Why Your Shoes Can Make or Break Your Workout 

Our shoes are how we interact with our world. And that means that the wear patterns on our shoes represent our movement patterns as well. As a physical therapist, it’s my job to determine what those patterns are. Shoes can sometimes help us move better, or they can make things significantly more difficult. Just ask anybody who’s had to stand around at a networking event wearing leather pointed-toe dress shoes! So, let’s take a deep dive into some of the ways your shoes can negatively impact your movement. 

exercise shoe

You wear running shoes to strength train or vice versa. 

Running shoes are great—for running. But when it comes to strength training or HITT, they may not be the best shoe for the job. Running shoes are meant to support your foot through the repetitive movements associated with running mechanics that occur predominantly in the sagittal plane (forward and back).

For that reason, running shoes usually have a fair amount of cushion at the heel for shock absorption and they don’t have much flexibility for frontal plane (side to side) and transverse plane (rotational) movements. In the context of a strength workout, you may feel off balance as you move into the bottom of your squat. And if you’re wearing them in a MetCon or HIIT class, it could put you at risk for a sprained ankle during frontal plane movements like skaters. 

arch support

A better move would be to own two pairs of shoes reserved for each modality of exercise. Use your running shoes for running and/or walking. And use your training shoes for, well, training! A good training shoe is going to have tread on the sole that allows for mobility in the frontal and transverse planes. It’s also going to have a heel with a stiffer sole and a wider heel bed. This provides stability in standing for activities like squats, step ups, and lunges. All of these moves are functional movement patterns that require stability in order to generate force effectively. 

You bought your workout shoes when Barack Obama was President of the United States. 

Like most things, sneakers definitely have a shelf life. You can get technical with it and log your miles, replacing your athletic shoes every 300-500 miles. But counting miles can get really tedious. Another way to keep track is to pay attention the tread patterns on the sole of the shoe. Once the tread gets worn enough that it’s become smooth, you know it’s time for a replacement pair. You can also look at the integrity of the body of the shoe. If there are wrinkles or changes in shape to the sides of the shoe, that may indicate the support this shoe once provided has run its course. Over time, this can lock the wearer into pattern of dysfunction facilitated by the worn-out pattern of their shoe. 

A better move would be to replace your workout shoe as soon as you notice compromise to the integrity of the sole or body of the sneaker. If you are active 3 times a week or more, this is likely to happen every 6 months or so. Continuing to train or run in shoes that have lost their structural support could increase your risk for aches or injuries such as shin splints, plantar fasciitis, low back pain, hip pain. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve helped a patient reduce pain related to an injury or overuse strain simply by asking them to replace their shoes! It’s such a simple fix. For this reason, I always look at my patients’ shoes when they’re in the clinic. 

You’re using the wrong arch support for your foot type. 

Whether you have very high arches or flat feet, you’re going to want some form of arch support. The fact of the matter is that human feet are not as strong as they were historically. We rely on shoes to protect our feet from the hard concrete covering our ground. Arch support helps to distribute weight evenly across the foot and reduce pressure points at the ball of the foot or heel.

If you have flat feet or low arches, you’re going to require a different inner sole than someone who has high arches. A low-arched foot wearing shoes better suited for high arches could end up with heel pain or posterior tibialis tendonitis. The sole is now artificially placing them in a position where there is more weight application on the outside of the foot. A person with high arches wearing an inner sole better suited for flat feet could end of with ankle pain or fibularis longus tendonitis because the sole is biasing them into a position where there is more weight on the inside of the foot with a pressure point on the outside of the ankle. 

You’re tying your laces too tight, or too loose!

Your shoe should act as a protective barrier between your foot and the ground. However, if you’ve tied your laces too loosely, your foot can slide around inside the shoe causing a lack of stability.  This may predispose you to injuries involving the plantar fascia or Achilles tendon as your foot struggles to create stability within the shoe. Over time this instability may cause aches and pains higher up the kinetic chain, in your knee, hip, or low back. 

workout shoe

Conversely, if you’ve tied your laces too tight, you could be restricting mobility to the extensor tendons of the foot or blood flow to nerve tissue. You’ve experienced this if you’ve ever felt your toes go numb mid-run. Common injuries or symptoms can be tendonitis, ankle stiffness, or distal tingling and numbness as mentioned. To avoid this common error, remember Goldilocks and the Three Bears. You want your sneaker to feel snug just right. Not too tight, not too loose. There should be no wrinkling in the sides of the shoes, and you want to be able to see the shoe tongue behind the laces. 

Are you dealing with body aches related to activity or exercise? We are here to help! At Symmetry, we will provide you with a comprehensive physical therapy assessment to get to the root cause of your problem. Making key changes to your footwear and movement strategies can help prevent a small problem from getting worse. Don’t wait! 

Written By: Dr. Nicole Ramos, PT, DPT


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