The Science of Rucking Shoes
Plus five great rucking shoes that'll work for anyone.
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On Monday and Wednesday of last week, we covered important details on athletic shoes.
Monday’s post covered three athletic shoe myths and helped you find the right running or workout shoe.
Wednesday’s post covered two topics: The truth about minimalist shoes—common misconceptions and incorrect narratives—and the shoes I use for different running and weight workouts.
Today’s post is a dive into rucking shoes.
This is an important topic. Once you toss weight on your back and cover distance, the rules of shoes change.
What rucking requires
Find a rucking shoe that has enough support—but not too much.
Common sense tells us that stabilizing more load requires more support.
For example, wider, longer bridges need bigger pillars and thicker cables. Much like lifting heavier weights requires more support from your muscles.
And so it follows for rucking.
Rucking requires supporting both your body weight and the weight of the ruck. The heavier the ruck or faster you move it, the more support you’ll need.
Our shoes alter how much support our feet and lower body have to provide. The more supportive your shoe, the less support has to come from your feet.
You can run into trouble if you ask your feet to do too much supportive work (especially too soon).
But the more supportive and overbuilt a shoe, the more energy it takes to walk in. For example:
Military researchers compared the differences between walking in burly military boots and standard running shoes.
They found that walking in burly boots took 6 to 9 percent more energy.
So, when rucking, you want to strike a balance between two things:
Having enough support to take strain off your lower body for the task at hand. (Generally, heavier and farther rucks will require more support.)
But you also don’t want far more support than you need for the job, which will only weigh you down.
I.e., You want “enough” support. Not too little. Not too much.
The science of rucking shoes
Rucking in supportive footwear makes you less likely to get injured compared to rucking in minimalist shoes.
The military thinks a lot about footwear.
Training injuries are the number one cause of injury in the U.S. Army, and they cost the U.S. government billions of dollars each year.
So they’ve conducted research to determine how footwear factors into training injuries.
Military and university researchers teamed up to study the effects of wearing minimalist versus standard, supportive running shoes on incoming cadets.
There were about 1,000 cadets. These people entered a nine-week basic training course at the same age and fitness level.
When the nine weeks were up, roughly 18 percent of the soldiers had sustained a lower-body injury.
The main finding:
The soldiers wearing more supportive shoes were “49% less likely to incur any type of lower extremity injury and 52% less likely to incur an overuse lower extremity injury than cadets wearing (minimalist shoes).”
So it follows—and has been demonstrated in other studies—that most people, most of the time do better with more support the heavier the ruck or the faster they ruck it.
The mechanics of rucking
Support and heel drop are useful for rucking because rucking alters how we walk.
I followed up with Paul Litchfield. He’s an old-school shoe dog who has been designing footwear since 1986. He has 160 footwear patents granted or pending, the most fun of which is the Reebok Pump (he was head of shoe design at Reebok for 30 years).
Paul now heads up footwear at GORUCK, a company that makes rucking-specific shoes. Their rucking-specific boots and shoes have various features like supportive arch inserts and a 13mm drop (which is higher than most standard running shoes).
I asked him to walk me through his thought process when designing shoes for rucking. Here’s what he wrote (this is a bit technical, but it’s fascinating. Skip down to TL;DR if you just want a summary):
When rucking—compared to running or training—a person's stride is a lot longer. Think of the Grateful Dead's "Keep on Truckin'" logo. (See below).
The person's foot is on the ground for a much longer period of time compared to running or unweighted walking.
Their angle of toe-off is much steeper than typical for running or training.
Due to the longer stride, the person's leg is further in front of their body with much less flexion angle at their knee.
This lower flexion angle results in less internal rotation of the tibia and fibula (shin/calf). The result is that there is less "pre-ground contact" supination of their ankle (ankle rotated slightly inward so you contact the ground when running on the lateral side of the running shoe).
The result of the longer stride and the lower degree of pre-ground contact supination puts the stride more in the center of the heel rather than the side of the foot.
This longer stride and more centerline heel strike can put more stress on the Achilles if not addressed with a slightly higher heel drop. This is especially true when doing the significant number of repeated miles (as people in the military, such as Special Forces, may be exposed to).
TL;DR: Rucking leads you to walk in a way that can make having a higher heel drop and more support advantageous.
Does this mean you need a super burly boot? (And when I say “super burly” boot, I mean something that’s designed for trekking or mountaineering. Something big and weighing more than two pounds.)
Recall the study above that found that the heavier the boot, the more energy it takes to walk in.
I was recently texting with Doug Kechijian. He’s a former Special Forces soldier, doctor of physical therapy, and the founder of Resilient Performance Physical Therapy. He works with military members and professional athletes and is my go-to for fitness questions (I recommend you consider working with him if you’re in the NYC/CT/NJ area).
I ruck in an approach shoe, trail running shoe, or even the GORUCK trainers (Ballistic Trainers). I’m not really a boot guy, though I like the GORUCK boots if I had to wear a boot (ed’s note: they weigh ~17oz). There are just so many light but still pretty supportive shoes, so I don’t really see where trekking boots fit in for most people.
There also doesn’t seem to be much difference in injury rates between wearing a supportive running shoe or light boot when rucking.
Twelve military studies concluded that training and rucking in light boots or supportive running shoes is equally safe.
Remember from Monday: Roughly 80 percent of injuries are due to too much running or rucking too soon. Only 20 percent are due to shoes.
What I ruck in
I don’t overthink my shoes for easy neighborhood rucks. For longer, heavier rucks, I like a hiking shoe.
If I’m doing a casual ruck with my dogs—usually a hilly 45 to 60 minutes with 30-ish pounds—I use the ISEEFIRST Method. It’s highly scientific.
I grab the shoes in the garage that I see first. Usually Goruck Ballistic Trainers or a light trail running shoe.
I actually like cycling through different shoes for these casual rucks. My thinking is that my feet might benefit from being worked differently.
But if I’m doing a longer or heavier ruck out in the desert—i.e., if this is more than a quick, light “dog ruck”—I default to more support and drop.
My body feels better during and after a long ruck when I offload some of the support to more supportive shoes.
Lately, I’ve been using the GORUCK Mackall, which is designed with hiking and rucking in mind. Here are its stats:
Drop: 13mm; Weight: 13oz; Great overall rucking shoe, especially when rucking on trails.
Get the shoe here (it’s unisex).
I don’t think the Mackall or any other GORUCK shoe is the only answer. Not at all.
Here are five other great rucking shoe options:
La Sportiva Spire
Drop: ~13mm; Weight: 13 oz; Decent replica of the Mackall but with a smaller toe box.
GORUCK MACV-1 HI-SPEED
Drop: 13mm; Weight: 14oz; These are a deconstructed version of GORUCK’s MACV-1 rucking boots. They’re closer to an athletic shoe and don’t have heel cups or toe caps (heel cups rub some people).
Get the boots here (they’re unisex).
Merrell Moab 3
Drop: 11.5; Weight: 13oz; This is probably the most popular hiking boot/shoe of all time, and it’s also the least expensive on the list.
Price: $100 with Merrell’s email discount
Here’s the women’s version; Here’s the men’s version.
Should I ever wear a burly boot?
If the job calls for it.
Sometimes the job calls for even more support and protection.
We’re not talking about your average long ruck. Or even a day-long Misogi.
I’m talking about multi-day events deep into the wilderness with a heavy pack. For example, when I spent a month in the Arctic, I wasn’t wearing everyday hiking boots.
I wore the Han Wag Sirius GTX II. Imagine your feet wrapped in bricks that are insulated down to -40 degrees. They weighed four pounds—lol.
I now use those boots exclusively for winter, backcountry, multi-day hunts (which is rare).
Otherwise, the Lacrosse Ursa MS are favorite for most multiple-day hunts in the backcountry.
Have fun, don’t die, keep on ruckin’.
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When I decided to accept sponsorships for this newsletter, GORUCK was a natural fit. Not only is the company's story included in The Comfort Crisis, but I've been using GORUCK's gear since the brand was founded. Seriously. They've been around ~12 years and I still regularly use a pack of theirs that is 11 years old. Their gear is made in the USA by former Special Forces soldiers. They make my favorite rucking setup: A Rucker 4.0 and Ruck Plate.
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