Categorized | Injury

Ask the Experts: Ankle Pain Caused by Going from Treadmill to Road

Posted on 14 July 2011

Question: I am transitioning to a minimalist running lifestyle and am definitely very comfortable with a mid/forefront strike at this point and have been loving my new minimalist trail shoes.  Unfortunately, when I went from treadmill running to roads with the nicer weather this past spring, I think I put too much stress on my ankle with the impact.  I am now having difficulty running at all without extreme pain in my ankle (I believe it is actually the bone, not the tendons/ligaments as stretching does not feel painful).  Would you recommend I look for a minimalist shoe with more cushioning to ease the impact on the hard pavement?  Or should I use a more traditional shoe for longer runs and keep my current minimalist shoe for shorter training and try to run off road?  I love the lightweight nature of these shoes, so I definitely don’t want something too bulky.

Ian Adamson responds:

Dear Ankle Pain,

The adaptation phase to any bio-mechanical change, including re-learning your natural running gait, may take longer than you want.   The build of your previous shoes and how many years you spent habituating to them will, to a large extent determine how long it takes to adapt to less.

As you have found out, the structure, connective tissue and joint surfaces in your feet have suffered some degree of atrophy over years or decades being in big bulky shoes. The reconditioning process should be considerably shorter, but may still take months (or in severe cases years.)

Reverting to a traditional shoe with a thick cushioned midsole, large heel to toe drop and highly constructed upper may not be the answer, and there are two primary reasons for this; 1. the unusual geometry of the shoe under your foot prevents you engaging with the ground in a natural manner, regardless of how good your form and gait mechanics are, and 2. the softness of the cushioning amplifies rotational forces upstream in your biomechanical chain (ankles, knees, hips, lower back, etc.), which introduces inefficiencies and most likely increases the risk of other injuries. Rotational forces at the joints make you work harder to run, and put asymmetrical force on the joint surfaces, basically grinding away at one side rather than loading across the entire surface.

Your best bet is to find a shoe that is:

1. level, that is no more than 5 mm heel lift since this starts to engage the ground early in the gait cycle, essentially forcing a heel strike.

2. supportive (no soft/thick foam)

3. provides a level of firm cushioning that is allows an imperfect foot strike, i.e. let’s the foot down to the surface relatively gradually (over about 1/10th of a second) sand provide good feeling for the ground and proprioception 4. is flexible enough to move with your foot, not against it.

4. provides protection from the jetsam and detritus of our urbanized environments. True minimal shoes won’t provide the cushioning, and soft or thick shoes don’t provide the necessary support or feeling for the ground.

Fortunately there are some good shoe choices meeting the above requirements. Merrell’s Trail Glove has 12 mm of protection underfoot and a nice compliant upper that allows your feet to spread (zero drop, 7.0 oz). Newton Running Shoes (Boulder, Coloradp) is coming out with a light weight shoe in September that will fit squarely in the minimalist category, the MV2 as in the equation for Energy = 1/2 MV squared (zero drop, 6.0 oz), and provides more protection (Full disclosure: I am the director of research and education at Newton).

For even more protection and a more of a traditional look the Newton Distance (2 mm drop, 8.4 oz), a favorite racing shoe for many triathletes. Other shoes worth considering are the Saucony Fastwitch 5 (although it has medial posting in the arch and a 7 mm drop, 8.0 oz), NB Minimus Road and Altra Instinct.   My personal choice that facilitates adaptation, foot function and protection is the Newton Gravity. It’s light and efficient compared to traditional shoes, so it feels  familiar after running in an uncushioned minimalist shoe.

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4 Responses to “Ask the Experts: Ankle Pain Caused by Going from Treadmill to Road”

  1. Jeremy says:

    You probably want to find out what’s up with your ankle first. If you have a stress fracture in one of the bones down there the only solution is rest. Pain = REST. Listen to what your body is telling you. You don’t want a shoe that masks this feedback. Minimalism is about more than just a lighter shoe. It’s about learning to interpret what your body is telling you while you are running. You have obviously misinterpreted a warning signal.

  2. I agree with both Ian and Jeremy. But once you get back out to give it another try, You also need to think about your technique. You said you’re comfortable with using a midfoot strike, but what was working on a treadmill apparently didn’t work on the road. Sounds like you may have learned your midfoot technique on a surface that “gives” with each impact, but when using the same technique on an unforgiving surface, the result changed.
    There are a series of techniques that should all be used together to produce a light footstrike. Producing a light footstrike involves proper posture, lean, ankle lift, stride length and cadence. My bet is that you were focused on the midfoot strike, but were likely still overstriding and landing more heavily than you should. Leaning forward slightly from the ankles, shortening your stride length and adopting a lighter, quicker cadence could all be helpful. Check out a copy of ChiRunning for more details. Hope you recover quickly!

  3. simon leblanc says:

    I’ve tried the 5toes Vibram “barefoot” shoe; it sucks! Love the 5toes concept; comfortable and cool, especially without the 5fingers socks; too much pain without proper cushioning; if your ankle hurts stop using that piece of junk; get the ankle checked out by a doctor. The “barefoot” biomechanics hypothesis is nothing more than market propaganda, similar to any supernatural beliefs; trust your own instincts and hope/pay for further research in the field. Enjoy your running!!!


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