Is Your Sneaker Wrecking Your Performance?
I get asked all the time which sneakers are most appropriate for a strength and conditioning program. While blanket recommendations are never a good thing, especially in the fitness industry, it is hard to find someone that wouldn’t benefit from wearing a minimalist style-training shoe.
What exactly is a minimalist shoe?
It is a sneaker that has very little or no heel to toe difference in height off the ground. Some refer to them as zero drop– meaning no difference from toe to heel or there can be minimalist shoes that have a 4-millimeter or even 8-millimeter drop.
These shoes are less rigid and more flexible that standard training shoes. This can be beneficial because it can give the wearer a barefoot feel. This is important to "turn on" some of the smaller muscles in the feet and to help improve ankle range of motion that gets limited by wearing restrictive sneakers.
Why does everyone want to train in running sneakers?
If I could*, I would ban running sneakers from the gym.
Running sneakers are made for running. Well, they are designed for running by people that don’t know much about running biomechanics. Check out Born to Run for more on that. Anyways, running shoes are designed for one direction – straight ahead. In the gym we are cutting and bounding and doing single leg exercises that require balance and stability of the whole foot. They also have an elevated heel, which makes performing some movement patterns harder. Lifting the heel off the ground shifts the body’s center of gravity forward and can make compensation patterns appear. In strength and conditioning, we are always trying to optimize position. This is hard to do when the heel is lifted in the air.
Think about this… Your heel is designed to be on the ground. By always having it lifted off the ground and having you center of gravity shifted forward, none of your joints are in the positions they want to be in. Now imagine driving your car to work on the highway with the emergency brake on the entire time. That’s what big-heeled shoes do to your body.
If you spend all of your waking hours in some sort of shoe that has a heel lift – you need to stop. Put your heel on the ground where it belongs and let your foot act like a foot.
Considering switching over to a minimalist sneaker?
Start slow. Your feet will take some time to get used to the difference, and you should introduce them slowly. You should probably try starting out with something that has a little bit of a heel lift like a 4mm drop before going straight to zero drop.
What to look for in a minimalist sneaker.
It should be flat! Many times someone has come in with a sneaker that has been advertised as a minimalist sneaker, but it has a huge cushion on the bottom. This may be a good place to start going flat, but all that extra cushion can hurt in the gym. When you perform a loaded movement, the sneaker compresses from the extra weight and can throw you off a little bit. These shoes also still have a big arch support, and if we are going minimalist, we want our feet to have its own arch doing the work.
Wide toe box. A good minimalist sneaker will have plenty of room for your toes to spread out inside of them.
Lightweight and flexible. It should move well and have a lot of give in it. Some options also have a nice firm sole, which is good for training because it wont let the shoe compress down when performing loaded movements.
My favorite is the New Balance Minimus. I have had several pairs of these that have all lasted a long time and been great sneakers to train and work in. I use the cross-trainer pair that has a 4mm heel to toe drop.
If you think you wear a heel lifted shoe too much (you probably do):
Start spending more time barefoot! Obviously this is easier in the summer months, but don’t let slippers wreck your training in the winter- go barefoot around the house!
Vans, Chuck Taylors and other kinds of skateboarding-style shoes are great for everyday wearing - they are flat and will protect your feet. There are also a lot of new companies manufacturing zero drop dress shoes and work boots.
In closing, if you are having some foot or ankle or back pain – try switching over to a shoe with less of a heel lift on it. Lifestyle changes often produce quick results that have a huge impact. Remember - the other 23 hours of the day matter just as much as the 1 hour that you spend training. Don't let your training be tarnished by poor footwear choices.
*I suppose I can...