It turns out that the most padded shoe may not be the best shoe for runners!

When you need a new running shoe, you've got choices. Do you want a minimalist sneaker? These are shoes with almost no padding. They make it feel like you're running barefoot. Their only job is to protect your soles from dirt and road debris. 

Or, do you prefer a maximalist shoe? These are the SUPER padded sneakers like Hoka One One. Some runners swear these shoes are their running injury solution! And, more recently, fashion lovers have also embraced these chunky shoes, as something called the "dad sneaker" took over street style everywhere. 

Finally, are you just a regular sneaker lover? You've still got tough choices! Do you want Ultraboost padding? Prefer a Nike Air Unit? Maybe foam cushioning is your best bet? I get it: this is one tough decision! 

But, as your Houston running doctor, I'm here to help. I'm going to walk you through some rules for buying running shoes. Making your next shopping trip a little easier. 


The Problem with Maximal Running Shoes Running orthotics are a great alternative to maximalist sneakers

Cushioning absorbs the shock of the street when you run. So it would seem like having more would be better, right? That's what many HOKA fans believe. And it's why 8-time marathoner Hayley Cashdollar recently told, “I also took the plunge and found they were perfect for my recovery runs on the day after long runs. They were like running on clouds and were noticeably more comfortable on my feet. I’m not looking for that type of comfort on all of my runs, but it has a time and place and HOKAs are a great recovery tool for me personally.”  

Unfortunately, her feelings can't actually be backed by science! A study in The Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine proved that maximal running shoes put more pressure on your body. And that means they increase your risk of injury!

How could that be, you're asking? I'll tell you. Maximal running have so much extra cushioning. A lot of which ends up in your sneaker's forefoot. And it seems like this placement could be the problem. Because when you lift the front of your foot, it changes the way you run (your gait.)

That's what this study reveals. FORCE Lab researchers studied 15 female runners. They wore neutral sneakers and maximal sneakers. And the scientists had them run 3 miles on a tread mill in each pair.  

Their goal? To see how much impact hit the runners' feet and legs in each pair.  So, each woman ran those 3 miles in a 'neutral' running shoe (s the New Balance 880). Then, seven to 10-days later, she did the same run in a 'maximal' shoe (Hoka One One Bondi 4). In each test, scientists studied how the women moved. And how much force hit their feet when they ran over a special recording device.

At the end of the study, the researchers were surprised. When wearing the Hoka shoes, more force hit the runners' feet and  legs. Which meant their risk for injuries like plantar fasciitis and stress fractures increased.

FORCE Lab director Christine Pollard said, "We were surprised by these results. We thought we would see the opposite..." She offered a thought about why the maximal running shoes were a problem. You can't feel the road in maximal running shoes. So you don't adjust your gait (running stride) even if it's causing pain. Instead, you rely on shoe cushioning to get rid of the problem. And that could spell bad news for your feet. 

The Other Side of the Coin: Could Shoe Cushioning Prevent Running Injuries? 

I just quoted one study saying that maximalist shoes increase your risk for running injuries. But, as with all things running, not everyone agrees. In fact, a new European Journal of Sport Science study suggested that extra cushioning decreased runner's injury risk. What gives? There was a catch.

When the cushioning was firm, runners were 52% more likely to get hurt. Yet, when the sneakers had soft foam cushioning, their injury risk decreased dramatically. And that was true, even though the cushioning made their heel strike noticeably harder! 

How could that be? The answer lies in biomechanics. This tells us that you have two impacts to worry about when you train. The first is the slow down in your lower leg when your foot hits the ground. And the second?  That's the force that hits the rest of your body. This matters when it comes to foam cushioning. Because the study found that soft foam cushioning spread out the force of the first impact. As a result, it spread out more across your whole body. That reduces the force on any one body part, and could help prevent an overuse injury like shin splints.  

Maximalist Sneakers for Non Runners

While your favorite Hoka sneakers may need to stay in the closet when you run, these ultra-padded shoes could be great when you walk. They may also be a good choice for people who spend much of the day on their feet, like teachers, cleaners or retail workers. Thanks to the added cushioning in the soles, the shoes offer plenty of support and added shock apsorption. Together, that can help relieve the foot pain often associated with these demanding jobs. 

Now, that applies to all maximalist sneakers. But, for people with wide feet, the Hoka One One offers an extra bonus. It's got a wider toe box! What does that mean for those of us with broader foot prints? You're less likely to experience toe pinching or crowding. Which means your risk for bunions or ingrown toenails will decrease. 

What About Minimalist Sneakers? 

Have you seen people running in Vibram Five Fingers? Have you wondered if that style is for you? Let's talk about these shoes! Or actually, let's knock these out of the running. I used to get involved in the barefoot running debate. And I'm sure there are some advantages. Just like you, I've seen runners winning marathons without shoes. 

But when it comes to minimalist running shoes? It's pretty clear they can't deliver on their promises. Vibram sold these shoes claiming they made your lower leg and foot muscles stronger. They said your range of motion would improve in the toes feet and ankles. And that your body would move more naturally, among other promises. 

Unfortunately, science couldn't prove those claims. And they lost a multi-million dollar law suit. So, I'm not here to tell you barefoot and minimal running can't work. I beg you to do your research, always listening to your body as well. 


Variations in Neutral Sneakers The first running shoes rule is that cushioning should feel good

Alright, we're finally in the regular sneaker section of this post. Which is where most of you already shop, I'm guessing. I know there's lots of choices in sneaker padding. Fancy different names. Different sole heights and all that. So how the heck do you know what's best? 

You ask your Houston running podiatrist, of course! Here's my basic rule. First, your sneakers have to feel good the first time you wear them. NO breaking in, please. 

Next, the more padding in your shoe, the better. Unless, of course, that cushioning changes your body biomechanics (your natural movements.) How the heck can you know that? 

The answer is: by knowing how your body naturally moves. And I can help with that! In my office, I offer a gait analysis. That's a fancy way of saying I watch how your whole body move. It's like a map of your body. legs and feet. What they naturally do when you stand, walk and run. It helps me understand where you may need more support. And where you can get away with less. 

That's why a gait analysis is always part of my custom orthotic fittings. When I make these supports for your body, I need to know exactly where you need support. So that when you put those orthotics in your shoes, they help prevent heel pain and other injuries. 

In other words, if you want to find the "Goldilocks" of running shoe cushioning, you need my help. The only way to get just enough, but not too much, is to understand your body. Ready to feel better while you run? Let's get you scheduled for an in-office gait analyis! After we're done, I'll give you the "map" of how your body runs. And I'm happy to help you pick out a properly cushioned sneaker. So come in today. It's the first step to moving past sneakers that hurt you, instead of protecting you while you run! 

Dr. Andrew Schneider
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A podiatrist and foot surgeon in Houston, TX.