I will show you how to test it on your own shoe, I’ll show you a couple of ideas of what’s maybe not so good and what is good. And then, if there’s a problem with that component of a shoe, what kind of injuries you could have, just a general touching on a couple of those things.

– Web Workshop Transcript –

1:09 – Shoe Size and Shape

Now, the first thing we want to talk about is the size of a shoe and your shoe size. A lot of people have figured it out just from trial and error, and most shoe stores have something called a Brannock device. You can Google it, it’s that weird metal thing that you put your foot in, and if you have that available at whatever shoe store you’re at, you can Google how to do it, or you can have a professional, of course, fit you and that’s always good. Another way about the size of the shoe is easy, it’s just to take your thumb and put your thumb at the end of your toe on top of the shoe when you have it on, and make sure you have at least a thumb’s width between the end of your toe and the end of the shoe. 

Okay, now that’s all we’re going to say about size because a lot of times people will get a shoe size and it’s really the wrong shape or the wrong width, so let’s talk about that part next, alright? So the first thing of the anatomy we’re talking about is the sole shape. I’m going to show you the bottom of this shoe here, just a basic running shoe, the sole shape, and in general, you’re looking for a shoe that’s going to be the shape of your foot. And that’s a little bit hard to do because with all the designs and all the different tread, but some people’s feet are shaped like a “C,” some people’s feet are narrow and skinny, and some are really wide and square. And so the little trick that we’ve learned to make sure that the sole shape is right for your foot is really just to take the liner out of the shoe.Take that liner[s] out of your shoe, put both down on the ground, and just stand on them, just check the liner and see if your foot lines up with the edges of the liner of the shoe. 

Okay, if you have toes that are spilling over, your heels spilling over, that spillage, that’s a non-starter because that means that your foot’s falling over the side of the shoe or that your foot’s going to be cramped inside of the shoe. So the sole shape really means to check the liner to make sure it’s the right width and right shape for your foot. If your foot is shaped more like the letter “C,” then having a liner that’s more curved may be right for you. But if you have a straighter foot or a wider foot, make sure that the liner represents what your footprint looks like. 

Okay, so that’s the first part. Now, if the shape of the shoe, and really that means width, a lot of times that’s width, if the width is too narrow for you, some of the injuries that you can get are these things on your toes called corns and bunions, they’re buildups of tissue, you can get ingrown toenails, and you can also get something called metatarsalgia, and that’s just the name metatars (the bones), and algia (pain), pain with the bones in your foot because they’re being squished together too much. So those are some of the things you can have if the sole shape is not right for you.  

So sole shape is number one for the anatomy, check the liner, just stand on it and just see if your foot fits the shape of the liner of the shoe. If it doesn’t, your foot’s probably going to be working against that shoe for you to perform, and if you fall over the sides, that’s a non-starter, so you might need to look for a model of shoe that allows you to buy a wide versus making the shoe longer with the size.

4:32 – Toe Break

Now the second part we want to talk about is the toe break. The toe break is the area of the shoe where it bends. Along the bottom and on this shoe, you can see that it bends at about one-fourth of the way along the shoe. Okay, so that’s called the toe break. Toe break’s really important because we would like the shoe to bend naturally where your own foot does. I’m going to show you two different shoes that don’t bend well. Here’s a flip-flop. Okay, if I push this together, it bends right in the middle. So we’ve kind of termed that the sliding doors technique. If you take a shoe, even a brand new shoe, it should have some bend, and you push your hands straight together, not up or down but just straight across, see where that bend point is. And if it’s in the middle of the shoe or anywhere away from where the base of your big toe is, you’re going to be in trouble. So this one bends where my toe does. I’m not going to be working against that. 

Alright, if I take this flip-flop, which obviously nobody would want to run in, there are some running shoes out there that do collapse right in the middle. That may be okay for some people’s feet, but it’s just not a good standard practice for most running shoes that you want to put distance on. Conversely, another one would be like a boot. So a boot, if I try to do sliding doors, it barely bends at all. Okay, and that’s alright because the bottom of the boot is designed for protection. It’s not designed for a lot of push-off. You’ve got to protect from rocks and glass and all that, so it’s not going to bend very much. 

Okay, so toe break, sliding doors, put your hands together, try to squish the shoe, and make sure the shoe bends where your toes bend. If the toe break isn’t right, some of the things that people have are shifting forces injuries, things that are shifting forces from the front of the foot to the back. So some of those things we see are plantar fasciitis, heel problems, and sometimes even stress fractures because your foot then has to bend in an area that’s not natural for it.

6:47 – Heel Counter

The third one we want to talk about is the heel counter. So the heel counter, also called the heel cup, is the area in the back of the shoe that holds your foot to the shoe. Now, a lot of shoes in the past, soccer shoes, Sambas, athletic shoes, they were made of leather. But a lot of running shoes, it’s a plastic cup inside, and you can know that because if you squeeze the back, it’ll be a little bit firm. A shoe like a Chuck Taylor, a real flat canvas shoe, isn’t going to have much of a heel counter, and that’s okay because they’re not designed for running. But if you don’t have a good heel counter, you’re not going to be able to secure that shoe onto your foot, and the lacing is really important because the lacing at the top of the ankle needs to come back and kind of hang onto your foot right at that spot on the heel. So the heel counter is going to be really important.

Now, a test for the heel counter is going to be finger pinch. So using a little bit of force, you’re not going to crush your shoe, but using a little bit of force, you want to take your fingers and try to collapse the back of the heel. Okay, so I’m just trying to put my fingers together. I’m trying to collapse that heel, and this one I have trouble doing. Now, I wanted to show you this shoe. This is a shoe I run in, but the model right beforehand of the same brand, they had changed it to make it look a little bit more modern, a little bit more flashy. The problem is it collapses right down. And it’s interesting because this model of the shoe didn’t really stay on the market more than maybe six or eight months before they already had  the new version out. And I think the biggest complaint was because of this heel counter, that it would just collapse because people then weren’t able to keep their heel in place on the shoe. Their foot was sliding around, causing them problems. So here’s the model before, and then they went right back to Old Reliable, can’t bend it. So the heel counter, okay?

So the biggest thing with the heel counter is if it’s not in good shape, you’re gonna get sliding forces. So sliding forces are going to cause things like blisters, Achilles tendinitis, and a long word, retrocalcaneal bursitis. I don’t see that a lot. It’s not as common as some of the runners I have, but the ones I have seen it in have all had a problem with the heel counter, that their foot’s been sliding around too much inside of the shoe.

9:15 – Conclusions about Shoe Anatomy

The big three parts of the anatomy of the shoe are the sole shape, the toe break, and the heel counter. And if you can get those three things right, a lot of other issues with shoes really become more about performance or aesthetics or just comfort. You don’t have to worry so much that the shoe is working against you if you have those three things in place.

Now, some people might say, ‘Well, that’s a traditional shoe, right? So it’s going to have a lot more robustness to a lot of those things.’ But nowadays, even more minimal shoes, maybe that are more responsive for performance or lighter, people feel better in a lighter shoe. Not everybody can wear a minimal shoe. I can’t for distance. But I have found a minimal shoe here where if you look at some of the things, I don’t have the liner in it. It doesn’t come with a liner that I can take out, but it’s got a pretty decent almost triangular shape to the foot. So it’s pretty wide on the shape, so a lot of people’s feet will do well on the bottom of this shoe.

The other thing that it has is toe break. So if I bend it, even with it being so flexible and I could really squish it in a lot of different ways, this shoe, when I do the sliding doors test, it does break at the toe. Its most flexible spot is at the place that the shoe should be. And then again, even though this is a really minimal, light shoe, the heel counter, I can’t really bend the back of the heel too much. So we can be sure that the foot is going to be seated really well on the heel. It’s not going to be sliding around. So I encourage you, when you’re looking for a shoe, whether you’re looking for more cushion or more support or something that’s lighter, more performance-based, or more minimal, depending on what works for you, always look for those three things.”

Question and Answers

11:07 – How to Determine Personal Toe Break?

There is actually that Brannock device, and it will check the arch length for you. It is eyeballing it, but one thing that’s interesting is that if you can get two shoes of the same size, this is where it becomes a little more technical. You’ve got to have the time and your notebook ready. But if you go to the shoe store and you get that Brannock device, that metal device that you put your foot in, it actually has two measurements. It has one for the length of the shoe, which is the size, but it also has another slider that will let you check the arch length.

It’s really interesting for me because my left foot is smaller than my right. It’s shorter than my right, but my left arch is longer than my right. So my left foot is shorter with a longer arch, and my right foot is longer with a shorter arch. I would recommend that if you’re not sure if this is an issue with your shoe, again, we want the basics. We just want it to bend here. We don’t want it to bend right in the middle, and some of them do. Some of the very, very light foam ones do. They will bend right in the middle, and that can be fatiguing for people. It can cause more cramping in the bottom of the foot and some plantar fascia issues.

Sometimes another way to eyeball it is if you take a brand new shoe on concrete and you just push it at like a 30 to 45-degree angle, kind of where you’re almost, you know, we don’t want to say your absolute toe-off because no one’s going to push like this on steady-state distance running. But if it was like a 30 to 45-degree angle and just push, put a line where you see it start to bend, put a little mark there, a little piece of tape if you’re in a shoe store with brand new shoes. And then, yeah, you could stand right next to the shoe and just see, eyeball if the ball of your big toe joint does line up with that spot.

12:55 – Maximal vs. Minimal Shoes?

We would say if you have a lot of foot problems, if you’ve been diagnosed by somebody or have a lot of foot pain, and we’re pretty sure that it’s a foot problem, you probably need a little bit more cushion under your foot because you may not be safe otherwise for that foot to hit the ground. Conversely, if you have knee pain, hip pain, back pain, and you want to get it looked at to make sure it’s not a you problem, make sure it’s a shoe problem, not a you problem. But if that’s what it is and there’s nothing you can do to fix that, maybe a more minimal shoe where your foot has to do more of the work can help with that, so your knee and hip don’t have to do as much.”

13:37 – You Problem vs. Shoe Problem?

And so a lot of times what we need to do is if someone’s been having problems, especially if you’ve tried multiple shoes, if you’ve just tried one shoe, then maybe it’s the shoe, it’s not you. But if you’ve tried multiple different shoes, and maybe you’ve run the gamut of minimal to maximal that we’re talking about, and you’re still having pain, we need to find out if it’s a you problem. Maybe it’s something that’s not moving well, maybe it’s something that’s not strong or imbalanced, or maybe it’s your training program, too much too soon or not enough exposure.

14:09 – Shoes with a Carbon Plate?

Full disclosure, I’m still new to that as well. I’ve read more of the research than I’ve worked with people who have actually purchased them, so I can only go based on the academic more than the with clients. However, from the research I’ve read, they are legitimate. They can improve, but it’s in percentages. It’s for small percentages, so you need to prove to me that you’re that good of a runner to be able to earn those extra few.

I’ll give you an example. When they were talking about minimal and maximalist shoes back 10 or 15 years ago, when I was working with college athletes, they would say, ‘Well, how big of a stack height do we want, right? How much?’ And there was some research that came out that said about a centimeter, if you have a centimeter of cushion, that is your sweet spot for running because it’ll keep your foot protected, so you don’t feel like you’re always breaking. Like it’s not this safety feature where you’re afraid your foot’s going to get hurt because that’s inefficient running. Barefoot for some, for most people, is actually less efficient. But a centimeter of cushion gives you an enhancement, and then beyond that, the weight of the shoe, each ounce after that, was reducing your running efficiency by like six percent.

Okay, so some of the runners I was working with said, ‘Oh, it’s reducing me by six percent,’ but if your mile pace isn’t very good anyway, or if you’re not able to get into your long runs, as an example, to really get those miles on you, those small little percentages of performance enhancement (from a shoe) aren’t going to be valuable to you. However, for a professional runner, where those seconds matter, those percentages matter, then absolutely. I think we see that across disciplines. People are always trying to wear different lifting shoes to lift more weight. They’re trying to do other things to run faster and everything, and that’s wonderful. But those athletes, there’s value to that because the amount that you can improve when you’re already so close to the top of your performance level is in small percentages. So that’s when small percentages matter.

So I would just say make sure that you have the other foundational components first. You’re moving well, you’re strong, you’re a good runner with a good program, and you put the miles and the time and the cycles in to do those things. And then, if you need that boost from equipment, then absolutely, that’s the time to use it.”

16:37 – Shoe Drop?

I think about it more in terms of injury. Are we trying to offload certain parts of the foot? For example, me as a runner, I have a very, very flat foot, a very flexible flat foot. I was born that way. My left one’s much flatter than the right, and it’s just the way my foot is shaped. I’ve checked all of my range of motion, my strength. I did a lot of barefoot running in the grass, a lot of sprints. I was a track athlete myself, but my foot is just shaped really flat, and it collapses in just standing. I need a heel-to-toe offset just to create kind of a better structure for my foot to run. So I’m someone that’s never going to be a flat drop person. I need more of a heel, but I haven’t found it to change me in terms of performance like the weight of the shoe or anything like that. I really found that the heel-to-toe offset is a great conversation to have if you have pain. The higher the ramp (of the shoe)  is, the more pressure it puts on the front of those injuries. So those folks may need to be a little bit flatter. So folks with plantar fasciitis, more back of the foot issues, sometimes we actually do a little bit better by putting more of the force towards the front and a little bit less on the back of the heel.

17:48 – Barefoot Running Philosophy?

As someone who tried to do minimalist for 14 months when I already had a master’s degree and I was working with professional runners and failed, I feel like this is a great question for me because I wanted to get into less arch supports, I wanted less things. I got my feet strong and all that, and I got down to less shoe, again, that line that I said before, the least amount of shoe you can safely wear. And I got pretty close, but as a runner, I could never get barefoot, and there’s one reason I think we need to remember, and this is just biology.

Fascia, the connective tissues in your body, take up to nine months to adapt, and that’s a perfectly healthy person. Nine months to fully adapt to become strong, rigid tissues in the lines of force with which you’re applying. So fascia, the connective binding, takes six to nine months in a perfectly healthy person, and in reality, a lot of folks are not on their feet all day long and doing the small things that they would need to do to fix their arches. If we were dancers, if we were on natural surfaces, variable surfaces all the time, we would be able to be progressive and do those things to get the feet strong and allow them the time to adapt. 

The problem is, and I’m not saying for everybody, but a lot of runners are doing something else for eight to ten hours of their day. They may be in a different kind of shoe or restrictive shoe. They may be sitting or sedentary. They’re not running, or they’ve been on their feet all day long in a job where they have to stand continuously for long periods of time. So now they’re already fatigued. They’ve already fatigued out their arches, and then they go run afterward.

So I would still go with the least amount of shoe that you can safely wear right now and also realistically wear right now. I think that’s valid. I think that’s great. I think having the feet more free is always something that I aspire to, even though I’ve never been able to qualify to go full barefoot. I think it’s a wonderful thing. But we have to remember that the connective tissues, the mechanics of the foot, it can take nine months to adapt, even in perfect conditions, and that a lot of us are not in those lifestyles where we can do those progressive things that we need to do every single day to make that success. So those would just be my cautions that way.”

20:12 – How to Determine ‘Least Amount of Shoe’ that is Safe?

That one centimeter because I didn’t have an answer, we didn’t know, so I said I want you to get a shoe that has one centimeter of cushion, one centimeter cushion that has a good toe break, that the width of the liner fits your foot, and has a good heel counter. And I want you to get a good running program, again, that’s part of it. I want you to have flexible ankles, to pass my tests once you have flexible ankles, good hamstrings, good core. I want you to get on a program, and I want you to do it for two or three months. And if it’s working for you and you’re making improvements, and you want to go in less shoe, then I say go for it. That’s what I’ve been doing the last couple years. It’s not a perfect answer. 

I will say that one centimeter of stack height has been my starting baseline to see on a shoe, the three components of anatomy, and then one centimeter of thickness. And again, that’s just because of that original research when I was first starting working with runners that I learned that that was kind of that sweet spot. Thomas Michaud and a couple of the other foot researchers and human locomotion people have said. Another the Tarahumara that would run around in rubber soles, and some of the other indigenous folks that would actually cut old tires and create sandals that way, they were still about one centimeter of thickness, so it seemed like that number kind of checked out. So that’s what I would say. Give it a centimeter, make sure you have the right size, the right shape, toe break, heel counter, get on a running program, do it for three months. If the program’s working for you and you want to go with less shoe, then go for it.

22:02 – Other Common Questions? Stack Height:

You know, I think the biggest one I’m getting these days is about the stack height, how much cushion. And that’s a really complicated thing to talk about because there are so many variables up and down the chain when your foot hits the ground, everything changes up through your hip, your spine, your core, and then back down. However, I think the research is starting to emerge now that we have gone, at least over the last 10 years, from very minimal shoes to very maximal shoes and then back down. One way to think about it, I learned this from the Canadian national track and field (sports medicine) team, is the least amount of shoes you can safely wear now. And when I first heard that, I thought, well, that means everyone’s in a barefoot shoe. No, no, that’s not true. The least amount of shoe, meaning if you have a foot problem, more likely than not, more stuff around your foot is probably a good idea. 

We’re finding that the more that you put around a foot, the bigger, the thicker the stack height, the more difficult it may be for your knees and hips and back and core to accommodate that. And they call it muscle tuning, basically. The thicker shoe is really good for helping to support and cushion the foot, but it can change the vibration up and down, and the other joints and body parts may not be on the same kind of timing with every step to adjust for that cushion. Then, if you have a very minimal shoe, we’ll say maybe back in the barefoot Vibram trend, where a lot of people were wearing no cushion at all, that’s going to put a ton of force on your feet. Your feet are taking all of the load. Your cushions, your fat pads, whether you like it or not, you got fat pads in your foot, and they have an expiration date. We don’t have good science to replace the fat pads under your toes or in your heels. We certainly don’t have those great fat pads like cats and dogs do, that they’re on every day. So the less shoe that you have, the less cushion, you’re going to put more stress on your foot. But, because your foot has to do more, you’ll take a little bit less stress on your knees and your hips.”

24:12 – Final Advice:

The biggest thing I would say is that people need to be running more than they need to be worrying about shoes. My problem, it may not be your group, but with soldiers, the weekend warrior is absolutely real. I didn’t have time during the week, so I’m going to get all my mileage in on the weekend. It doesn’t work like that. You need to be running, maybe less volume, maybe 10-20 minutes twice a day, multiple days per week. I’d rather people run more often and put more running on their legs to see where they’re at and then play with shoes.

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