By Christopher Cudworth
When your running shoes start to wear out you can usually tell all the way up your body. From tired feet to sore ankles or achilles, tightening IT bands and knee or hip problems, worn out shoes reverberate throughout your musculoskeletal system.
It makes logical sense that you can trace your injury problems back to your shoes in many case. Your feet make thousands of impacts during even a two-mile run. Depending on your body weight, that’s a lot of pounding and shock for your shoes and feet to absorb.
You can argue forever which type of shoes is better for you, minimal or maximum padding, zero elevation or pumped up heels. The running shoe industry conducts plenty of experiments on us running guinea pigs, some imagined, some not so.
The latest HOKA One One shoes are as thick as industrial sponges. One of my acquaintances loves them because frankly his running stride looks as if he’s in the process of defecating a corkscrew with the wine bottle still attached. He is absolutely not light on his feet. The HOKAs make it possible for him to fake it a few miles anyway.
That is not some judgmental statement or cruel joke. We all get that some people are better built for running than others. People who like to run are going to try to do their favorite sport whether they are built for the activity or not.
It is still rather important to come to grips with what your shoes might be telling you about your running efforts. The recommended wear term for running shoes these days is anywhere from 300 to 600 miles. Some people squeeze more out of their shoes, and many more rotate several pairs to protect themselves from overuse injuries by using just one pair of running shoes.
But know this: You can pretty much throw any pair of running shoes you like on your feet and the net results will be the same in terms of ultimate wear patterns. Learning to “read” your shoes to understand what’s going on with your stride, footplant, running form and biomechanics can be helpful in anticipating your risk of running injuries.
For example, one of the most classic wear patterns among millions of runners is the wearing down of the outside heel area. Just about all of us wear our shoes down in that pattern at some level. In college in the 70s our cross country team countered this wear pattern by using athletic tape applied daily to keep the rubber from wearing out back there on the heel. It’s a pretty nifty trick if you think about it. We needed to make those shoes last as long as we could on a college budget.
Whether it was advisable given the fact that the rest of the shoe was also wearing out is debatable. Yet we had relatively few injuries and keeping our heels from wearing out and keeping them even was a practical response to footwear. Later the invention of products like Shoe Goo enabled runners to conduct self-administered shoe repair.
One doesn’t see much of that any more. We’ve fully entered an era of the disposable running shoe. Perhaps that’s because running shoes are so much better designed than 40 years ago. Support systems, sole materials and even insoles are vastly superior in terms of comfort and performance compared to early iterations of Brooks, adidas, Nike, Saucony and many other models.
But what hasn’t changed is the fact that every runner wears out their soles in a slightly different way. And it can change as you age, adopt new training methods or get inserts in your shoes for stride balance.
You’ll particularly notice the phenomenon of altered shoe wear when you get orthotics. The whole purpose of orthotics is to balance the position of your foot upon impact. A sports podiatrist or pedorthist will often examine the soles of your shoes to determine where and how your foot is striking the surface of the ground. These days this information from your sole wear will be combined with video recordings of your foot plant and even your body carriage. Using this information is like detective work. You try to determine what if any imbalances exist, and fix them using shoes, orthotics and perhaps strength work as well.
So the soles of your shoes are like a piece of evidence at a crime scene. Your crime is not having perfect running form or a perfect body, you see. The signs are there. You can’t hide from them.
If one heel is more worn than the other on your running shoes, it is possible to extrapolate a potential bio-mechanical difference. It might mean a leg length discrepancy. Or perhaps you’re simply running too often on the same side of the road, against traffic, and your shoes wear unevenly as a result.
Same goes with wear patterns on your forefoot. Runners with a midfoot or forefoot stride are highly dependent on lower leg flexibility to propel them over the surface of the ground. You are running cursorially, like a deer striking its toes on the ground. That’s great if you want to go fast, but running 26.2 miles on your forefoot puts a lot of responsibility on your feet and calves to sustain your pace.
Recent advocates of CHI running and minimalism encourage moving more efficiently across the ground with a running motion in which the foot essentially paws the ground. This is optimal for some runners but requires considerable focus and training to sustain the method over multiple miles.
You are still at risk for injury if your foot is not structurally pre-disposed to run that way. Forefoot imbalance and weakness is just as real as heel pronation or supination. Your shoes will show compensatory wear in response to these forms of imbalances as well.
So given the many types of shoe wear, here’s a short primer on common shoe wear problems and where they might be coming from:
1. Excessive heel wear
When running long distances, many of us roll back on our heels and plod along with a heel strike that is just forward of our knee upon footplant. There’s nothing essentially wrong with this but it can wear down shoes too quickly and result, especially if there is a foot imbalance, in an uneven wear pattern between your two shoes. When that happens, watch out. You are instantly setting yourself up for injury. It is wise after 100 miles or so of running to inspect your shoes for signs of excessive heel wear on one side or the other. It may indicate a functional imbalance, a bad habit of running too much on one side of the road or a leg-length discrepancy.
2. One side “hot spot” shoe wear
Many of us have lumpy feet or else our strides put undue pressure in a particular area of our shoes. This can produce unusual wear patterns in running shoes that can tell us where or how our feet are striking the ground. This can affect efficiency, so understanding why a hot spot might be occurring is critical to knowing your body well enough to make adjustments. People doing track training may find their outside or right foot putting greater pressure on the outside. This helps you turn. Many of us also have “inside out” wear patterns where the heel on one shoe will wear more and the forefoot of the opposite shoe will also wear in compensation. That usually means there’s a leg-length difference as your body learns to hit the heel with the longer leg and “reach” with the forefoot to strike the ground. You can usually see this pattern in the person’s stride with one leg doing more work than the other. Arm carriage is also a sign of “inside out” wear patterns caused by body mechanics. When one arm swings out you can almost always figure that leg will be a bit shorter.
3. Forefoot and toe-off issues
There are people who run entirely on their forefoot. As mentioned, that’s both more efficient and in some ways can be more work. But truly efficient runners who kiss the ground with their feet will wear off the forward soles of their shoes and that’s a thing to be cautious about. As you wear out the outsoles the insoles and cushion of the shoe is always being compressed. In that regard the shoe may look perfectly new but it’s real cushion value might be greatly diminished.
4. Share and share alike
Whenever you visit your run doctor or running shoe store, bring along your old shoes for a diagnosis of these and other problems. Experienced shoe professionals can help you “read” your shoes and discuss options in new footwear that might help your safety and performance. That’s good reading any day.