Form then footwear, or footwear then form?

Improving running form can mean fewer injuries and improved running performance… but what about shoes? Shoe designs are becoming more minimalist, aiming to encourage us to run with a more natural or efficient running form. Are shoes important? If shoes can potentially help us to run better then should we alter our footwear before or after we work on our form?

The importance of footwear and running form to performance and injury has received much discussion in coaching circles worldwide. James Dunne (@KineticRev) has written some great blogs on the topic and argues that running technique is the most important thing rather than footwear. He uses the hashtag #FormBeforeFootwear to promote his message. I couldn’t agree more with James on the importance of running form over footwear, and see running form as a key factor in both injury and performance.

As a Physiotherapist, the clients I see for running form analysis and coaching are often carrying injuries. I get a lot of questions about how I incorporate coaching and footwear changes into injury treatments. Here i will briefly discuss my current experiences with technique coaching, form and footwear.

Running technique is a key factor to running injury prevention and treatment.

Runners, coaches and clinicians are all thinking about running form. The ‘big three’ reasons that runners look into improving their form are: to improve performance, to reduce injury risk, or to overcome an existing injury.

Form affects injuries but… how much does footwear affect form?

I get a lot of questions each week regarding footwear recommendations and how best to incorporate footwear changes into form coaching. When a runner decides they want to improve their running form, should they also be thinking about changing their footwear?

I think there can be lots of different answers to this question and each individual case needs to be considered. To begin with there are a couple of simple things to think about – Is the runner comfortable and confident in their current shoe? Are they performing well in their current shoe? Are they injured? If a runner has found a make and model that seem to be working then I’d be strongly inclined to leave them where they are- If it isn’t broke then why try to fix it?!

Specific shoes do not affect running form in specific or consistent ways – individuals will respond completely differently to the same shoe and I think a certain amount of experimentation is vital.

How one runs is probably more important than what is on one’s feet, but what is on one’s feet may affect how one runs – Dr Daniel Lieberman

This quote by Lieberman sums my observations and coaching experiences up nicely – footwear may influence things slightly, but how we run (including technique, volume, intensity) is probably the most important thing. Until we have compelling evidence to the contrary I believe runners should concentrate on good running form and intelligent training habits, and wear whichever shoes they find comfortable.

What about minimalist or barefoot-style shoes – can they help us to modify our form?

In my experience, with runners who are receiving face-to-face coaching, barefoot running or minimalist/ barefoot shoes can help the process of learning new technique – they can be great training tools.

If significant technique changes are the goal, then changing footwear (or taking it away altogether) provides a novel training environment, making old habits easier to break.

Barefoot running (no shoes) as a training tool during coaching, provides maximum feedback on how a runner is moving (proprioception). For example, you’ll know immediately if you are heavily heel striking, or favouring one leg over the other.

Really minimalist or ‘barefoot style’ shoes can also be a great training tool as they provide greater  ‘proprioception’ compared to traditional heavily-cushioned footwear.

Reasons you might want to change your footwear when you’re working on form…

  • It’s easier to perform running drills in lighter, flatter shoes
  • Better proprioception when barefoot or in minimalist shoes means more feedback
  • A novel training environment can mean current technique habits are easier to break
  • A fresh start if things aren’t working for you at the moment and you want to try something completely different.

However, if you’re making big changes to footwear and/or form then you need a far more gradual transition- for example, starting with just a few minutes of running per session.  I don’t usually recommend this method to runners who have up-coming races or who want to go it alone without coaching.

If you make significant changes to your technique all at once then you need to pay particular attention to adaptation time frames. The body needs a certain amount of time to adapt to new movement patterns. Physiological changes take around 6 weeks and neurological systems need to become efficient at producing and controlling the new movement patterns. To establish neurological patterns we’re looking at a timeframe of 10-12 weeks. Time frames can vary between individuals- so these numbers should provide a rough guide only. However, these are the sort of time frames to think about about if you want to make significant changes to your running form.

Meanwhile, making more gradual changes to running form and/or footwear, can mean it takes longer to see significant change, but has the benefit of meaning little or no disruption to training and far less commitment needed from the runner. Gradual changes are my favoured method for runners who are mid-season, keen to maintain mileage or only requiring small technique changes.

Take home messages:

  • Working with a coach and using video analysis takes the guessing out of technique improvement
  • Technique coaching and footwear recommendations should be individualised to each runner
  • Runners who are mid-season and performing well are probably best to work on form gradually, then experiment with footwear if they desire
  • Runners with recurrent injuries or poor performance can either make gradual changes or try a complete overhaul- but i strongly recommend they work with a technique coach if they chose to do the latter
  • Making big changes to form and/or footwear requires a far more gradual transition period but can mean significant form changes are easier to make
  • Runners with current or recurrent injuries should ideally work with a Physiotherapist and a running technique specialist (or find an individual or team who have both injury and technique specialisms)

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