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The Real Impact Of Cushioning In Shoes

It is a common belief that cushioning in a shoe will decrease your injuries and pain. 

If you believe that, no blame on your part. The media and big shoe companies have done an amazing job at teaching you that for many years. 

It is time to tell the other side of the story, the story that not as many people talk about. 

Unless you have had some trauma in your life that does not allow you to stand or walk, when you are on your feet, the body wants to feel the ground. In fact, it needs to feel the ground. The ground is what provides you the necessary feedback so the body knows how to respond with any and all tasks you perform. 

When you are barefoot, your feet pick up the vibration from the ground and your feet can feel any variation in the ground. This allows your body to respond quickly and appropriately. 

With cushioning, that all changes. 

Decreased muscle firing 

The vibrations (energy) the earth gives off is something that we do not feel, but it is something the sensory nerves in the feet pick up on. This is what helps our body to fire the muscles appropriately to provide us a stable lower leg and foot to stand on. 

When you are in shoes, you do not get the vibration from the ground. This can cause the muscles to fire later in their sequence than ideal, creating a less stable foot and ankle. Because of that, your body works harder. This increased work not only decreases your performance due to the increased energy output, but it also sets you up for injury. 

Decreased proprioception 

Our proprioceptor nerve fibers are those ones that tell you how your body is positioned in space. These are the ones that tell you when you are about to roll your ankle and that you need to respond accordingly to correct that position. 

When you are barefoot, your proprioceptor nerves work very quickly. It senses a variation in the ground immediately which allows your body to respond quickly to control the movement. 

The more cushion you have in your shoes, the slower that response time is. Meaning, the more cushion you have in your shoes, the more at risk you are of rolling your ankle. This is one of the big reasons I am not a fan of Hoka shoes, especially for trail running. The high amount of cushioning is predisposing you for rolling your ankles. 

Increased forces 

The thought of more cushioning decreasing the impact on your joints is backwards thinking. Cushioning in a shoe cushions the bottom of the foot, that’s it! In fact, the more cushion you have, the more pressure you are placing on your joints. 

Think about something for me. If you are running barefoot, perhaps in the park with your child or on the beach, how hard or soft do your feet hit the ground? 

Now think about how much impact is present when your foot hits the ground in the shoes you normally wear. Is it different? 

And one last question. Did you mentally do anything to make that change happen? 

As I mentioned before, the body wants to feel the ground. What I did not mention is it will do what it can so you can feel the ground. The way it does this when you are wearing shoes is to hit the ground harder. Therefore, the more cushion you have in your shoes, the more force your body lands with. Meaning, the more cushion you have in your shoes, the more impact your joints are taking. 

With all this said, cushioning is not always a terrible thing. Yes, it will change how your body moves and responds, but in my opinion, it can be terrain dependent. For a personal example: the trails where I live are really rocky and hard on the feet. From experience, I know if I go past 3-4 miles on the trails in my Xero Shoes or run in them on back-to-back days on the trails, the bottoms of my feet feel really bruised. If I am in my Altras with 13mm of cushion, I am fine. But if I travel somewhere and am on dirt trails, I can run in my Xero Shoes for longer distances and multiple days without an issue. 

Regardless of the shoe I am in, one thing I do to improve the sensory feedback when wearing shoes is by also using Naboso insoles. They will not reduce your chances of rolling your ankle if you still have increased cushioning or decrease the forces when you are landing, but they can help with the decreased muscle firing issue which can allow you to run longer with less energy output and less fatigue 

Thinking about decreasing the cushioning in your shoes, but not sure how to go about it. Let’s chat so you do it smartly, without increased risk of injury from the change. 

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