June 21, 2024

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Super Shoes for Long Runs

Super Shoes for Long Runs

If there’s one part of my body that bears the brunt of all my running, it’s my calves. For years, I wore compression sleeves to keep them from feeling so beat up (they may not have a proven effect on performance, but I certainly felt less sore after wearing them!). This summer, though, a friend and running coach suggested that instead of wearing my standard trainers, I do my long runs in a pair of the Nike Zoom Alphafly Next{6f90f2fe98827f97fd05e0011472e53c8890931f9d0d5714295052b72b9b5161}—the style I was planning to wear to race the Chicago Marathon. But those are race day shoes! I thought. You don’t wear them in training!

But for $275, I should be able to get more out of a pair of shoes than 80 or so miles, right? (That number isn’t something any brand or expert recommends. It’s just what I considered an appropriate amount of miles for breaking in the shoes, plus the 26.2 on race day, Alternative Medicine.)

I had an older pair I’d done minimal mileage in, so I decided to give them a shot. And after an 18-mile run, I was amazed by how fine my calves felt. In fact, after multiple long runs in the Alphaflys, I felt so good I didn’t even wear my calf sleeves on race day—and I managed to PR in back-to-back marathons.

Expensive super shoes—a.k.a. high-stack, advanced midsole, carbon-plated shoes like the Alphafly, New Balance’s FuelCell RC Elite v2, Brooks’ Hyperion Elite 2, Adidas’ adizero Adios Pro 2, Asics’ Metaspeed Sky, and Saucony’s Endorphin Pro 2—have become the de facto styles for runners chasing PRs. But should we all be wearing them for long runs, one of the most important workouts in distance running training?

I dug into the research and talked to experts to answer that question.

The Benefits of Super Shoes for Long Runs

While the temptation may be to save these shoes for race day, they’re not designed to be one-and-done running sneakers. “There’s this perception with racing shoes, like ‘I want the new, I want the fresh’ but we certainly test them and build them to go longer,” says Elliott Heath of the Nike Running Product Team. “We’ve seen lots of runners have success racing in a pair of Alphaflys and then using that same pair for key training runs in their next training cycle.”

That’s because they’ve been shown to not only boost your speed, but also allow for better efficiency. They do that thanks to superior energy storage in the foam, lever effects of the carbon plate on ankle joint mechanics, and stiffening effects of the plate on the metatarsophalangeal joints (the joints between the foot and the toes), according to a 2019 study in the journal Sports Medicine. This all can translate to better endurance.

Plus, better running efficiency leads to less wear and tear on your body. (Keep in mind, though, that 2021 research in the Journal of Sport and Health Science found that super shoes are not quite as good at reducing the metabolic cost of running uphills as they are when running downhill or on a flat surface.)

“There’s no longer this inverse relationship between speed and impact protection,” says Heath. “By using the most resilient and highest energy-returning materials, you’re not just getting speed benefits, your muscles, bones, and joints are absorbing less impact.” Or at least, some of your muscles, bones, and joints.

For people with calf problems, like me, or general pain in the bottom of their foot, the standout features of super shoes can be advantageous, says Rami Hashish, Ph.D., founder of the National Biomechanics Institute and a doctor of physical therapy. “The increased stiffness of the midsole by virtue of the carbon plate—plus the materials they’re using in the midsole—put the muscles and tendons in the calf in a more favorable position where you’re a little bit more plantar-flexed,” he explains. This is helpful to a midfoot or forefoot striker because it puts less demand on the calves and Achilles tendons.

Also, considering runners who split their mileage between two or more shoes had 39 percent fewer injuries than those who ran in only one pair of shoes in a 2013 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, swapping your long run trainers out for a pair of super shoes is probably a solid move—at least for some people.

The Downsides of Wearing Super Shoes for Long Runs

Using super shoes for long runs is not a one-size-fits-all approach. “Any time you have a springy shoe with a cool material like carbon fiber or Boost foam [in Adidas shoes], you’re going to feel better in the moment,” says Casey Kerrigan, M.D., a distance runner and founder of OESH Shoes. “But while it may feel easier on your legs, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to have the lowest impact on your joints.”

Unfortunately, there’s not much research to say how super shoes will work for lessening the strain of a long run for people who feel like their quads or glutes take on most of the work—the science mostly points to benefits for the calves. What’s more: For runners with knee pain or who heel strike, these types of shoes can actually exacerbate the issue or cause new problems, Hashish says.

“[These shoes] have been shown to increase the rates at which the force [of impact] rises, which is directly associated with the breakdown of the cartilage in the knee and meniscus,” he explains. Translation: The force with which you hit the ground will travel up your leg more quickly, which could overload the joint. (FYI: Knee issues accounted for 27 percent of runners’ injuries in a recent University of Gothenburg study of 200-plus recreational runners.)

This isn’t to say that people with knee issues or heel strikers shouldn’t wear super shoes for long runs or at all. It’s just that wearing them more often won’t necessarily benefit these types of runners in the same way it might help those with calf issues.

Another drawback: Super shoes tend to have an upward curve in the front, a.k.a. a toe spring. This feature keeps your foot muscles from working as hard when you run because it propels you forward, according to a 2020 study published in the journal Scientific Reports. Not only does that weaken the muscles of the feet, but “when you get that stack height up in the forefoot, then you compromise the flexibility through the metatarsals, which is important for minimizing loads,” says Kerrigan.

While it may feel like your legs do the lion’s share of the work during running, strong, stable, and mobile feet are key for optimizing performance. And running in super shoes all the time can keep your feet from having the mobility and strength they need to keep you moving.

Running in high-stack shoes can also change how you run, says Hashish—your step length, cadence, how you impact the ground. “And not everybody can withstand that,” he adds. “It may put them in a position where they’re loading their body in ways in which they’re not accustomed to, and that can result in injury.” And, yes, those effects can show up even if you’re only wearing these super shoes for long runs once a week.

It often does take a bit more time for people to adapt to running in these in a healthy manner so give it bit, says Hashish, but if you notice any new aches and pains, switch back to another pair of shoes.

Either way, it’s crucial that runners test out these shoes in shorter runs before jumping into a long run or racing in them, considering research shows they may not work for everyone. In fact, one study from Oregon State University showed that runners completing the 5K distance actually absorbed more of the impact forces of running—which may increase their risk of injury—when wearing maximal cushioned shoes versus regular trainers. (This differs from the other, more positive research on super shoes as it focused on cushioning versus the carbon plate.)

Super Shoes and Long Runs: The Bottom Line

Calf issues and heel strikes aside, the reality is people are going to buy super shoes for race day because they’re fast. And if you’re doing that, you might as well try to get more benefit out of them during training. The key is just listening to your body and seeing how it responds to them.

“You first have to understand how you impact the ground and how you run,” says Hashish. “If your Achilles is feeling too much demand, then you put these shoes on, it may reduce your risk of injury and increase your energy efficiency. If you’re a heel striker who doesn’t have many issues, it’s not really beneficial to change.” That is, unless a change feels better for you.

There’s no one shoe that can prevent injury, protect your legs, or make running feel better for every single runner. But when you find a shoe that makes you feel good—especially if it’s a $275 super shoe—you want to get every penny’s worth of that advanced technology.

In my case, I’ve officially retired my calf sleeves and will be running double digits in maximal shoes from here on out. Try them out for yourself—starting with shorter runs and working up to long runs and then your race—and maybe you’ll be joining me in slipping into these next-level shoes for more than just the starting line.

Ashley Mateo
Ashley Mateo is a writer, editor, and UESCA- and RRCA-certified running coach who has contributed to Runner’s World, Bicycling, Women’s Health, Health, Shape, Self, and more.

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