As a late-blooming jogger, my shoe closet has grown in ways I would not have anticipated. Just when I got the hang of picking my running gear, questions arose about how I should dress my feet for walking.
Walking and running shoes are differentiated by the contrasting needs of walkers and runners. Walkers want foot comfort while runners need skeletal protection. Running shoes vary as they cater to differences in foot-strike. Unlike sprinters, endurance runners trade lightness for cushioning.
We’ll kick off our look at the differences in shoes by considering the different actions to which they’re tailored.
Walking vs Running Shoes – How Do They Compare?
Not all running shoes are the same; they are classed into functional categories. Similarly, walking shoes are grouped by the differences in the context of the type of walker. Before making a head-to-head comparison, we need to understand the subtypes.
What are Walking Shoes?
By 2017 56 million Americans identified as runners. The number of people walking for fitness was roughly twice that, at 111 million. There are three categories of walkers:
- Fitness walkers: This is a wide array of non-athletic people who sometimes walk casually for health reasons.
- Hikers: Hikers are off-road, outdoors walkers.
- Race Walkers: These are competitive walkers who strive for speed.
Across the categories, walkers are united by two features that set them apart from runners:
- They land on the heels of their feet.
- They impact the ground with 1.5 times their body weight (half the effect of runners).
The first feature generates the need for heel cushioning, the standard quality of walking shoes. Having landed on the heel, the foot rolls forward on the sole to the forefoot. Walking shoes are designed to provide comfort for this motion.
The relatively low ground impact means that the need for cushioning is limited mainly to the walker’s feet. How the cushioning is provided differs between a category of shoe.
Fitness Walking Shoes
Walking for fitness tends to happen in spaces that are designed for human foot traffic. These spaces include sidewalks and urban parks. The protection provided by the natural environment relieves the burden on shoe design. As a consequence, comfortable dress shoes are often adequate.
Because of this wide latitude and the fact that fitness walking is not regarded as a sport, fitness walkers are susceptible to insidious injury from prolonged use of the wrong shoe. The gentle exercise means that there’s no trauma, but the damage accrues cumulatively.
Race Walking Shoes
Wiggle walking is a competitive sport in which walkers obtain speed by mobilizing the cadence of their hips. It takes place on indoor and outdoor athletics tracks and the open road. There is no trail equivalent of race walking.
Because these walkers land with a light touch, they do not have the cushioning requirements of running shoes. The lack of trail exposure takes away the need for protection. The critical functional design requirements are stability and optimization of the walker’s gait.
Hiking shoes are designed for rough terrain with highly variable textures not designed for walking. Suitable terrain includes mountain trails and parks. The key elements to their design are protection and stability.
Protection is provided by sturdy materials and extended skin coverage. The stability comes from the rigid structuring of the sole.
What are Running Shoes?
As with walking, there are three categories of runner:
- Sprinters: These runners cover distances from the dash to one mile.
- Endurance runners: They cover longer distances, even beyond the 26mile marathon length.
- Trail runners: These are endurance athletes who run on rough natural terrain.
Road Running Shoes
Endurance runners are on their feet for hours at a time. Their aerobic systems cannot sustain maximal speeds, so their efforts shift from maximizing to optimizing speed. Because they are very susceptible to accumulated impact trauma, the shoe tradeoff includes impact absorption.
Trail Running Shoes
Like hikers, trail runners wear shoes that are designed to protect them from a harsh physical environment. Unlike hikers, who move with constant velocity and gait, trail runners alter their speed and bearing for different types of terrain. This variation requires responsive shoes that allow the runners to sense changes in the ground beneath them.
Track Running Shoes
Because sprinters need to maximize their speed, they seek surface protection and lightness above all else. They do not exert themselves for more than a matter of minutes (seconds, in the case of the dash) and are much less susceptible to accumulated impact trauma.
Walking vs Running Shoes: Key Differences
We’ll consider functional, physical, and price differences between the two classes.
The vital functional aspects that differentiate walking and running shoes are:
- Gait control: Endurance running shoes come in varieties that assist with foot landing. The most common are stability shoes, which guide the foot away from overpronation. Stability is not a feature of trail shoes, where the rigidity of the stability shoe is inimical to the range of motion over rough terrain. Because gait variance poses no injury risk at walking pace, walking shoes have no gait control.
- Surface protection: Hiking shoes have the most significant degree of toughening against surface-contact injury. Trail shoes follow them. Endurance running and walking shoes are at the bottom, as they assume surfaces designed for human foot traffic.
- Impact protection: In the introduction above, we have canvassed the reasons why endurance shoes stand alone in providing impact protection.
- Energy efficiency: The midsoles of endurance shoes are lined with materials designed to convert the reactive force of ground impact into a propulsive force. These materials are shaped to harness the energy to propel the body forward.
- Comfort: While all shoes strive to provide comfort, this is a primary factor only for health-walking shoes, where the risks of impact injury and surface protection are minimal. In the other cases – including all running shoes – these other functional factors are primary.
Structural differences follow from the divergence in function outlined above. The factors at play are:
- Flexibility: Walking shoes are more flexible than hiking shoes. Flexibility allows the wider range of motion, notably ankle dorsiflexion, that runners require. The boot-like rigidity of hiking shoes protects against twists of the ankle.
- Malleability: Endurance running shoes are built from materials that are designed to morph over the first 25 miles of use. After this “break-in” period, the shoe has molded to better fit the runner’s foot.
- Heel-to-toe drop: Endurance runners have the option of choosing shoes with higher, padded heels. This helps to redistribute impact shock away from the ankle and Achilles tendon to the shin and knee. Sprint and trail shoes have low heels drop as this improves proprioception and reduces weight. Walking shoes have regular, dress-level heel drop as the aforementioned factors don’t count.
- Sole thickness: Hiking shoes have thick soles for protection and durability. The thickness of running shoes (road and trail) is a derivative of how heel-drop and proprioception have been managed. Minimalist running shoes try to simulate a protected sock, resulting in the thinnest soles.
- Height: Hiking shoes come in boot style, which may cover the ankle. Runners do not run in boots.
- Fit: Hiking shoes are adjusted to accommodate thicker socks. Sprinting and walking shoes have the same fit as their corresponding dress shoes. Endurance running shoes are bought a size bigger than the owner’s dress size to accommodate for the swelling of feet over prolonged exercise and to allow forward movement of the foot.
Hiking shoes have the longest functional lifestyle. This is because they are constructed of hardy materials that serve to protect against the environment rather than endure sustained stress. Walking limits the stress on the shoes.
Next are track running shoes. Unlike walking shoes, they do endure massive physical stress, but in the case of sprinters, these stresses are applied in short bursts, limiting the damage they cause to the shoes. Runners may experience wear in the spikes, which can be sharpened and replaced.
Endurance shoes are classed into middle-distance (up to 10 miles) and longer-distance shoes. These have the shortest active duty lifespan. After between 375 and 500 miles, their absorptive materials are no longer fit for protection, and they are retired. Thereafter they may still function as a dress or casual walking shoes.
In each category, prices vary between entry-level and high-end shoes. In the case of fitness walking shoes, the high end is relatively modest (as it does not require high technology), and so the gap is the smallest. Next would be hiking shoes.
There are wide gaps in the trail and endurance classes. In both cases, it is not advisable to buy cheaper models, as the risk of injury is greater with them. A better strategy is to exploit the fashion cycle. New models are released in roughly eight-month cycles, and buying a two-year-old (or even one-year-old) model could halve the purchase price.
As a category, trail running shoes are the most expensive, followed by endurance running shoes, hiking shoes, and finally fitness walkers.
Relative Benefits of the Shoe Types
Apart from the differences in functional benefit outlined above, endurance running shoes have a longer afterlife than the other types. Because they exhaust their ability to protect the upper skeletal system, they can function like walking or dress shoes for a long time after they’ve run their professional course.
Fitness walking shoes have the benefit that they more readily pass aesthetic muster as dress shoes. As a consequence, the wearer is less constrained to shop for and maintain a specific fitness wardrobe.
Hiking and trail shoes are the least versatile in this regard, as their rugged design does not translate naturally into the lived environment. Semi-minimalist trails shoes have a chance of testing this constraint.
The history of both classes of the shoe was motivated by the following factors:
- Podiatry: The science of foot health has deepened our understanding of how the deployment of the foot should be guided and protected to minimize injury and foster efficiency.
- Health Science: The growing public understanding of the importance of aerobic health has driven interest in walking shoes. This has created an incentive to develop shoes with a popular appeal to health-seeking non-athletes.
- Competition: The main driver in the development of race and trail shoes has been the arms race between competitive athletes. This drives exciting attempts to exploit the latest materials technology to give athletes an edge.
- Commerce: Off the track, the rivalry between shoemakers has led to innovations that are not related to performance as much as brand value. Some of these successful innovations have nevertheless permanently impacted.
The interplay of these factors has transported our bare feet to where they are today.
The History of Walking Shoes
The oldest shoes on record were found preserved in Austrian ice. Dated 5,300 years, they were constructed from grass weave bound by leather straps. Insulation was provided by hay. On the inference that these were for protection in an era where people felt comfortable unshod, they can be understood as the earliest hiking shoes.
By the fifteenth century, all American communities wore a version of the moccasin. The varieties were so regular that the Blackfoot and Chippewa peoples were named for their characteristic shoe style. Across the continent, the different strains were marked by sewn deerskin.
Sport hiking started in Germanic Europe in the early 1800s. Pending Timberland, cobblers designed boots to handle the alpine rigors. By the First World War, soldiers across the continent wore leather boots. The German variety included hobnailed soles for traction – a vestige of the Roman-era innovation.
By the mid-twentieth century, advances in materials and the design of high traction soles took the shoes to their next level. Leather was toppled by Gore-Tex. The emergence of trail shoes in the early 1980s saw the hiking boot lose its dominance as the adventurer’s shoe of choice.
The History of Running Shoes
In 490BC, Pheidippides ran 26 miles from the battle of Marathon to Athens to convey news of the Greek victory. Contemporary vases depict him as a barefoot runner. Two and a half millennia later, Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia repeated the feat, setting a new world record by running the 1960 Rome Olympic marathon without shoes.
Yet, running shoes have ancient roots. They emerged when Rome opened its athletic contests to international competition. Athletes from colder climates ran in sandals, strapped to the feet with studying thongs. This was derided as an oddity until spectators observed the advantage in traction and propulsion. Running shoes were born.
Soon innovations followed. Metal tacks and hobnails were used to stiffen the attachment of the sole and concentrate grip. What started as flimsy sandals morphed into precursors to the modern wrap-around shoe.
By the late 1860s, the low-mobility game of croquet saw the invention of the “sneaker.” This patented method of attaching rubber soles to leather uppers formed the basis of modern era running shoes, surpassing straps. At around the same time, the Roman deployment of hobnail was reprised with the introduction of spiked shoes.
Through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, increased international competition and advances in materials engineering saw more structured, lightweight models based on the same sneaker design. Spikes on race shoes were limited to sprint shoes.
Navigating the Differences
Endurance runners should observe that because they spend a lot of time in padded shoes, their casual dress should compensate with more minimal shoes. Even barefoot stretches. Understanding the different goals, styles, and orientations of runners creates an understanding of the shoes that fit their objectives.
These stand in contrast to the demands of the same feet in walking mode. Knowing where you stand reduces the risk of shoehorning your feet into ill-serving gear.
As a runner, my preference is for running shoes. I love the bonus benefit of not having to shop for walking shoes. Or dress shoes, for that matter. This preference will likely change in later years when I develop a taste for gentler exercise. Minimalist urban walkers would be my go-to shoe then.
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