Do Running Shoes Make a Difference? You May be Surprised

It can be difficult to see the difference between any athletic shoes. While many claim to support different sports from tennis to dance, to the untrained eye, all of these shoes look pretty similar. It can feel like companies are merely trying to trick you into buying another shoe when you don’t actually need one.

Additionally, running seems like a very straight-forward sport that doesn’t require a lot of bells and whistles. Most runners can throw on a pair of shoes, open their front door, and immediately start their workout with no fuss at all. Do you really need to go to the trouble of buying a running shoe, or will any shoe work? 

Running shoes make a big difference to your running experience, as they support the forward and repetitive motions of running, assist you with shock absorption, and also help protect you from injuries. Using running shoes will give you a much better running experience than walking or training shoes.

You will want to make an educated choice when you decide to invest in a pair of running shoes. Know the type of support you should look for and expect in your shoe will make all the difference to your overall experience. We recommend you to buy running shoes from trustworthy brands, as they are more consistent with the quality you will get.

Related: Top 8 Best Running Shoes Brand | Trusted Running Shoe Brands

Understanding Common Running Injuries

Trail runner woman tying laces on running shoes before doing workout on mountains.

As with any sport, it is possible to experience injury based on the movements of running. In the study Common Leg Injuries of Long-Distance Runners, it was determined that running more than 40 miles per week increased the chance of leg injuries occurring. 

In Running Injuries: a Review of the Epidemiological Literature, it is stated that of those who train regularly to do long-distance runs, 37%-56% experience at least one injury per year that is directly related to running. 

In a review of 17 studies related to running injuries, (Incidence and Determinants of Lower Extremity Running Injuries in Long Distance Runners: A Systematic Review), it was found that studies reported varying rates of injury occurrence: 

  • Knee injuries:               7.2% – 50% occurrence
  • Lower leg injuries:        9% – 32.2% occurrence
  • Foot injuries:                5.7% – 39.3% occurrence
  • Thigh injuries:               3.4% – 38.1% occurrence 

While there was a wide range of incidence of reported injuries across the many studies, this review did notice that for long-distance runners, the rates of injury were consistently higher. 

As for what causes injury, there are a of couple main circumstances that will make an injury more likely to occur.

A year-long study of 60 runners titled Injuries in Runners determined that training errors and biomechanical factors both contributed to the rate of injury.

Source: Injuries in Runners, J. Lysholm & J. Wiklander

Biomechanical factors, which included muscle weakness and foot insufficiency, accounted for at least 40% of injuries, and training errors accounted for much of the rest with some overlap between the two.

Biomechanical factors can sometimes be remedied with the right shoe. Many running shoes have built-in supportive features for foot issues such as pronation and can work to keep you safe and help you avoid injury.    

The University of Rochester Medical Center identifies three main injuries in their article How to Prevent Common Running Injuries

  • Achilles tendinitis
  • Plantar fasciitis
  • Shin splints

All of these are lower-leg issues, and each issue is marked by pain in a specific area. Your Achilles’ tendon, the bottom of your foot, and the inside of your shinbone are all points that can become irritated and inflamed if you fail to take the proper precautions. 

The University of Rochester Medical Center recommends several things to keep you safe. Approaching your training carefully so as not to overdo it, getting checked out by your physician, warming-up before you train, and wearing the running shoes for the appropriate pronation type should all work together to help prevent these injuries.

None of these things are too far fetched. A good training schedule that builds up to your goals, warming up your muscles and getting your blood flowing before you start, and wearing shoes that support the movements and stressors associated with running are all simple ways to help you reach your goals without the impediment of injury. 

While getting checked out by a physician prior to beginning your training may seem like overkill, it is a good idea. Your physician will be able to look at your history of injury and current health and assist you in not causing yourself undue pain. 

In the study Common Leg Injuries of Long-Distance Runners referenced above, one large predictor of injury was someone having had a lower-extremity injury in the past. Therefore utilizing all protective factors including the knowledge and expertise of your doctor, is key to keeping yourself free from injury as you continue your training. 

Types of Running Surfaces and the Support They Need

Running is a unique sport in that there are many different surfaces you have the option of running on. While many sports are limited by courts or fields, running can be done virtually anywhere. 

Running on the sidewalk in your neighborhood or on the synthetic rubber of a track can be a much different experience from running on a treadmill belt or a rocky trail. You will find that each surface offers its own set of benefits, hazards and unique impediments to your training.

Trail/Cross Country

  • A dirt trail can be easier on your lower extremities because it is not as hard of a surface as the cement or asphalt found on a neighborhood street. 
  • There are more hazards on a trail, from loose rocks and gravel to protrusions that can be hit or tripped on, amounting to a less predictable running environment

Related: 15 Best Trail Running Shoes

Street 

  • Running on hard surfaces such as asphalt or cement can be hard on your lower extremities, and lead to overuse injuries
  • Many neighborhood streets are predictably solid and flat, which can be less risky than trail running. 

Track

  • Tracks are manufactured to run on, are predictable surfaces and can be slightly easier on your body than harder surfaces
  • Many tracks are found at schools, which means they are not always available to the public on your schedule. They also wear down over time. 

Treadmill

  • Treadmills are known to be gentler on your lower extremities than harder surfaces. Some can be adjusted to mimic different inclines for different workouts and can be great to have available when the weather prohibits you from running
  • They are expensive and take up a lot of space in your home. If you do not have the means to get one in your house, you will need to have a gym membership to use one. 

Related: Can I Run Barefoot on Treadmill?

As you can see, certain running surfaces will require more support from your shoe than others. In a study of the Attenuation of Foot Pressure During Running on Four Different Surfaces, researchers tested the pressure that was put on the foot while running on asphalt, concrete, rubber, and natural grass.

They determined that asphalt and concrete caused about the same amount of pressure when the foot hit the surface, with rubber coming up next in pressure and natural grass causing the least amount of distress. 

From this, you may be able to conjecture that certain support features are more important in shoes that will be primarily used on harder surfaces, and other features should be more prominent in shoes that will be used on softer or less predictable surfaces. 

Running SurfaceMost Important Support(s)
Dirt TrailPronation support
Potentially more traction
Cement/AsphaltShock absorption
TrackShock absorption

Because cement and asphalt are harder surfaces, you will want to find a brand that makes shoes with good shock absorption to keep your lower extremities from experiencing the brunt of the impact of your footfall and eventually causing overuse injuries. 

Related: Does Nike Make Good Running Shoes?

Similarly, while tracks are going to be softer than cement and asphalt, they are still a relatively unforgiving surface. This is even more true if the track you run on is old and well-used which can cause it to be similarly rigid to cement and asphalt. Making sure you have a shoe with good shock absorption for your track runs will save you a lot of pain in the long run. 

Dirt trails or natural grass are going to be much easier on you in terms of the amount of pressure you will experience with each footfall. That said, running on uneven surfaces will cause any issues you currently have, such as pronation issues, to be even more apparent. 

Getting the correct shoes and insoles for your pronation needs are especially necessary for trail running. If you run on trails that have a lot of loose dirt or gravel, you will also want to have a shoe that has enough grip and tread to keep you steady and upright for your workout. 

What Support do Running Shoes Provide, and how? 

Running club group stretching after morning run

Running requires you to move forward, and involves a lot of repetitive steps. Running shoes are primarily designed to protect and support you in these primary movements. Some of the main support focuses in a running shoe should include:

  • Forward motion support
  • Repetitive steps support
  • Shock absorption
  • Pronation correction

While some athletic shoes support lateral (side-to-side) or multi-directional movement, running is not a sport that is known for involving a lot of twisting, turning, or side-to-side movement. Therefore running shoes will focus much of their support into the forward movement associated with running.  

Running shoes will also take into account the repetitive nature of running. You will generally be placing your feet in the same way each time you take a step, and your shoes should be designed to support a lack of diversity in movement while lasting as long as possible despite heavy wear on certain areas. 

Shock absorption ties in with the repetitive footfalls. Because you will be stepping the same way each time, your shoe should be built to take the brunt of any pressure or hard surfaces you encounter. 

In order to avoid injury, you should find a shoe that appropriately supports your specific pronation. According to UCONN Health, pronation is how much and which direction your foot turns in and out when you run. Shoes that had motion control features were found to reduce the risk of injury in people with pronated feet in a study on the Injury Risk in Runners Using Standard or Motion Control Shoes

But how are running shoes built to support so many different things? The following table indicates the areas of running shoes that are built to support these movements and needs:

Support NeededHow Running Shoes are Structured to Support
Forward MotionSolid heel-counter 
Heel-toe drop
Repetitive StepsMidsole shock absorption
Flexibility under ball of foot
Shock AbsorptionMidsole structure
PronationHeel-counter

The forward motion of running and your pronation are both supported by the motion control of a solid heel-counter, the area of the shoe that wraps around the back of your heel. Some running shoes have a harder plastic piece which will provide more stable support. 

Forward motion is also supported by the heel-toe drop, or how much of a height difference there is between the heel and toe of your shoe. Some people find that a high heel-toe drop (over 7mm) will provide the most support. A high heel-toe drop provides extra support to your heel as you take each step. 

Repetitive steps and shock absorption have some overlap. Your shoe should be structured to support you as you take the same step over and over again on your run. Depending on your running surface, you will probably need some level of shock absorption. Running shoes structure their midsoles, the core of the sole of the shoe, to absorb some of the pressure as your foot lands. 

Having flexibility under the ball of the foot is also a way that running shoes support your repetitive steps. This flexibility allows the shoe to be most responsive to your foot and how it moves. 

Running shoe materials also play a role in the support they provide for their owner. Running shoes tend to be comprised of: 

  • Mesh
  • Synthetic leather
  • Eva foam
  • Rubber

Mesh supports the breathability of your shoe, making them more comfortable to wear on long runs. Leather or synthetic leather is used on the outside of the shoe to increase durability. Durability is also increased by using rubber to form the outsole. EVA foam is known for its supportive cushioning and is often used in the midsole of shoes to provide shock absorption.

The Support You Get from Minimalist Running Shoes

Running shoes - woman tying shoe laces

When gathering information as to whether running shoes make a difference, it is important to mention minimalist shoes because they in such stark contrast to what many consider normal running shoes. Their many differences, however, do not take away from the important support that conventional running shoes provide for a runner- support that other athletic shoes would not.

Athletic dance shoes, for example, will have very little tread and can cause you to slip more easily while running outside, where you need more grip. Cross-trainers are not built for intense shock absorption and will not give you support on long runs. Whatever shoe you do choose for running, you need to make sure it will give you the support you need.

While barefoot or minimalist shoes are a popular choice amongst some runners, after reading about all of the ways that a typical running shoe provides necessary running support, you may be wondering whether these shoes are safe to wear.

Minimalist shoes can be identified by:

  • Little to no heel-toe drop, and thin soles
  • Lightweight feel
  • High flexibility 
  • Some have individual toe-sleeves 
  • No arch support

Minimalist shoes have become popular in recent years, but there hasn’t been much research done as to whether they can decrease the risk of injury in the way that we see conventional running shoes do. 

However, what we think of as conventional running shoes is a recent development in the grand scheme of things, and for many years humans ran without the assistance of midsole shock absorption and high heel-toe counters. 

In studies done by Harvard University, it was determined that people who run barefoot or in minimal shoes tend to land on their forefoot or midfoot as opposed to their heel. One often lands on their heel when wearing in basic running shoes. This forefront or midfoot type of landing lessens the shock of each step and allows you to run comfortably on all surfaces.

While research is still being done on the long-term effects and potential injuries of running regularly in minimalist shoes, it is possible that our current bulkier running shoes have merely compensated for the type of footfall that was brought on by conventional shoes in the first place. 

Whether you decide to give a minimalist running shoe a try, or you want the comfort and support of a regular running shoe, your shoe definitely does make a difference to your running experience. Injury prevention is paramount, and finding a shoe that adequately supports your needs will make or break your workout. Rather than allow your training to be put off as you tend to a preventable injury, invest in a pair of running shoes that work for you and get on the road.