Can Your Shoes Really Make You A Faster Runner?

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Among all of the wearable tech, moisture wicking clothes and other accessories that runners commonly include in their training  arsenal, shoes are by far the most crucial. And runners spend lots of time thinking about their shoes.

But, some runners also approach this whole issue with a healthy touch of skepticism. After all, shoe manufacturers make all sorts of claims regarding the supposed benefits of their products. Specifically, the one that draws the most attention has to do with speed. Can shoes actually make you a faster runner? Is there any truth to these marketing campaigns?

Factors To Consider

In order to fully understand how your choice of footwear may – or may not – impact your speed, we first need to be clear about all of the different factors that have a bearing on this particular measure of performance. From there, we can see how shoes can effect those various aspects.

Speed, essentially, comes down to power. And, while the terms power and strength are often used interchangeably, they are two very distinct parts of your overall performance. Strength has to do with your ability to move against a specific amount of resistance. Performing a push-up, for example, would be a good test of your strength.

Power, though, brings time into the equation. Now, the concern is not just about how much weight you can move but how quickly you can do so. A clap push-up, then, would turn that strength exercise into a measure of power.

What does this have to do with runners, though? Each time that you take a step, the muscles in your legs not only have to move your body weight – requiring strength – but they also have to do so dynamically and quickly, which means power is involved.

Why Shoes Matter

Now, the big question is this: How does any of this relate back to shoes?

Remember, running shoes increase the amount of weight that your legs have to propel forward with each step. Logically, then, lighter shoes will require less effort and will – by extension – allow you to run faster. Just because this makes sense, though, doesn’t mean that it necessarily holds up under scientific scrutiny.

So, what does the science show? Can lighter shoes actually make you a faster runner?

Yes, it would seem that way. One 2016 study found that when shoe weight increased by just 3.5oz, a runners speed decreased by 1 percent. Granted, that doesn’t sound like much but it can quickly and easily add up. Over the course of a marathon, for example, this 1 percent slow-down would meaning adding about a minute to your time.

The Trade-off

But, it’s not all about weight. Previous research has also found that, when shoes get too light, running performance actually starts to decrease. What can explain this troubling, confusing and frustrating U-shaped performance curve?

To answer that, it’s important to think about how manufacturers control the weight of their shoes. Along with carefully selecting lightweight materials, designers will also trim out as much cushioning and support as possible. Which is how we end up with the concept of minimalistic footwear, shoes that have little-to-no support.

At a certain point, which varies from runner to runner, research has found that that lack of cushioning will actually make you work harder in order to maintain a health, injury-free stride. As a result of that increased fuel cost, you will also start to slow down.

Making Application

What are you supposed to do, then? How can you use this information to make good choices when it comes time for a new pair of running shoes?

Although it is true that lighter running shoes can reduce the amount of work that your legs have to do with each step, letting you move faster, this isn’t a panacea. Eventually, the cushion sacrificed to keep the weight down is gone to have the opposite on your performance. That lack of cushioning and support could also increase your risk of injury which will, in the long-term, have a very negative impact on your overall performance.

The trick, then, is to find the sweet spot for you. Unfortunately, this may take a pretty significant amount of time, research and experimentation. Since shoes are your primary training tool, though, the positive results are well worth any extra effort you might invest.

Look for a shoe that is as light as possible while still offering the amount of cushioning and support that make you feel comfortable as you run. As mentioned, this will defer significantly for each athlete. You might find that you do just fine in a very minimalist shoe. Which is great. Of course, opposite may also be true. Maybe you need more cushioning and support to be comfortable and perform your best. More than likely, though, you’ll fall somewhere in the middle.

 

Sources

  1. Amanda MacMillian, Lighter Running Shoes Really Can Make You Faster, Article, Nov 03, 2016
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