Running Shoe Rotation and Why it Matters
Last Saturday I laced up my heavy distance trainers and prepared to tackle an 18-miler. Not far down the road, my Achilles felt like it had collapsed and began what was a jarring pain that shot up my leg with each stride. I spent the next two miles gimping along until finally it loosened up and I was able to finish the run, although my Achilles remained (and still remains, to some extent) tender and sore.
If you have read any of my prior articles, you've noticed frequent and consistent content regarding the need for a good collection of diverse running shoes and the need to wear them all somewhat regularly. However, I've never hit the topic head on. After failing to follow my own advice and bumping into a potential Achilles injury, it's time to do just that.
Plus, as if you really needed a reason to pick up another pair of running sneakers, right?
While I try to maintain a consistent shoe rotation, it can be difficult to accomplish particularly in the winter months. The shoes that I feel best optimize running stride (my barefoot/minimalist collection) are not well suited for winter running. My Sockwa X8s, Shamma Mountain Goats, or Carson BTMR Racers are simply too cold for the bitter Northern Minnesota winter temperatures. As such, I tend to revert to a limited number of heavier, insulated trail shoes during the winter months, with a pair of Saucony Peregrine Ice being the go-to runners.
This year was no different than other years, except a late spring arrived as my training was nearing its peak. The past month has included a consistent 60-70 miles per week, which for me is quite a lot. The tendency for longer training runs and my absent mindedness for shoe rotation meant a regular grab for heavier, cushioned shoes. Even my tempo runs often included a more cushioned option than I normally run in. Another factor was the proximity of this training to goal race which meant proportionally more miles at faster paces (i.e. target marathon pace, target half marathon pace, and faster). Those faster paces leave your muscles tighter at the end of each run, essentially locking them in place over time.
Running in the same shoe, or the same type of shoe in my case, can lead to stride issues and muscle imbalances. In hindsight, my doing so caused me to revert to more of a heel strike than usual. Plus, those faster paces put a lot of strain and created a lot of tightness in the foot, calf, and Achilles. Add it all up, and eventually my Achilles screamed enough at the onset of that recent long run.
Fortunately, there is a solution.
Common Shoe Types
Before we get into the solution and shoe rotation specifics, let's break down a few shoe types:
- Long run shoe. This is typically your Saturday or Sunday long run trainer. It's likely the heaviest shoe in your arsenal, with the most cushioning and built to take you down the road in a slow, steady fashion while protecting those precious feet.
- Tempo shoe. This is a lighter weight shoe often with far less cushioning than your other trainers. It is the most responsive training shoe in your collection and built for those short, faster tempo runs. You may also use this shoe on race days.
- All around shoe. A diverse shoe that can survive a long run while also not feeling overly heavy during a short tempo run. As you might imagine, it is heavier that your tempo shoe but lighter than your long run shoe.
- Race shoe. Depending on your choice distance, this is likely the lightest shoe in your collection and built for speed and setting PRs. You're not as worried about shoe protection here because races only come around so often and when they do, kicking butt is the only thing that matters.
- Barefoot or minimalist shoe. Often, but not necessarily, a lighter weight shoe that has a thinner sole designed to promote a natural running stride with maximal proprioception, or the connection between mind and foot. Unlike traditional cushioned shoes, you'll feel every step underneath down to the small pebbles that pass below each stride.
- Zero drop shoe. This is less of a shoe type and more of a variation of the shoes above. Most running shoes carry a 8-12 mm heel toe drop, meaning the heel carries between 8 and 12 millimeters of additional cushioning than the forefoot. A zero drop shoe has anywhere from a zero to 3 or 6 mm drop, meaning the level of cushioning in the heel is essentially the same as the forefoot. This is often done by reducing heel cushioning, although some shoes may add forefoot cushioning as well. Note that nearly all barefoot / minimalist shoes have a zero heel-toe drop.
Shoe Rotation Basics
If running in the same shoe can lead to stride issues and muscle imbalances, then running in a variety of shoes should do the opposite. And that's exactly right. So let's talk about how to practically make that happen.
First, although we defined race shoes above, ignore them from your rotation schedule. Most runners do not race that frequently, and even if you do it's likely not enough to merit rotating from one racing shoe to another between races.
Next, it's good to have at least two pairs of each shoe type. You want them both to feel comfortable, but at the same time be a little different. For example, I have two tempo running shoes. Both are very lightweight, but one has thicker cushioning while the other is less cushioned and more responsive. Also, think about different heel-toe drops. I have three long run shoes with respective heel-toe drops of 13, 8, and 3 millimeters. Those varied drops will each uniquely impact your running stride to activate different muscle types.
Third, think about two basic rotation concepts.
- The first is to make sure you're rotating the different shoe types applicable within target runs. As I mentioned above, having two tempo run shoes with different characteristics allows me to rotate between them from one tempo run to another. The same can be done with your long run trainers, or basic trainers. Wear a high heel-toe drop shoe on one long run, and a lower heel-toe drop shoe for the next.
- The second is to make sure you include some measure of barefoot running or minimalist running shoe miles in your schedule. There are not many good trails in my area. Unless I want to drive, that means road miles which are not friendly to an extreme barefoot shoe like my Sockwa X8s (which rock on the trails). However, my Shamma Mountain Goats or Carson Footwear BTMR racers are both awesome on the road for shorter distances. I like to pull these in for my shorter recovery runs, which I typically do on days that I also cross train by either swimming in the lake or pool or getting out on the bike.
Barefoot or minimalist running doesn't have to encompass much of your total running miles to provide significant rotation benefits. Even just 10% of your mileage from a barefoot or minimalist running shoe can provide significant form and muscle development benefits.
Back to my Achilles
After spending the remaining Saturday nursing and stretching my tender Achilles, I woke up the following Sunday and prepared to venture out again. This time, instead of grabbing my cushioned runners, I grabbed my Carson Footwear BTMRs. These shoes carry a 9.5 mm polyurethane sole that are very minimalist in nature and offer outstanding proprioception and balance. I've written reviews of this shoe in the past that reference what an amazing Achilles stretch they provide, so I was eager to see how my newly sore Achilles would react to this run. Two things happened.
First, my Achilles felt awesome. Sure, it was a little tender at the start, but as the miles went on (this was a short run, about 4.5 miles total) it continued to feel better and better. By the end of the run, I felt as though I had indeed given my Achilles an amazing stretch.
Second, my calves screamed in pain. This was as unexpected as it was enlightening. All told I ran 68 miles that week, and these minimalist shoe miles were as if I was using my calves for the first time. Why? Simple, I was running on my forefeet again. That proprioceptive feel had pushed me back into a proper running form with a mid to forefoot strike which activated my calves that had remained more dormant during my previous heel striking. Had I not rotated into this different shoe type, I would have continued to heel strike and not utilize my ever-important calf muscles.
I wore these shoes for two out of the following three runs before slipping back into a normal rotation cycle. My Achilles is not 100% recovered yet, but it feels immensely better and I was able to knock out 20 miles this morning in heavy trainers with virtually no pain. Two, my calves are no longer screaming as they've strengthened in response to forefoot running and a new Carson shoe in the rotation. You can be certain that my Carson, Sockwa, and Shamma's will remain in the rotation going forward.
Thank you for reading. Keep doing amazing things. And however you run, Run Uncommon.
The Uncommon Runner