Ask the Experts: Should Heavier Runners Use Thickly Cushioned Shoes?

Posted on 03 July 2011

“Ask the Expert” is regular feature of the Natural Running Center. If you have any running-related questions — shoes, diet, gait, injury, transitioning– let us know, and we will do our best to have an expert from our NRC Advisory Board answer them.

Kick-off question: Should heavier runners use thickly cushioned shoes to lessen the impact of repetitive force stress on their joints?

Dr. Casey Kerrigan responds:

The answer is no. Being overweight increases the risk for knee osteoarthritis so most certainly for a heavy runner, consideration of the forces through the knee joint should be given the highest priority. I think a heavier Clydesdale-type runner should stay clear of any cushioned shoe from the start. Because, indeed, although the idea that a traditional running shoe increases forces through the knees is counterintuitive, that is exactly what we found in the gait laboratory.  But the increased forces we found were not at impact. The peak forces that are associated with knee osteoarthritis always occur later in the stance phase when the foot is fully planted – in midstance.

This is the case regardless of running form or whether or not someone is wearing shoes – minimal or otherwise. It is at this point in the gait cycle, when the foot is fully planted, and the foot and the lower leg are absorbing and releasing the body weight in preparation for the next step, that joint torques (which relate to joint forces), and really all stresses and strains related to common injuries, are the highest. This is the point when runners are at risk for osteoarthritis, and virtually ever other major injury, including stress fractures.

A cushioned shoe does not increase joint torques at impact. But what cushioning does do, which is harmful, is make the joints work harder, later, in midstance. Despite all the so-called advances in foam, gel and air filled bladder technologies, the typical midsole compresses and releases out of sync with the rise and fall of the body weight. By working out of sync, a cushioned midsole makes the joints (and all injury prone areas for that matter) have to work harder, which we see by way of the greater joint torques.

My recommendation: the heavy runner should run in a shoe with no cushioning.

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15 Responses to “Ask the Experts: Should Heavier Runners Use Thickly Cushioned Shoes?”

  1. 100% agree. More the person is heavy, more he/she needs good impact moderating behaviour to decrease the stress in is skeleton… and we know that the shoe interferes with this behaviour… the best for the knee (for 90% of people) is to run barefoot… or with minimal interference when barefoot is not possible.

    Note that the only part of the body that the big bulky shoes protect is the foot…

    My recommendation: the heavy runner should run barefoot or in a shoe with no cushioning (if the transition to barefoot running is not possible or to long to adapt)

  2. Tim White says:

    I am 6ft, 240 lbs, and know this advice to be true. I run wonderfully barefoot. In fact my knees feel much better barefoot versus the days when I followed the runner store advice of a bulky motion control clunker.

    Big people…..go bare!!

    Tim

  3. Ken Skier says:

    I’m a “heavier runner” (>200 lbs), with no ACL and almost no meniscus in one knee. After 2 operations, totalling more than 4 hours, my surgeon says the knee is still a train wreck. But my knee, hip, and lower back are all extremely happy when I run barefoot.

    I ran 20 races barefoot last year with no problem. Sadly, in December I started wearing running shoes (minimal ones, but they did have a heel)…and within weeks I was sidelined by an injury. (Plantar fasciitis.)

    I’m big, and have a bad knee, but my experience has shown that I run pain-free only when I run barefoot. Add shoes, and for me at least, injury is sure to follow.

    • Costas Constantinou says:

      I agree. I am heavy and found that switching to VVFs has eliminated the running pains (shins / knee / back). I do go a bit slower than when running with shoes as the body adjusts to a more comfortable speed on its own. I do not mind as I am “forced” to go longer and at lower HRs which is good for my training. Speed will come later, as I adjust to barefoot running and hopefully lose some weight. If you are heavy go minimal but do not expect to be fast. Be patient !!

  4. Tan zhi yuan says:

    This report will kill Asics, who product thick running shoe will gel ! Becareful Asics will sue you

  5. Steve Westing says:

    I also fully agree with these statements. As a 6′ tall 50 yr old man that has become a tad, err, “gravitationally challenged” I have discovered “knee nirvana” by going fully barefoot for 4-5 runs a week. The biggest trouble I’ve found is burning my feet on too hot asphalt if I run too late in the day. My only advice to fellow aging athletes is to go slow in the transition from heavy footwear (in my case the venerable Brooks Beast) to as I like to say OEM running (original equipment manufacturer) to avoid Achilles tendon issues and the like. There’s no free lunch; all that eccentric (stretch) loading that you used to put across your knees now goes across your arches and ankles and that takes a while to get used to.

  6. I’m discovering a bit of this first-hand. I’m on a quest to lose 100 lbs now.

    I attempted to start running years ago (and lbs ago) in my podiatrist dictated motion-control running shoes and it left me with knee and hip pain and caused me to stop trying to run.

    This time I am re-starting with VFF (the soles of my feet are VERY tender and my gym frowns on barefoot on the treadmill). Right now I’m paying a bit of a price in shin splits for progressing too fast but I’ve not had a lick of knee or hip pain. My feet are diffusely sore but I think that’s because they’re weak :)

    One day I tried the motion-control shoes on a single day as an experiment and I believe that’s what took my shin twinges to shin screams. My right knee was sore for several days. No more of that.

    So I’m reining myself back to walking at the gym and walking completely barefoot on some trails near home. I’m looking into some shoes for work that are minimalist as I can manage for day wear.

    • Lily says:

      I am not an extremely heavy person but could lose a couple of pounds. I went to the Xxxxx running shoe store and they said that I needed the motion-control running shoes because of my rotation. Well those shoes made my knees and shins hurt so much just walking that I couldn’t even think of running in them. I went back to my regular running shoes and it was much better.

  7. Stephen says:

    Would this be specific to only heavy runners? Based on what you’ve written would you advise all runners, regardless of weight, to run with no cushioning?

    • Scott says:

      Stephen,

      I weigh 150 at 5’11″. I run barefoot about 9-12 miles a week (about 3 miles at a time) and VFF bikilas for longer runs. My knees used to hurt until I changed from heel landing to forefoot landing. I am faster now (age 47) than I was five years ago when I started this whole running thing and am loving it.

      Regarding cushioning I think it is personal choice involving the distance run and how far along are you in the journey of learning to land properly so your body is strong and receiving the least amount of stress during the run.

      Enjoy the journey.

  8. “that is exactly what we found in the gait laboratory”. I have not heard the theory about running shoes being ‘out of sync’ with the runners gait before. It sounds like you are referencing some research and I would love to read more about this. Can you point me in the direction of this research?

  9. paul pete says:

    I believe this site to be agenda based. All recommendations are to bare foot running. I tried it, got achilles tendonitis and stopped. I then got a cushion shoe and it has been better. The impact to the ground is what caused my tendonitis so beware of web sites with agendas.
    just my 2 cents

    • MarkC says:

      bill k responds: yes, this site is agenda-based. and our agenda: to run pain-free and without injury. if you can do this with thick-tread, over-supported shoes, go for it. most runners can’t.

    • Tom Brois says:

      Let’s see. Physics dictates that the greater mass = greater potential energy (mgh= potential energy where m=mass and g=gravity and h=from step height to impact with ground). Theoretically, more massive people are going to hit harder. Now, I won’t argue with you. I just want to let everyone know empirically that whenever I wear highly cushioned shoes (n.b. I am a heavy runner, at least in the last year after gaining a lot of weight), I don’t wake up the next day feeling crippled from joint pain as I do when I run barefoot or with Vibram Five Fingers (VVF). So, sorry. You’re research somehow didn’t pan out in my situation.

  10. $berta Nesta says:

    Hi, let me tell you my personal experience – and if it’s not relevant, too long or anything just feel free – dear web-admin to just take it off the site – according to medical charts I am some 15-18kg heavier than my healthy weight should be and I’ve begun running about 2 years ago with some chick ultra-tech shoes… well into the firts year I begun having huge horror pain in one foot, at the base of the toes and couldnt put my foot down nor my weight on it for a couple of weeks: to make the story short I stopped running – my hubby is an MD told me it’s not for fat people and that I should get surgery – went to see the surgeon – rdv 3 months later dude he’s a star! – in those 3 months luckily I did a lot of reading and read on barefoot running and some serious thinking and yoga – the surgeon suggested to operate only if I don’t need my foot to be flexible. aha! yes indeed I want to keep my foot as flexible as possible! so no surgery for me.
    Went to a shop got natural shoes (trail freak vivobarefoot as there was snow on the hills) some cap and gloves ans off I went trying all the exercices I’d found on your site and elesewere to prepare for barefoot running- but beware I’m no weirdo heading off for the unknown, I did some consistent ski touring some hiking and climbing when I was younger. Now, almost 1 year later the vivo are about to take their end of carreer prize but the shop doesn’t keep them anymore.
    So one week before my first half marathon I had to buy new shoes (merrel glove) and I used them for some 20km spread in 4 sessions with no problem at all, still… my left foot begun hurting again like crazy midway through the half marathon: 1 min of consious breathing and I simply took the shoes off wiggled my toes and finished the run in my socks (chilly wind around the alpine lake!)
    See, why get hurt in shoes if my feet can take trail paths in vivo 3-4mm thin shoes they certainly can take a smoothly paved road for some 10km! this thought liberated my whole running ordeal ( I actually realized that merrel can be good but they still have some cushioning and don’t allow a full free movement of the foot expecially if the foot is not perfectly straight and narrow). Today I’ll go out in my xero, those I’m shure won’t put and side pressure on my bunion and… question, if I plan longer runs should I think about some sort of so called natural shaped cushioning or not necessary (Altra, Brooks…)? (better option would be to loose weight but that’s a whole different battle I’b been fighting since my teens)
    if anyone has some advice I’d be glad to read from you!
    thank you
    Berta


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