Thin or Thick Sole: What’s the Best Type of Shoe for Running?

Some runners prefer a type of shoe that offers little cushion in the sole. Getty Images

For injury-prone runners there’s always the question of what type of shoe is safer.

Some runners think it is shoes that are heavily cushioned and others prefer the more traditional thin-soled shoes.

A new study published in Scientific Reports suggests that running in those comfortable, highly cushioned shoes often marketed to prevent injury, might actually increase leg stiffness and lead to greater impact loading when your foot hits the pavement.

What the study found

The small study looked at 12 healthy men — with an average age of 27 — who were accustomed to running. Each of them had some sort of experience running regularly or playing sports. The men were given pairs of the thickly cushioned Hoka One One Conquest shoe and the thinner Brooks Ghost 6 running shoe.

A 3-D analysis was done on the men as they ran at both 10 km/hour (6.2 miles/hour) and 14.5 km/hour (9 miles/hour) jogging speeds.

Video footage of the men wearing the more cushioned shoes revealed they bent their knees less, hitting the ground harder than with the less-padded shoes. This difference was more noticeable at the faster speeds.

Lead researcher Juha-Pekka Kulmala, PhD, wrote in an email to Healthline that he and his team expected to see similar impact loads when it came to wearing both types of shoe. The fact that there was a noticeable difference was an “unexpected result.”

“Highly cushioned and compliant shoes compress under the foot during the ground contact of running when three times body weight load is placed upon the lower limb. The leg tends to compensate this to maintain a preferred bouncing movement of running and therefore become stiffer and compresses less,” Kulmala wrote. “This typically results in similar impacts across different cushioning properties. However, it seems that very heavily cushioned shoes even increase impacts.”

What this means for runners

Should you be concerned if you just went shopping for cushioned running shoes?

Dr. Michael J. Joyner, a physiologist and anesthesiologist at Mayo Clinic, says “not so fast.”

He explained that every so often, studies like this will emerge looking at whether or not one type of shoe could lead to more injuries than another when running. Joyner said that, from his experience, there is “no concrete evidence that one type of shoe over another reduces chance of injury.”

“This kind of debate goes in and out. I remember the old Nike LDVs, which make the current maximum-size shoes look like Boy Scouts. They were like moon boots in the ’70s and early ’80s,” Joyner told Healthline. “This kind of thing is more about what is in and out of fashion, and there isn’t much evidence out there. My best advice for someone looking for running shoes would be to actually go and try some shoes on and find what is most comfortable for them.”

Joyner said that a lot of research into this question veers from less padding to more padding and back again depending on what idea is more in the mainstream at the time.

He said an emphasis on less padding, for instance, comes from “bio-plausible arguments” made by some that running barefoot, without sneakers, is the best for your body and how your legs were designed by nature to handle the impact of running.

“Now there is this movement to have more padding with these ultra-maximalist shoes, but, again, some people like them, some don’t, and you really have to find what works well,” he added. “In general, the neuromuscular system adapts [to] different kinds of shoes, the impact on tendons and ligaments, based on what shoes you’re wearing, might not be that much of a difference.”

For his part, Kulmala said that most people run with a heel-strike pattern and “need some amount of cushioning.”

“Too much or too little cushion leads to higher impacts,” he wrote.

“A few years ago, it was suggested that people should run with a minimalist cushion shoes and use forefoot striking pattern to avoid impact forces. However, forefoot striking is too demanding for most of people, because it requires so much more force generation from the calf muscles when compared to running with a heel-strike pattern,” Kulmala wrote. “A danger with minimalist shoes is that when a runner becomes fatigued, he or she starts to heel strike, and then very high impacts occur without any cushion.”

Joyner said that at the end of the day, everybody’s feet are different.

“I got my first pair of running shoes at 16 or 17 years old in 1975 — Tiger Montreals. They were way way better than the basketball sneakers that I was running in,” he said. “Over time, materials change in shoes, but I’m not sure if a lot of the adjustments in shoe technology over time really made any difference or any difference in injury rates.”

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Kulmala said that, next, he would be interested in conducting a running injury study using both kinds of shoes while making sure to measure the “biomechanics” — things like impact force and leg stiffness — of each person before testing starts. He said most studies out there on running injuries look solely at injury rates between different kinds of shoes “without any information about running biomechanics data.” These studies haven’t found clear differences in injury rates, as Joyner suggested, but Kulmala added that examining these physiological differences in people that could reveal running injury risks would be important to examine in future studies.

If people are having difficulty remaining injury free from running, Joyner suggested that how we choose what to put on our feet might be more to blame than the shoe design itself.

“I think one of the challenges is, simply, people used to go to the sporting stores and try on shoes. Now, they’re buying online to save money, to buy what looks good, to buy what they hear is good, which all makes sense, but they haven’t necessarily tried a variety of shoes on in person to see what makes sense for their bodies,” he added.

The bottom line

A new study tested out thin- and padded-soled running shoes on 12 men who jogged at fast and slower speeds. It found that the more-cushioned shoes seemed to result in greater impact loading when the wearer’s foot hit the ground, leading to greater risk for an injury, like a stress fracture.

Are minimal sneakers better? Some medical professionals turn a skeptical eye to these kinds of studies and suggest that there isn’t a lot of concrete evidence that one kind of shoe is more dangerous than another. It might be more important to try out what shoe is best for you, according to Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Michael J. Joyner.

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