Firm Footing: How Footwear Impacts Athletic Performance

Updated: November 01, 2019 

At some point or another within their careers, athletes fall prey to “paralysis by analysis.”

They become entangled within a nebula of minutia, scrupulously calculating each calorie or each second spent beyond a target heart range. And when you hear a guy like me talking about how important footwear is for athletes, you might write it off as something superfluous that doesn’t demand your attention.

However, proper footwear selection is a critical aspect of one’s musculoskeletal health.

Many athletes tend to favor fashion over function, while some merely opt for whatever pair of shoes is affordable or available, unknowingly and needlessly exposing themselves to injury risk.

All Feet Aren’t Created Equal

Like athletes, feet come in a myriad of sizes and shapes. No two feet are the same, with each carrying, or “footing,” unique characteristics.

The feet are relied upon for both force absorption and propulsion facilitated by an intricate architecture of bones, ligaments and muscles, which are typically categorized into three shapes: neutral, flat, or arched. They can also be categorized as neutral, pronated, or supinated.

A neutral foot, also known as “subtalar neutral,” is one that’s characterized by a balanced weight distribution, normal height of the medial longitudinal arch and a calcaneus or heel bone that is perpendicular with the floor.

A flat or pronated foot is typified by imbalanced weight distribution bore largely by the inside of the foot, causing its medial longitudinal arch to collapse. The heel bone is everted due to the pronation of the subtalar joint and overstretched plantar fascia. If left unchecked, pronation can lead to knee, hip and lower-back injuries over time.

An arched or supinated foot is also typified by an imbalanced weight distribution, though one in which its outer edge absorbs forces and stabilizes the foot. An arched foot will typically roll outward upon impact during gait, often begetting plantar fasciitis. Athletes with arched feet are more susceptible to ankle sprains and stress fractures due to reduced pliability from lessened foot and ankle rotation upon landing.

If you’re not sure which category you fit into, look at a couple pairs of your well-worn shoes. Does there seem to be more wear on certain areas of the shoe than others? That can give you some insight into which type of foot you might possess:

More on this later.

Shoe Selection: Function over Fashion

Though athletes are apt to be mesmerized by a sneaker game dominated by much-ballyhooed retro releases and flashy colorways, shoes serve as the interface between the surface of the ground and the surface of the foot.

They’re undeniably an extension of the body. Just try running a 40-Yard Dash in sandals vs. cleats to get an idea of how footwear can change the way your body interacts with the ground. It is imperative that athletes select a shoe that accounts for individual structural differences and impending athletic demands.

Athletes with flatter feet should opt for shoes with motion control technology that restrain excessive pronation and offers arch support that redistributes ground reaction forces upon landing and rebalances weight distribution statically.

Athletes with arched feet should consider shoes with supportive cushioning that feature an upper portion and sole comprised of flexible materials, since higher arched feet are stiffer.

In either case, athletes should contemplate custom orthotics if they feel their footwear is inadequate in providing them a harmony of stability and comfort.

Commonly, minimalist shoes and sneakers with flatter soles, both of which offer little to no heel lift or sole cushioning, have been recommended for lifting. This is why you see so many people lifting in Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars.

However, these types of shoes may be inappropriate for those suffering from over-pronation, as athletes will tend to ride the inside of their foot during ground based activities. Athletes with tighter calves and/or weakness of the muscles governing the foot and ankle complex may not be able to achieve sufficient dorsiflexion with subtalar neutrality.

Achieving neutral foot position may be difficult for athletes lacking hip mobility—particularly hip internal rotation—and they will compensate by shifting their weight distribution to the inside of the foot. This in turn causes the shins to internally rotate and the knee to cave inward, lending itself to aberrant execution of ground based movements and elevating injury risk.

For these sort of athletes, footwear with a heel lift will be recommended, such as Olympic lifting shoes.

Rotation and Replacement

Ideally, footwear should be rotated frequently, with pairs of shoes dedicated to specific activities and worn for their intended purpose.

Multiple pairs of shoes can be used for a singular activity or sport to ensure that none wear out sooner, ensuring that feet are supported and cushioned for a longer time as the lifecycle of rotated shoes is lengthened.

Knowing when to replace footwear is also of critical importance in upholding health and integrity of the foot and ankle complex.

Modern day running shoes, on average, have a lifespan of 500 miles. However, replacement, whether sooner or later, depends upon a number of factors.

If the shoes begin feeling “flat” or “deflated” and heel and/or shin pain is experienced following runs, it might mean that its cushioning system has lost its “oomph,” warranting replacement.

It might be time to replace them if they no longer dry out quickly following workouts. If the inside of the shoes are retaining a lot of moisture long after training sessions or practice, the shoes’ materials and ventilation systems might be breaking down. If the lining encircling the heel is frayed, this can be a visual sign your shoes might need replacing.

Worn down and smoothed tread poses safety concerns as traction upon heel strike is compromised. Wear patterns vary largely upon foot shape.

Wear along the outer edges of the sole will be even among those with neutral feet, with the most wear down the center of the sole. Athletes with pronated feet will exhibit excessive wear along the length of the inside edge of the sole, from the heel to the big toe. Among athletes with supinated or “under-pronated” feet, wear will be concentrated along the outside.

Here’s that chart again:

Angled heel counters, the portion of the shoe which envelops and secures the heel and provides the foot torsional stability, should be examined.

Aggressively slanted heel counters, evidenced by deviation from heel line that is perpendicular with the floor and depicted by the highlighter below, will warrant immediate replacement:

Athletes should acknowledge the importance that footwear plays in upholding musculoskeletal health and optimizing athletic performance.

Attempting to perform certain athletic actions in the wrong footwear puts you at an immediate disadvantage. The more suited your shoe is to your foot and your activity, the more solid a foundation you’ll have. You don’t want your footwear to be something that keeps you from expressing or developing elite athletic qualities.

The right choice in terms of footwear can go a long way in keeping athletes safe as well as facilitating efficient training sessions and practices. Shoes aren’t merely fashion accessories. Instead, they need to be viewed as pieces of equipment critical to continued athletic success.

Photo Credit: Rocky89/iStock