An Untold Secret of Successful Runners

Pssst! How would you like to be let in on a major runner’s secret? What if we told you that there is a simple way to improve your running success without adding any extra work to your training regime? What if we spilled the beans that this secret can actually help reduce injuries, and extend the life of your shoes? Well, the secret is out! You just need to be alternating between several pairs of shoes during your training season. It sounds too good to be true, right? Let’s take a look at the science!

Our bodies are very skilled at adapting to stressors. In running, this means that our bodies learn how to become faster and stronger with consistent training. But this comes with one major catch: because running is a repetitive motion, we load our tissues in the exact same way with every step. Over time, performing the same motions (in the same pair of shoes, no less) can cause muscles and tendons in the lower body to overwork, leading to injuries and plateaus – two things that no runner wants to experience!

A study in 2015 found that runners using more than one pair of shoes during the same training cycle reduced their risk of injury by 39% compared to runners using only one pair. The researchers concluded that using multiple shoes alternates the forces applied to the body while running. In other words, switching up your shoes varies the forces your body must absorb, and this can go a long way to helping prevent injury.

Each model of shoe comes loaded with different features, from the type of support, to different levels of cushioning, to varying heel-to-toe drops. When we train in a single shoe, your foot strikes the ground the same way with every step, creating an identical impact that runs through the body mile after mile. When we rotate different pairs of shoes, we alter our gait, promote various foot strike patterns, and engage different muscle groups. This gives all of the muscles in our feet and legs a chance to work, strengthen, and recover – making you a better runner. The same principle can be applied to virtually any fitness regime: you wouldn’t only perform downward dogs in yoga, or bicep curls at the gym, or slap shots in hockey!

So how many pairs of shoes should you be using? The magic number according to Lauren Roberts, owner of The Running Physio in Toronto, is 2-3 pairs per training season. “For the most part, I would say that 2 pairs of shoes is pretty realistic for most people, without breaking the bank. Changing through your shoes on a bi-weekly cycle seems to be ideal. Varying your shoes changes up the degree and amount of work that each muscle is doing, so the likelihood of hurting yourself will be less,” says Lauren.

Besides making you a stronger runner and helping to reduce injuries, rotating shoes also extends the life of your footwear. While we run, the force of our bodies compacts the foam under our feet. Shoes need time for that foam to decompress, so that it can continue to do its job for hundreds of kilometres. By rotating your shoes, you’re giving ample time for the foam in your shoes to decompress and “rest,” helping them to last longer and save you money in the long run.

Ideally, we recommend using a lighter, firmer performance shoe for speed workouts, such as interval training, hill sprints, tempo work, and race-pace runs; then, use a more cushioned distance shoe for easy runs, recovery work, and long runs. It’s most beneficial for your two pairs of shoes to have a different heel-to-toe drop to maximize muscle activation and recovery.

It’s not necessary to stay with one brand for both pairs of shoes (i.e.: your speed shoe and distance shoe don’t both need to be Nike!), though many brands do create their shoes with this variance in mind. For example, you could use a New Balance 880 with a higher 10mm drop and added cushioning as your distance shoe, and a New Balance 1500 with a lower 6mm drop and lighter, firmer ride for your speed shoe. But any combination of shoe brands and models will work, so long as they are different in a few key ways. If you’re ever in doubt, stop into BlackToe Running and our staff will help you find the perfect pairs of shoes to fit your needs and preferences!

Alternating between two (or more!) pairs of shoes will train your body to become more responsive and resilient over time, simply by changing up your wheels. Like with any aspect of training, remember to be mindful and give yourself adequate time to adapt by gradually introducing an additional pair of shoes. Now that you’re a part of the inner circle of runner’s secrets, we look forward to seeing you crush your next milestone!

Special thanks to Nicole Liolios for the research and interviews used to create this blog.  Nicole is a grad student in the U of T Kinesiology program who is doing a work placement with BlackToe Running.