Add more cushioning and you get better shock absorption. It makes sense on paper, right? Most of us, me included, shook our heads at the thought of the running shoe industry returning to where it started: bigger, more cushioned shoes.
Surely the already crowded shoe market would find little room for a shoe at the opposite end of the spectrum, particularly when maximum cushioned were demonized in Chris McDougals book, “Born to Run.” The maximalist shoe market has yet to squander a growing army of maximalism evangelists.
More cushioning sounds great on paper, particularly for those who are struggling to tolerate the impact of running (speaking to my master runners here). Sore joints diagnosed as “typical” wear and tear on x-rays leave countless runners struggling to tolerate impact with asphalt. It’s not surprising that the maximalist shoe market hasn’t crashed and burned. After all, the market for runners who are over 40 is only growing.
Ideally, more cushioning on your feet would simply provide downstream benefits to the knee, hip, and spine; however, the body’s actual response to more cushioning might be contrary to what you expect.
Your body needs to anticipate and feel impact. Your nerves and muscles (neuromuscular system) collect data from ground impact, transferring it to the brain, which in turns relays information to your tendons and muscles on how to respond.
With a softer barrier to dampen impact, our bodies may, and often will, crash down hard seeking to collect data. Clinically, we see this in patients suffering from peripheral neuropathy, a condition that often results in the loss of sensation in the bottom (plantar aspect) of the feet. Those struggling with decreased plantar sensation will often slap their feet or slam their feet into the ground with the ultimate goal of allowing their skin, muscles, and joints to send information back to the brain for interpretation.
Slapping a big thick pad on your foot can likely provide a loss of “feel” for the ground. The natural, automatic response of the body may be to land harder to provide neuromuscular feedback. A study published in April 2015 by Baltich, Maurer, and Nigg found that as the shoe midsole became softer, joint stiffness increased, particularly at the ankle. The apparent increase in stiffness was found in other joints, too, resulting in an increase in vertical impact force peaks (less shock absorption).1
That’s right. A thicker, padded shoe may actually increase your impact forces when running. Now before you start shaking your head that you may have fell for another marketing gimmick, hang with me. I still and will continue to recommend these shoes to specific patients… but it comes with a caveat.
Ultimately, your movement trumps all. I have and will continue to recommend these new “maximalist” shoes to my patients who fit the bid. The recommendation now comes with a plan to alter their movement that in turn, maximizes the cushioned footwear. You need to teach your body to avoid altering joint stiffness.
Engaging your natural shock absorbers (muscles and tendons) through a midfoot strike should be the number one priority, particularly for those feeling “beat up” by the road. Relearning to run with a midfoot strike is more than running on your toes. I outline that in depth in my free run faster in 30 days program
I encourage any runner, young or old, to commit to improving their movement and utilizing their anatomy to the full extent. Your ability to absorb and control landing forces falls back on what your momma gave you (well, more than your butt). Off the shelf products should be used to supplement your run form and strength, not as a Hail Mary pass. Pairing better movement with that softer, more cushioned shoe may be the homerun you seek.
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RunSmart Mechanix is a self-paced, four phase run form program that teaches you how to leverage your movement for faster, more efficient running.
1. Baltich J. Maurer C. Nigg B. Increased Vertical Impact Forces and Altered Running Mechanics with Softer Midsole Shoes. PLOS. 2015; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0125196.