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The Raised Heel Shoe: Could Jessica Rabbit Run a Marathon?

Posted by on Dec 20, 2011 | 16 Comments

The raised heel shoe.  Is it a good thing?  Some believe it is.  In some cases (unrelated to running) it may not be so bad, as we’ll see below. What about running shoes?  The vast majority of runners, especially road runners, run in raised heel shoes.

Let’s take a look at the effects of raising the heel of a shoe.

Normally, our posture is pretty good.  By “normal” I mean barefoot.  Our backs are straight.  Look at the skeleton on the left.  This is normal.

As soon as we place something under our heel to raise it above the forefoot, our pelvis rotates forward.  If we allow our torso to move with our pelvis, we would end up in a position like the middle skeleton.

Since this position feels weird and makes us unbalanced, we compensate by arching our back.  The resulting position looks like the skeleton on the right.

This effect can be aesthetically-pleasing for females.

Why?

It creates a few visual tricks:

  • First, the heel makes the legs appear longer.
  • Second, the tilted pelvis raises the butt and causes it to stick out.  Think J Lo.
  • Third, the arched back compensation causes the chest to stick out.  Think Pamela Anderson.

This visual effect can turn this:

Into this:

If you’re going out for a night on the town, I won’t argue this is a bad thing.  ;-)

HOWEVER, if you take this same effect and transpose it on a runner, you end up with a disaster in the making.  Raised heel running shoes produce the exact same effect as Jessica Rabbit’s stilettos.  The changed posture causes excessive stress on the knees, hips, and back.  What’s the solution?

Simple.  Get zero-drop shoes.  Even reducing the heel-to-toe differential will produce positive results.  This is a major reason why zero drop shoes are becoming so incredibly popular- they alleviate pain caused by bad posture.  This is also the reason several major manufacturers, like Saucony, are reducing the rise in the heels of their running shoes.

The raised heel can also promote heel striking.  If you attempt to run with a midfoot strike, your foot (inside the shoe) will be parallel with the ground as it is about to make contact.  Since there’s more material under the heel of the shoe, it will contact the ground before the forefoot.

This same effect can cause problems for non-runners, too.  Back in the day I worked as a cashier in a grocery store.  We’d be on our feet for eight hour shifts.  Every single one of the long-term cashiers had significant foot, knee, hip, or back pain.  Many used some sort of drug therapy to alleviate the pain.  Some underwent radical surgeries.  The solutions rarely if ever worked.  What could have fixed the problem?  Switching to a flat-soled shoe.

Interestingly, one of my former colleagues figured this out.  She even told others, but her attempts at education fell on deaf ears.  People wanted to believe MORE shoe was the solution, not less.

What are your thoughts?  Have you made the switch to a zero or near-zero drop shoe?  What affect has the switch had on your injuries and pain?

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16 Comments

  1. Skye
    December 23, 2011

    I wear zero-drop shoes exclusively and love them! I run in zero-drop shoes (vivobarefoot, vibram, water shoes–or barefoot) and wear zero-drop for casual wear (mostly chuck taylors) and have found that my posture is much better (not to mention my lack of knee and hip flexor pain when running!)

    Before I made the switch, I could barely wear my Converse…thought they hurt/were uncomfortable, but that is untrue. Now when I try to wear a raised heel shoe I feel like I am going to topple over and my lower back hurts.

    Also, my SO used to have back pain all the time, for days on end, now that she switched to minimalist shoes for running and casual wear, she is nearly pain free!

  2. Brian G
    December 20, 2011

    Wikipedia has a history on high heeled shoes at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-heeled_footwear. The basic idea is that they arose due to fashion and for use in stirrups.

    I know of no podiatrist that ever recommends high heels, either for standing or walking. (The advice always seems to be “minimize your time in them and go for lower heels if possible”.) There are just too many foot problems that arise from wearing high heels, with the higher the heel and the longer the time in them the worse the issues. So if the higher heels equals worse symptoms, conversely what heel height results in the least issues? No heel height, obviously, aka zero-drop. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out.

    But then cut a “traditional” running shoe in half and what do you see? A high heel (on a spongy substance, no less). So podiatrists recommend reduced heel height as often as possible but then say you should *run* in them? I just can’t follow that logic.

    • Erik
      December 21, 2011

      Yah, that’s what really amazes me. We’ve known for a long time that high heels are bad for you, but it wasn’t until just a few years ago that we (the majority of people) realized this must apply to running shoes too. I myself was duped. I’ve always been a barefooter by preference, but I used to buy Nike-type running shoes unthinkingly when it came time to run.

    • jeff
      December 21, 2011

      “So if the higher heels equals worse symptoms, conversely what heel height results in the least issues? No heel height, obviously, aka zero-drop. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out.”

      Ah, but were I to think like a shoe company, I’d say that “no heel height” isn’t going nearly far enough. What we need is to have anti-high heels. The ball of the foot obviously needs to be raised, such that it is significantly higher than the heel!

      • Erik
        December 22, 2011

        That reminds me of the ‘earth shoes’ of the 1970s.

  3. Juan
    December 20, 2011

    Hi,

    I’m 29 now and since I was 18 I’ve been with all kind of knee injuries, in those years I never could run more than 20 minutes always having pain in my legs. I visited many doctors and specialist around my area and all of them agreed that running is too hard for the human body.
    7 month ago I read the book BornToRun which made my think about my running form, which was completely wrong since I was landing on my heels. Then I started to run barefoot and I bought some zero drop shoes, since then I’m able to run more than 1 hour with no pain.
    Completely agree to this post!

  4. John R.
    December 20, 2011

    So what you are essentially saying is that women wear heels for one purpose only: sex.

  5. Mo
    December 20, 2011

    I concur with Rob. By never wearing an elevated heel or tight toe box, my feet, legs, hips and back are essentially pain free, even though I work long days on stone floors… It took about 6 months to re-train my feet and stride, but after decades of increasing discomfort, I am happy to be free of arch support, padding, heel elevation, and “sardine toes”!

  6. HK
    December 20, 2011

    I would be very happy to see some scientific evidence supporting this. I’m not saying that it can’t be true, but this doesn’t really convince me. I’ve actually made the same argument myself and lost the debate against my physiotherapist husband – as far as he believes (and me also, now), there is no evidence for “as soon as we place something under our heel to raise it above the forefoot, our pelvis rotates forward”. Still, you make the statement like it would be a law of physics.

    Here’s a small review of this published last year: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22027108 The conclusions: “It appears that some health care providers are offering advice about the effect of high-heeled shoes on lumbar lordosis that conflicts with most published research.”

    My husband actually made tested this hypothesis on me, and he was right, there’s definitely nothing that forces an instant pelvis tilt just because our heels are lifted higher. Not in the standing posture at least. So I think that your skeleton figures are not really being honest.

    I wonder what happens when we run, though, especially when we get tired. Could the pelvis start tilting then? I don’t think any research has been done on that.

    Just to be clear: I’m a minimalist runner myself and have get rid of a chronic hip pain thanks to zero drop shoes, so I really believe that high heels can be bad for the hips. I just don’t know the mechanism. I think people advocating minimalist running should stick to scientific facts to be appear more credible.

    • briderdt
      December 20, 2011

      I totally agree HK. What causes the pelvis tilt is comparative muscular weakness/tightness of the abdominal, back, hamstring, and quad muscles. There’s no direct connection, skeletally or muscularly, between the flexion of the foot and the pelvis. Does one not believe the calf simply shortens to compensate?

  7. Anne
    December 20, 2011

    Totally agree. Problem is finding zero drop shoes with a flexible sole and a wide toe box that are also suitable for wearing to the office. Particularly for ladies. In winter.

    All ladies shoes (at least in the UK, where I am) seem to have raised heels and/or big chunky soles and/or pointed toes. In the summer there was a fashion for soft ballet pumps, which were brilliant – but not so good when the snow and ice arrives!

  8. Alex
    December 20, 2011

    I manage a coffee bar, which requires long days without sitting. And doing it in, essentially, house slippers, has made a massive difference for me. A few of my employees have switched too, and seem to enjoy it.

    What I’m more curious about, though, is how the raised heel came to be an industry standard, and furthermore, how so many people can run quite well with it. I legitimately don’t understand.

    • jeff
      December 20, 2011

      With current running sneakers, I can imagine there was something of am arms race. One shoe had (X)mm of padding, so the next had (X+1)mm, etc. Since many people heel strike, the obvious answer is to pad the heel more.

      But that doesn’t really answer the question of where it started. It’s definitely not limited to sneakers. Men’s dress shoes have an obviously raised heel. So do cowboy boots.

      I wonder how far back in history we would need to go in order to find that one cobbler who added a thicker block of leather to the heel of a shoe.

      Was it about adding padding, while avoiding using too much of an expensive resource? Was the heel a way of adding traction? Or is there some other unrelated reason?

  9. mark p
    December 20, 2011

    I have swapped to 100% zero drop while non-running but I have to say the years in shoes have done there damage. Its taking a lot of practice to find a good walking/running form where everything flows

  10. Richard
    December 20, 2011

    Yes, I have gone zero drop, never to return.

    When not barefoot I use the Bikilas or Trail Gloves for running. The injuries do not occur. The biggest difference however is how I do not feel beat up after a long run. Even in the Kinvaras that I used before(4mm drop) I would feel abused after any run over 12 miles. I would usually skip recovery runs because I felt so bad. Now I can do 6 mile recovery runs the day after a 20+ miler and I feel great.

    However I have to say that I did have an initial period of feeling abused in zero drop until I corrected my form. Proper form is just as, if not more important than the shoe, IMO.

    I also wear zero drop when not running most of the time. The change is not so dramatic but I think you make a great point that less is more for long periods of standing.

  11. Rob
    December 20, 2011

    This is an area I totally agree with; what you wear everyday while NOT exercising. As most of us spend most of our time not running it makes sense that the most bang for your buck would be to have a zero drop shoe during these times.

    This is why I argue that what you wear while running probably doesn’t matter nearly so much as what you wear while you’re not running. For working, running errands, puttering around the house this consumes probably 14 hours of my day, if I spend the remaining time sleeping and running, say 8 hours and 2 hours (reasonable numbers), I’m spending only 8% of my time running while the lion share of my time, 50-58% of my day I’m not. So it seems to me the biggest benefit we can achieve through minimalism is to be minimal, even ultra-minimal during our periods of NOT exercising. What we do during that remaining 5-8% of our day would seem to have not as much of an impact.

    This is also why I began to notice a bigger difference with my posture and lower leg strength after I finally swapped out my clunky work shoes for some essentially zero drop moccasins. I’d been running in reduced drop running shoes for years and while the results have been good, I’d still hadn’t taken the shoe change paradigm far enough until ~1 1/2 years ago. Now I notice a big difference!