by Jake Greski
There has been a running shoe revolution over the past decade. Shoes today are much more technologically advanced, with high quality materials going into each pair. The thickness of shoes has also increased, as these materials allow for more cushioning with less weight. The idea of cushioning began in the early 1970s with the Nike Cortez, still sold today as a lifestyle shoe1. Since this trend has started, more and more runners are using thick-soled shoes. Today, a brand heavily embracing this trend is HOKA, founded in 2009 in France and currently headquartered in California. HOKA started with the idea of creating a shoe well-suited to downhill running and has evolved into the worldwide brand it is today. Seeing the success of these high cushion shoes, other brands like Nike, New Balance, Asics, Saucony and more quickly followed suit. When a new shoe model comes out from one of these major brands, it’s typically more cushioned than its predecessor. The purpose of these shoes can vary as well, as Nike was one of the first brands to make a high-performance road racing shoe with more cushioning instead of less. World Athletics, the governing body of track and road racing, actually placed a legal limit on how much cushion a shoe can have during track or road races.
The emerging popularity of these thick-soled shoes brings about an important question; is more cushioning in a shoe better than less cushioning? The answer isn’t as straightforward as one might think. There is no clear evidence that high cushion shoes present any clear benefit in any specific facet of running2. The rate of running related injuries has not significantly been altered since the high cushion trend started, suggesting multiple variables are at play. One study showed that as many as half of all runners are injured at a given time3. While more cushioning might feel comfortable, by no means does this completely cure or prevent any running-related injuries. There are countless factors impacting likelihood of injury: gender, age, weight, running form, running volume or intensity, or prior history of injury. A shoe with more cushioning does not address nearly any of these factors. Even when it comes to running form, more cushioning does not alter or improve running form and lead to less injury. Research shows running-related injury within the past year, less than 5 years of running experience, and running more than 3 times per week all increased risk of injury4. Again, none of these factors have to do with the amount of cushion a shoe has.
While everything I’ve mentioned is supported by science, I do not want to discount the anecdotal stories I’ve heard and my own personal running experience. As a fit associate at Fleet Feet Albany, I’ve heard many stories from customers about how running in a highly cushioned shoe was beneficial to them. It stopped their pain, they’ve enjoyed running so much more, or that they can go longer in a shoe with more cushioning. However, I have heard similar stories in regard to shoes with less cushioning. One customer I was talking with said he was dealing with plantar fasciitis and looked to minimalist shoes for help. Rather surprisingly his plantar fasciitis significantly improved, and now wore thinner shoes wherever he went. I had a very similar experience of my own, and I personally prefer a thinner soled shoe for everyday use.
To reiterate my original question: is more cushion in a running shoe better? After looking at the science and my personal experience, there is no overarching benefit for all runners from wearing a highly cushioned running shoe. The only condition to that statement is that when it comes to high performance road racing shoes. These super shoes, as they’re called, are made with a specific material in the sole to be much faster than a daily trainer. However even these high-performance shoes show no clear benefit in terms of running form or injury prevention. I previously wrote an article in the Pace Setter titled “Choose Shoes Wisely” going into greater detail on how exactly to choose the right running shoe for you. Comfort is an important factor, but what your feet prefer to be in while running will be different than for many others. And whether that's a high cushion shoe or a minimalist one, it’s all about what works best with your specific feet.
Super Cushioned Running Shoes Are All the Rage but Aren’t Foolproof
NY Times Weighs in on this too!
Jake has kindly agreed to be a frequent contributor to The Pace Setter. His background as an elite runner, running shoe specialist, and student in the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at Russell Sage College, makes him uniquely qualified to write columns that our readers will benefit from greatly. Thanks, Jake, for coming onboard.