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Over-pronation and barefoot shoes - are they compatible?

by (604)
Updated about 8 hours ago
Created June 12, 2012 at 3:29 PM

I have chronic back issues. Especially my low back. Years ago, when I ran, I used to get shoes for over-pronation. Recently, my chiropractor is trying to get me to let him evaluate my feet to see if I need an orthotic.

Anyway, can someone explain why minimalist shoes are ok on concrete and other hard surfaces? We weren't designed to walk on concrete, so doesn't that mean that some of us might need a molded foot bed to avoid chronic issues? I have been having problems with my back since I was in my early 20's and I am 39 now. My psoas muscles are always tight, pulling on my low back. The Chiro said it might be from my over-pronation. Does anyone have any experience with this?

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604 · June 13, 2012 at 7:28 PM

Thanks again Caveman Kyle! I can't wait to try that once my back flare up settles down.

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1260 · June 13, 2012 at 2:47 PM

I added a section on form checking. Try it out and see if it helps with your back pain.

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1260 · June 13, 2012 at 2:31 PM

I'm going to hit the character limit, so I'm making a full answer post below, regarding running and your back. I hope it helps.

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604 · June 12, 2012 at 9:02 PM

No doubt I need to stop walking with my toes out. I try to stay in "spine neutral" as often as possible when standing. Thanks.

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604 · June 12, 2012 at 8:56 PM

I wish I could still run. Thanks for the info.

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604 · June 12, 2012 at 8:50 PM

This is excellent information. I am no longer running because of my back issues, but this answers a lot of questions. Thanks!

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604 · June 12, 2012 at 6:04 PM

This is helpful! Thanks! My husband also loves his Innov8's and can't wear his regular shoes comfortably anymore. Good luck with your marathon!

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19120 · June 12, 2012 at 4:50 PM

Definitely did not imply snarkiness -- sorry if it was inferred. Cheers. :-)

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11048 · June 12, 2012 at 4:25 PM

Just say, "Thank you," wickedween. greymouser's response wasn't snarky.

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3850 · June 12, 2012 at 4:23 PM

I should clarify that I will run on pavement in my minimal shoes for the reasons Amanda states (though I do it as little as possible since I don't enjoy it).

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1178 · June 12, 2012 at 4:07 PM

+1 for Superfeet! They really only need to be replaced about every 8 months or year.

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604 · June 12, 2012 at 4:04 PM

I appreciate you taking the time to answer, but you could have left the snark at home.

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11 Answers

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1260 · June 12, 2012 at 5:12 PM

As a guy who sold Vibrams for 4 years and traditional shoes for around 8 years, I hope I can provide a bit of insight here.

Minimalist shoes will bring nothing to the table. That's the idea, they do nothing for you, allowing your body to act 'naturally'. Vibrams were designed as water sporting shoes. It was the running community that elevated them to the 'pinnacle of footwear design' silliness.

Before Blue Ribbon Sports (now Nike) 'invented' the first running shoe, everyone ran in stuff like Chuck Taylors. All running shoes were, by today's standards, minimalist. The only way you could avoid injury was to learn how to run correctly. People had, and listened to, coaches. You learned to run in a style that fit your goals (long distance, cross country, sprints, etc).

After the 'running shoe' was born this became the new American runner's lifecycle:

A untrained person would walk into a store, buy a pair, and take off down the road without instruction. The shoe did what it was designed to do, and protected the foot from poor form, by dissipating impact (at the expense of some lost energy). The problem is, that without instruction, long term injuries caused by form issues were never diagnosed/addressed.

When their knee started to hurt, it was a shoe problem (obviously) so they'd changed to a different shoe (because their buddy has that shoe and their knees don't hurt). They'd run for a while longer until it was time for a pain/new shoe, and on and on and on. Eventually they blow out their knee, take up cycling, and talk about how runners are reckless.

No one ever stops and evaluates form, because running is natural, right?

Vibrams/minimalist shoes are just the latest iteration of this. They help some people (just like medial posts help some people) because the neutral shoe works with their foot geometry. If you have collapsing/flat arches, you will over-pronate with a heel-toe stride. Orthotics and medial-posts correct this by preventing the ankle from dropping (it forces you to have an arch). But if you over correct (the problem with DIY arch kits and medial-posts) you will end up supinating (the opposite problem).

However, minimalist shoes do remove the protective element of the traditional shoe, so you are more open to injury if trail/road conditions suddenly change (you have to dodge something). I saw MANY people come in with chronic stress fractures in the balls of their feet after unsuccessfully attempting to run in Vibrams/Merrells/etc.

So what is the solution? Learn to run correctly. All the stuff the barefoot running books/videos/seminars teach is fully applicable to traditional footwear as well. By transitioning to a mid-foot strike you move the initial impact zone from your narrow heel to the wide ball of foot. This more stable position largely eliminates over-pronation (and supination as well), eliminates the need for orthotics (while running) and/or medial-posts, and uses your own biomechanics to lessen impact (because the heel drops under the control of the calf, spreading strike-impulse over a longer duration of time).

If you are looking for everyday walking/casual shoes, an orthotic is likely your best bet. Ask a podiatrist.

tl;dr:
Learn how to run better, don't blame your shoes.


EDIT

Since you stopped running due to back pain (which may-or-may-not have been caused by foot/lower-body dynamics), you may want to try a form check/correction and see if it helps your back enough to start running again. If you have access to a treadmill, it's super easy and safe because the treadmill's reactive deck will prevent you from impact-related injuries.

  • Set the treadmill to a speed you are comfortable with and start running.

  • Position yourself so that you are hitting with a heavy heel strike (weight all the way back). This is terrible form. It will be LOUD.

  • Slowly transition your weight forward so that your foot strike drifts forward, until you are landing full forward on your toes (like a sprinter). This position s equally incorrect. It will also be LOUD.

  • Yo-yo back and forth between these two and listen to the sounds of your foot strikes as you do it. When you are forward or backward, running with bad form, the impacts will be LOUD. Somewhere in the middle, usually the back side of the ball (mid-foot), the sound will get pretty quiet. This is where you want to be running.

  • Continue to run and evaluate your impact sound. When you get tired/distracted your will break form and the sound will get loud again. That will queue you to resume your form. When you reach a point where you cannot maintain, just stop for the day. Eventually you will set the new form as your muscle-memory default and it will not take any real thought to maintain it (only resume ipod listening after this point). Once that happens you can safely run on any (reasonable) surface with any (reasonable) type of footwear.

The idea here is that when you are running heavy (loud) the impact is happening over a small time-frame, creating a high impulse and thus high impact up your spine. When you are running quietly, the impact is occurring over a longer frame, creating a lower impulse, and less shock up your spine.

Another thing you'll likely notice, is that it helps to take shorter and more frequent strides. Long strides encourage heel striking and actually create a high impact braking period (when the heel lands in front of the body). Short strides reduce/eliminate this and are, therefore, more energy efficient.

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604 · June 12, 2012 at 8:50 PM

This is excellent information. I am no longer running because of my back issues, but this answers a lot of questions. Thanks!

193f00d53ebcb13940c7a55afc78ad17
1260 · June 13, 2012 at 2:47 PM

I added a section on form checking. Try it out and see if it helps with your back pain.

193f00d53ebcb13940c7a55afc78ad17
1260 · June 13, 2012 at 2:31 PM

I'm going to hit the character limit, so I'm making a full answer post below, regarding running and your back. I hope it helps.

1133603ea602c6824da56e8b596c9754
604 · June 13, 2012 at 7:28 PM

Thanks again Caveman Kyle! I can't wait to try that once my back flare up settles down.

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19120 · June 12, 2012 at 3:47 PM

We weren't designed to walk on concrete ... nor were we meant to shod our feet. "Two wrongs do not make a right."

If your doctor says you have over-pronation only treatable with orthotics, that is between you and your doctor to come to a decision that is best for you.

Mechanical-wise, I can tell you from experience that walking in minimal or barefoot shoeware is nothing like walking shod. Walking is, as best as I can describe, a light, springy motion, that hits neither the toes nor the heel. It's definitely not the repeated heel-striking of conventional shoe wearers.

Comparing "I need something medically corrective for my gate" and "aren't barefoot shoes bad?" is an apples-to-oranges comparison. Granted, you are not going to find barefoot shoes with orthotics built in, so when you get orthotics you may be correcting actual over-pronation, but you're also wearing shoes that encourage a completely unnatural walking posture.

Whenever people ask me (mainly in airports, it seems), how I like "those shoes" (referring to my Vibrams), I always tell them the same thing: "They are not magic -- they don't actually correct anything. However, unlike conventional shoes, they offer you the possibility of walking more naturally."

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604 · June 12, 2012 at 4:04 PM

I appreciate you taking the time to answer, but you could have left the snark at home.

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11048 · June 12, 2012 at 4:25 PM

Just say, "Thank you," wickedween. greymouser's response wasn't snarky.

Ebb10603524dd22621c1155dd7ddf106
19120 · June 12, 2012 at 4:50 PM

Definitely did not imply snarkiness -- sorry if it was inferred. Cheers. :-)

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609 · June 12, 2012 at 4:10 PM

I also over-pronate and used to wear over-pronation shoes when I ran but then I went to a running clinic and changed the way that I run: running on the balls of my feet so that my heels rarely touch the ground. Now, I don't need to wear those heavy, ugly over-pronation shoes!

Running this way is also what lot of barefoot enthusiasts prefer: http://zenhabits.net/barefoot-running/

*I should note that I only run in CrossFit now and wear CF shoes

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604 · June 12, 2012 at 8:56 PM

I wish I could still run. Thanks for the info.

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110 · June 12, 2012 at 7:55 PM

Have you tried going to a physical therapist and learning how to walk/sit/stand/etc correctly? I used to have back issues, which boiled down to the fact that I did ALL of these things wrong.

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604 · June 12, 2012 at 9:02 PM

No doubt I need to stop walking with my toes out. I try to stay in "spine neutral" as often as possible when standing. Thanks.

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1239 · June 12, 2012 at 5:12 PM

I can only speak from my personal experience as an over-pronator, but minimalist shoes have worked wonders for me. Many years ago, I cracked three vertebrae in my lower back, so that combined with the over-pronation and uneven hips has given me a slew of lower back problems. For about five years I ran in these clunky shoes that were supposed to help WITH orthotics. I even ran my first marathon with them. But I was constantly hurt. I developed tendon strain in my feet, I had constant hip pain, and my back issues didn't go away.

A little over a year ago, I decided to try something different after seeing how much my husband liked his Vibrams. I bought the Merrell Lithe and haven't looked back. Running feels 100% more natural without those heavy shoes dragging my heels down and I haven't had a bit of pain. None. Zero. I'll be running a marathon with them in October and if they can pass that test, then I'm sold for life.

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604 · June 12, 2012 at 6:04 PM

This is helpful! Thanks! My husband also loves his Innov8's and can't wear his regular shoes comfortably anymore. Good luck with your marathon!

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1178 · June 12, 2012 at 4:17 PM

Maybe ask your Chiro of some good psoas stretches?

I wear Nike Frees, quite a bit on hard surfaces, no problems. I did a half marathon in a pair last year & ran around NYC in pair for 7 days. I'm actually on my 3rd pair. The last pair of fancy pants $130 Asics running shoes I bought gave me bunion issues? Gross. I read Born to Run while on vacation, came home put on the those Asics, and bought a pair of Nike Frees the next day because the bunion pain returned the day after wearing my Asics, after leaving them home for a week and not having any pain. I'm not a crazy runner, or even a barefoot runner but that book kind of gave me a weee insight on how we screw with our feet. The rest of my hours are spent in Vibrams, TOMS, Ugg slippers or barefoot.

Speaking of back pain, I have a pair of Keens which I've just linked (yesterday!) to flaring up an old low back injury. The second I switched shoes, the pain went away.

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78422 · January 25, 2013 at 9:14 AM

No, they are not compatible, you can have a try on this kind of shoes http://www.upere.com/upere-wedge-sneakers-suede-red-wine-black-p-5.html.

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10 · December 27, 2012 at 5:01 PM

I had the same problem. Low back pain, over pronation. I even wore insoles to try and correct it. Long story short, I didn't want to wear insoles forever. I started looking into minimalist shoes. I got some 5 fingers and wore them to the gym. Still running in regular running shoes. Then, I started hiking in my 5 fingers. I had them over a year before my first run in them. 3 years later I don't have the over pronation problem and, despite my toes being more spread out, my foot is much more compact. I went from wearing size 12.5 to size 10.5 because my arch lifting changed the shape of my foot.

For the lower back pain, check out: http://foundationtraining.com/home/

The Exercises of foundation training have woken up glutes, hamstrings and back muscles. I have been working a job behind a desk for over 10 years and my posterior chain is weak causing lower back and knee pain. Everything feels better after 7 weeks of foundation training. Give it a look.

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0 · December 27, 2012 at 4:37 PM

As I understand it, shoes can both help or hurt overpronation. They make it worse by raising the heel up higher than it would be naturally, which exacerbates the "heel strike" and leads to excessive pronation (source http://overpronatorshoes.com). On the other hand, there are certain shoes designed to "fix" overpronation, generally by stabilizing your foot during impact. Minimalist shoes won't help at all with that, but they may encourage you to pronate less (and run more naturally) due to the lower heel.

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3850 · June 12, 2012 at 4:08 PM

I have the same issues. The thing that has helped me the most was instability shoes. MBTs are the gold standard. They are very pricey but completely worth it. They were developed for the very reason that man was not designed to walk on concrete. Instead of keeping your feet locked in an unnatural position, they allow you to walk naturally as if on soft sand or dirt. Wearing instability shoes has strengthened all of my lower leg muscles as well as trained me to realign my posture so I walk in the correct upright position. When I wear them my feet do not get sore or tired and I don't get the back pain I used to get every time I stood for a long time. Even if I'm walking many city miles or standing for 8 hours. I also stopped getting plantar fasciatis.

I love my minimal shoes for running or playing in grass or hiking on trails, but when I have to log a lot of time walking or standing on hard surfaces, these are lifesavers.

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3850 · June 12, 2012 at 4:23 PM

I should clarify that I will run on pavement in my minimal shoes for the reasons Amanda states (though I do it as little as possible since I don't enjoy it).

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660 · June 12, 2012 at 4:00 PM

I don't think those shoes will work with your feet. I have the exact same issue (psoas like a rubber band, flat feet, low, deep back aches). It sucks. I personally think that stable shoes are hugely important for this issue. I wear motion control tennies for all walking and exercise, and I replace them often. In my regular, hangin-out shoes, I use Superfeet, which are generic orthotics (I just couldn't drop the dough on customs). They work great. Around the house, I wear those dorky Adidas sandals (you know, shower shoes), and they really, sincerely make a difference for me. That brand in particular has a firm, well-shaped footbed. The only time I am barefoot is when I am in a reclined position. If I go a few days without the sandals while I do something as simple as cooking dinner, I'm fucked.

On a side note, something that has really helped me is glute/hip strength training. If your glutes are weak, you will end up over-relying on your already taxed back and making it worse. I've been super lazy about this lately, but doing simple exercises like clams, side-stepping with a tight band, and butt-clenching posterior leg lifts really can make a difference.

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1178 · June 12, 2012 at 4:07 PM

+1 for Superfeet! They really only need to be replaced about every 8 months or year.

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