How Do Running Shoes Work? Here’s The Basics

Last Updated: May 31, 2022

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With millions of runners on the planet, the running shoe industry is a big one. But how do the shoes actually work? And how are running shoes different from normal shoes? In this article, we take a deep-dive into running shoes and how they do what they do.

How a Running Shoe Works

During the first half of ground contact, the foot pronates, resulting from a combination of downward rotation along the length of the foot (eversion), upward rotation of the foot toward the leg (dorsiflexion), and outward rotation of the foot relative to the tibia (external rotation).

Controlling the extent and rate of pronation is done by foot muscles acting eccentrically (pulling while getting longer). 

Pronation is reversed during the second half of ground contact. Here, the foot supinates, which means that it rotates outward of the forefoot (inversion), downward of the foot relative to the shins (plantarflexion), and inward of the foot relative to the shins (internal rotation).

To cause supination, muscle fibers pulling on the foot act concentrically (pulling while getting shorter).

When running, pronation absorbs energy and supination generates energy, and the two foot actions are coordinated with the flexion and extension of the knee.

Individuals exhibit different amounts of pronation and supination depending on their skeletal structure, their muscle strength and endurance, and the style in which they run.

An athlete’s feet and the ground are connected by running shoes. A runner’s shoes are designed to protect him or her from hazards like sharp rocks, jagged pavement, or broken glass on the ground surface. On the bottom of the shoe, this protection is provided by a tough material called the outsole. 

In addition to the padding and the stability features, the rest of the shoe is a man-made effort to improve on the evolutionary design of the foot. For example, the cushioning increases energy absorption while the stability controls the pronation and supination of the foot.

Read more about the different pronation types and how they affect your stride.

How Are Running Shoes Different From Normal Shoes?

When going for a run, a walk or a hike, it’s imperative to wear the right kind of shoe. Buying a nice pair of shoes might seem like all you need to accomplish all these things, but that is not true. Exercise, especially running and walking, cause your body to react differently because you use your feet differently.

For instance, a runner would place the ball of his or her foot first, then place the heel down first. It is also possible to land on the ball of your foot, push off, then land on the side of your foot. This depends a lot on how comfortable and confident you are. Running has a high impact. Your body absorbs nearly three times the weight of your body as you step down.

In contrast, walkers typically make first contact with the ground with the heel of the foot before the toes and ball of the foot, and thus the body’s weight gradually rolls forward. Compared to a lot of exercises, it is less impactful, with your body absorbing about one and a half times your body weight. When you walk, you evenly distribute the weight between your feet and legs.

Injury Prevention and Efficiency

It is important that the running shoe protects the runner and the foot. Besides stabilizing the foot, it protects the skin from injury. In addition, the foot should strike the ground with a minimal amount of force, while returning energy to the runner.

The design of running shoes improves running efficiency. By reducing the energy required to run, you should theoretically be able to run faster and for longer periods of time. 

The first step is to reduce the mass of the shoe. In doing so, runners will be able to swing their legs more efficiently. Additionally, to run more efficiently, an athlete needs more cushioning in their midsole, which allows them to run with straighter legs.

Running shoe designs and engineering heavily depend on the runner and their needs. Running styles differ from person to person and each foot is unique. Taking shoe design into consideration, one size does not fit all.

The sneaker you wear for sprinting is also totally different from the shoe you wear for running a marathon. The soles of a marathon shoe need cushioning during long, sustained runs in order to reduce injuries. However, the soles of a sprinting shoe could benefit from being stiffer without necessarily requiring as much cushioning.


How can I check the fit of my running shoes?

The space between the end of your longest toe and the end of the shoe should be about the width of your thumb, and your toes should be able to spread freely, but the heel should be snug. When trying on shoes, it is important that you test this. A heel-lift could cause painful rubbing and blisters, so avoiding it is a good idea.

What injuries show that the shoes are not right for my feet?

  • Insufficient shoe volume (if you have a high-volume foot) can lead to tingling or numbness in the toes; overly short or narrow shoes can also cause this. If your shoes are too narrow, you run the risk of suffering serious foot issues, so address this issue immediately.
  • Shoes that are too small can cause blisters between or on top of toes.
  • Your shoe is probably too wide if you have blisters on the ball of your foot.
  • If your toes are bruised, then your shoes are too short.
  • The best way to avoid heel blisters is to first try lacing the shoes with a runner’s loop. The solution may be to wear a shoe with a narrower heel cup if this doesn’t work.

Final Words

Running shoes are sophisticated pieces of sporting gear. Make sure you choose shoes that are right for your feet and then take care of your shoes diligently.

The end result will be shoes that keep you safe and well, while also allowing you to get fitter and healthier.

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