How to Find the Right Exercise Shoe
The truth about three common athletic shoe myths—and what makes a good running or workout shoe.
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On Friday, we covered my favorite budget home gyms at three different price points.
The $79 Home Gym
The $181.50 Home Gym
The $462.50 Home Gym
The $462.50 setup was the exact same I used to train for my 33 days in the Arctic. Read the budget home gyms post
But we didn’t touch on one critical piece of gear: Shoes.
The right shoes can help you perform better and avoid injuries, while the wrong ones can do the opposite.
Unfortunately, flashy marketing often pushes us into the wrong ones. Or confuses us about what features we should care about in a shoe.
Workout shoes have been swept up in trends and complex ideas that don’t actually help us.
Today is part one of a series on athletic shoes. It’ll cover:
The roller coaster of exercise shoe trends (to understand where we are, it helps to understand where we were).
The truth about foot strike patterns (how your foot hits the ground).
Whether drop matters (the difference between the heel and toe height).
Whether foot movement (pronation and supination) matters.
What 50 years of research has shown us about finding the right shoe.
General advice for finding the right shoe.
Wednesday’s post will cover:
The importance of seeing shoes as tools.
What human prehistory can tell us about shoes today.
Thoughts on rucking shoes.
The shoes I use for different workouts (e.g., road running vs. trail running, lifting, rucking, etc).
This is a long post. If you want to save time and just want the takeaways, here they are:
Try different shoes and pick those that are most comfortable.
Most people do best with some level of support and cushion (i.e., not “minimalist”) and a drop between 5 and 10mm.
Training approach impacts your performance and injury rate more than shoes.
Now let’s dive into the details …
The roller coaster of exercise shoe trends
Athletic shoes get caught up in trends. The good part of these trends is that they allow us to experiment and find what does or doesn’t work for us. The bad part: Injury is how we often find what doesn’t work for us.
Shoes emerged at least 150,000 years ago. For most of time, they were basic foot wraps made of leather or plants.
Shoes evolved slowly. Even just ~70 years ago, Roger Banister broke the 4-minute mile in these shoes:
The jogging (shoe) boom
Then jogging boomed in the 1970s. Nike and other brands began creating shoes with more support and cushion between the runner and the road.
New runners climbed aboard. The shoes worked great for many of those people, while others got injured.
But the running injuries probably had less to do with the shoes and more to do with the running itself.
For example, Benno Nigg—one of the world’s top biomechanists who has studied athletic shoes and sports injuries since the late 1970s—estimates that 80 percent of running injuries are due to bad training. The main culprit: Too many miles too soon.
The minimalist shoe boom
Injured runners and popular books and articles eventually blamed running injuries on running shoes and their cushioning.
The argument was that people were born to run barefoot or in thin leather moccasins or sandals. Cushioning and support was “unnatural” and causing injuries.
In turn, the shoe industry over-corrected. More people began running in minimalist shoes. These shoes had flat soles and mimicked wearing no shoes at all.
History repeated: The shoes worked great for many people while others got injured. Again, for reasons not usually due to the shoes.
The maximalist shoe boom
When the new minimalist approach led many to get injured, the industry overcorrected again.
We then got “maximalist” shoes. These put a thick layer of foam between the runner and the road or trail.
The brand Hoka One One, for example, was a pioneer in the maximalist shoe trend. They were founded in 2009 and now brings in $1.4 billion in revenue.
History again repeated. The maximalist shoes work great for some and not others.
Training shoes were swept up too
The same happened with training shoes, shoes you’d use for a weights-based gym or circuit workout.
Until the late 1980s, many lifters wore whatever they had in the closet—Keds, Vans, Chuck Taylors, or no shoes. The first cross-training shoe dropped in the late 1980s.
Like running shoes, these shoes morphed in line with running-shoe trends—going from something in the middle to minimalist.
Trends: The good and bad
The upside of trends is that we can experiment and learn what works for us as we get swept up in them.
The downside of trends, especially fitness trends, is that we also learn what doesn’t work for us—and that learning process can come through pain and injury.
Let’s assume Nigg is correct and that 80 percent of injuries are due to bad training. The “too much too soon” phenomenon.
We can likely avoid 80 percent of injuries if we ease into exercise.
We have another 20 percent we can control by picking smart shoes.
So then the question is, how do we pick the right shoe?
To do this, let’s unpack some popular theories about shoes and injuries.
The truth about foot strike
Foot strike patterns don’t seem to impact injury rates as much as we’ve been told.
Proponents of minimalist shoes argued that cushioned running shoes changed our foot-strike pattern. This, they said, is why runners get injured.
Foot strike pattern is how your foot lands on the ground when you walk, run, or ruck. For example:
Heel-striking is when you hit the ground with your heel first.
Midfoot striking is when your foot lands flat on the ground.
Forefoot striking is when the front of your foot lands first.
The minimalists argued that cushioned shoes lead people to heel strike. And heel striking, they claimed, was causing injuries. By switching to minimalist shoes and midfoot or forefoot striking, they claimed, we’d all be fast and injury-free.
But the data suggest it doesn’t matter how your foot strikes the ground. One review of the research found:
There is a very low level of evidence to suggest a relationship between (foot strike) and (running injuries).
This is also shown in the real world. For example, scientists at BYU analyzed the foot-strike patterns of the US’s top 10k runners during a race. They found:
Some landed on their forefoot, others on their heel, and all had different degrees of (foot movement).
Their performance and injury rates didn’t differ significantly.
Another study analyzed ~150 professional marathon runners during a world championship race.
About half of men and two-thirds of women struck the road with their heel first.
The rest struck with their midfoot.
What’s more, some runners’ striking patterns changed across the race—a quarter of the male racers started the race with a midfoot strike and ended with a rear-foot strike.
The takeaway: There isn’t one “correct” way your foot should land when you run. Experiment with different strike patterns to learn what works best for you. But remember to ease in!
Does drop matter?
Try different heel drops and levels of support. Find what works for you. Error on the side of some drop and some support and cushioning rather than a purely minimalist shoe.
If you’ve done more than two minutes of research on athletic shoes, you’ve probably encountered the word “drop.”
Drop is a simple concept. It’s the difference between the height of the heel and toe area. For athletic shoes, it’s measured in millimeters.
Traditionally, most running and exercise shoes have had about a 10mm drop. But that changed in the mid-2000s, thanks to the minimalist shoe craze.
A popular idea in training circles evolved suggesting that we should all exercise barefoot or in zero-drop (flat) shoes. These shoes’ heels were the same height as their toe areas.
The argument for zero-drop was this:
Early humans covered great distances, carried, and lived barefoot or in thin leather moccasins. I.e., With no heel drop or support.
Barefoot/minimalist shoes would help us run how humans evolved to run, which would reduce injuries.
But when it comes to heel drop and athletic shoes in general, it’s useful to look beyond theories and to the real world. Let’s look at a sample of professional runners.
Here are the most common shoes among professional racers in the 2022 NYC Marathon:
Nike Vaporfly 2
Asics Metaspeed Sky
On Cloudboom Echo 3
Puma Fast-R Nitro Elit
The same follows for trail runners, although their shoes tend to have less drop (which may make sense for uneven terrain).
Here are the shoes worn by the top five men and women finishers of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc 172K, the most competitive ultramarathon in the world.
Salomon S-Lab Genesis
Hoka Tecton X
Decathlon Evadict MT Cushion 2
Hoka Speedgoat 5
On Cloud Ultra 2
Hoka Tecton X
The North Face Summit Vectiv Pro
Salomon S-Lab Genesis
Nike Ultrafly Trail
Dynafit Ultra 100
The shoes all have the following qualities:
Some amount of “support” and “cushion” (none are minimalist).
A drop of anywhere from 4 to 9.5mm.
What about pronation and supination?
Scientists used to think how your foot moves when it hits the ground (pronation and supination) was a key predictor of running injury. But new data suggests otherwise.
Pronation and supination are how your foot rolls and distributes forces when you land. Here’s what it looks like:
Scientists once considered pronation and supination a key risk factor for running and athletic injury risk.
If you pronated or supinated too much, the thinking went, you were at a higher risk of injury. Shoe companies even made special shoes for pronators and supinators.
But the studies backing the idea weren’t great. For example, the studies were small. Or they relied on surveys—basically asking injured runners why they think they got injured.
To get better data, Danish researchers recruited about 1,000 people who weren’t runners. They analyzed their gait and grouped them into five different pronation/supination categories.
Then they gave them all the same neutral running shoes and asked them to start running as a hobby.
After a year of tracking these new runners, the scientists wrote:
No significant differences in distance to first running-related injury were found between highly supinated, supinated, pronated and highly pronated feet when compared with neutral feet. In contrast, pronated feet sustained significantly fewer injuries per 1000 km of running than neutral feet.
The takeaway: Don’t worry about pronation and supination*.
So what should you care about? It’s simpler than you might think.
Use Comfort and Collective Wisdom
Comfort is an easy and effective way to find a good shoe. Start with a shoe with some level of support and heel drop.
Despite 50 years of shoe trends and ideas about what leads us to get injured, running injuries haven’t changed.
Nigg, the biomechanist and shoe expert, wrote a paper summarizing what he’d learned. He gave the following advice: Pick what’s comfortable.
He cited a handful of strong studies. Including this one: Scientists took ~210 soldiers. Half were issued athletic shoes and couldn’t alter the shoe.
The other half were issued the same athletic shoes but could pick the insole that felt most comfortable to them. The scientists then tracked the soldiers for four months.
Nigg explained the results like this:
The (comfortable insole) group had 53% fewer lower-extremity injuries than the control group. The only selection criterion for the insoles was the individual comfort.
Thus it seems that comfort of insoles is an important factor for injuries. We propose that comfort is important for all movement-related injuries to the lower extremities.
What you should do
Use comfort as your guide. Buy the most comfortable shoes for the job. This applies to running and training shoes.
To find those, look to collective wisdom. Most of those great marathoners and ultrarunners wore a shoe that:
Had some level of support/cushion (i.e., not minimalist)
Had a drop between 4 and 10mm
I ran this thought past Brady Holmer, an exercise physiologist who yesterday ran a 1:09:34 half marathon (that’s a 5:19 pace for 13.1 miles). He told me:
I think comfort is the most important thing to look for in a shoe—most other stuff is just marketing gimmicks.
Here’s a training shoe case study: I spoke to Paul Litchfield, head of shoe design at GORUCK. He was also the head of shoe design for Reebok for 30 years. He recently told me how he went about designing the GORUCK Ballistic Trainer.
“I made a flat, zero-drop version, a 4-millimeter drop version, and an 8-millimeter drop version,” says Litchfield. “Then I gave them all out to a bunch of people in the GORUCK community who work out in a functional fitness way. Some CrossFit people, but not all CrossFit people.”
Hands down, says Litchfield, “everyone liked the 8-millimeter drop. They felt most stable and comfortable in the gym and could also wear the shoes out of the gym and felt better. Biomechanics prevailed.”
Most of all: Ease into training—that’ll help you avoid most injuries.
Have fun, don’t die, wear comfortable shoes.
*Quick note from audio recording: In this study, the runners who were “highly pronated” did experience more injuries. But there were only 18 of those runners out of ~1,000 participants. I.e., There’s a 98% chance you don’t have to worry about this.
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