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Changing Shoes in Races: A Secret Hack to Reduce Fatigue and Run Faster?

Posted by on Jul 11, 2012 | 3 Comments

Here’s what we know:

  • Running long distances is fatiguing
  • Different shoes slightly change the biomechanics of running form
  • Changing biomechanics slightly changes how the body works, including changing stress on various body parts and possibly changing muscle activation patterns (Pete Larson and Bill Katovsky discuss this in “Tread Lightly“)

Here’s what we can assume:

  • Changing biomechanics will provide relief for fatigued muscles


In long races, it may be advantageous to change shoes. The key- they must be different shoes. Specifically, they must have different characteristics that will affect running gait.

In Tread Lightly, Pete relayed a story about changing shoes if he develops training-related pain. The slight change in gait relieves the stress on the area causing pain.

I’ve been experimenting with this idea using two of my favorite shoes- the Merrell Trail Glove and Merrell Mix Master 2. The Trail Glove is a zero-drop (no raised heel) shoe with minimal cushioning. The Mix Master is a slightly more substantial shoe with a slightly higher stack height (sole thickness), 4mm raised heel, and a little more EVA cushioning.

I used this combination during the Bighorn 100 miler about a month ago. I started in the Trail Glove. The trail was mildly technical and it was easy to avoid the biggest rocks on the trail. As such, the added ground feel of the Trail Gloves gave me an advantage. When darkness enveloped the course about 10 hours after the start, I switched to the more protective Mix Master 2. The thicker sole provided more protection on the rocks that were more difficult to avoid in the darkness.

More importantly, the 4mm raised heel slightly changed my biomechanics. This provided instant relief from the fatigue of running for 10+ hours. It didn’t feel quite like I had just started, but I definitely felt better.

The next morning, I should have switched back to the Trail Gloves. Poor planning led to a miscalculation of exactly where I should leave the shoes, and I missed the opportunity to switch back. In training, I found a similar rejuvenation benefit when going from the Mix Master to the Trail Glove.

I also used this same idea at the Pineland Farms 50 miler earlier this year, but I switched between a pair of the original Mix Masters and barefoot. The same principles applied and I experienced the same benefit.

The most important quality is a change in heel drop- this seems to have the greatest affect on gait mechanics.

Will this work for everyone? Maybe, maybe not. It’s a fairly simple method to implement, so I would encourage you to experiment. For me, the benefits far outweigh the potential costs. Since many runners change shoes mid-run in ultras anyway, changing between different models isn’t much of a leap.

Give it a shot and let us know how it works!


In other news: For anyone that lives in the Reno/ Lake Tahoe/ Sacramento area- Shelly and I will be joining ultrarunning legend Gordy Ainsleigh this Sunday (July 15th) at 8am to do some trail work on the trail from our epic adventure this last weekend (see the story and pictures here). The middle trail connecting the Loch Level trails and the Granite Chief Trail was overgrown and difficult to follow, so we’re going to work on improving it.

If you are interested, contact me at robillardj “at’ gmail “dot” com. We’ll meet at the trail head just west of the Rainbow Lodge (see map). Bring water, some food, gloves, and bug spray. If you have it, a folding pruning saw and handheld shears may be handy, too.

We had a blast last weekend, and the scenery is absolutely beautiful. If you know anyone that may be interested, please help me spread the word!

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  1. ElyDave
    July 16, 2012

    I’ve been thinking about this as well, from the point of view of looking at more protection during the hours of darkness and when more fatigued where you might be more likely to kick that rock or root, or pothole in the tarmac, and most of the very minimal shoes offer very little protection in that respect.

    It may have even helped take a bit of pressure of my hip flexors/ITB last Friday and help me make the distance.

    Definitely food for thought here.

  2. Derek
    July 11, 2012

    Does this method apply to all ultra distances, or only the longer ones? I’ve run one 50k, and will be doing my second one in September. The terrain will not be especially technical, but will be trails. Do you think there could be some benefit to having a second pair of shoes to change into?

  3. Dave
    July 11, 2012

    I like to start in thinner soled shoes early in an ultra. I may be able to run faster in more cushioned shoes (assuming a technical trail) but running too slow at the beginning of a race is DEFINITELY not my problem. I.e. The shoes (or lack thereof) help me keep my pace under control.

    As the race wears on, I am more stumbly and likely to stub my toe on a rock. My tired legs need no help in keeping the pace down, so switching to a cushioned shoe helps protect my little piggies while also helping me hit my pace goals.