In the modern era of running, function has taken a backseat to fashion. It seems these days, shoes almost entirely prevent a natural gait and strike with things like narrow toe boxes, high toe/heel drops, thick and cushioned soles, and a toe spring.
These “cushioned shoes” for lack of a better term, are thought to interfere with the body’s ability to change from an inverted pendulum (walking) gait to a spring gait (running), and create rear foot striking. When you walk normally, the heel hits the ground first. Ground reaction forces (GRF) travel through this point of first contact and provide information as to how hard your heel is striking the ground. As these GRFs increase, the risk for injury increases, and the body reacts by changing from a walk to a run, and with that comes a gait change.
By adding cushioning to the heel of shoes, modern running shoes dampen this the force of this point of contact, increasing the speed at which you can run with a heel strike and not feel pain. If you were to run like this WITHOUT the dampening effect of shoes designed to take the impact, you would not be able to run as fast or far. In fact, you would most likely be seriously injured so please do NOT go out and try it.
The whole kinetic chain of shoe runners is different to that of barefoot populations. Shoe runners experience increases in stride length, stride time and ground contact time compared to barefoot running. By spending that much time on the ground during your stride, you open yourself to injury.
If you do find yourself injured, self-myofascial release of the foot spring can be beneficial, specifically the plantar aponeurosis, Achilles tendon, tibialis anterior and soleus. Any tissue that is compensating for another is likely locked in a shortened position. Coaxing these tissues to full function and increasing the neural pathways to lesser active tissues of the foot may improve the overall function, strength and movement of your feet. It may also be time to get fitted for a new pair of shoes.
However this shouldn’t take a priority in your rehabilitation. Just because you change your shoes, doesn’t mean you have fixed the problem. Work with a coach, or film your gait on a treadmill. Its important to break these habits before you get back into any sort of high mileage running.
What should you wear?
When looking for a new running shoe, look for ones that have a wide toe box to allow the toes to splay out and encourage distance between the hallux and second toe. Ideally, they should have zero toe/heel drop to allow the feet to function correctly, and feature a thin, non–cushioned sole that will not dampen feedback from the ground.
While no shoe compares to the effects of barefoot running, a shoe that interferes as little as possible with the natural form and gait patterns of the human foot while providing protection against injury from the elements will be the best shoe in the long run.
The transition though may be uncomfortable as the body and foot have to now adjust to what could possibly be years of improper function. By building these muscles, you may notice some soreness in the calf and sole of your foot. Listen to your body, do not push into injury, but stick with it. You’ll be better in the long run.