The Science of Running Shoes: High vs. Low (2023)

When it comes to reducing ankle injuries, high tops aren't as important as you might think.

(Inside Science) - March Madness is upon us, full of ringer destroyers and busters, Cinderella and powerhouses. Anything can happen in the NCAA tournaments for men and women. The difference between winning and losing can be an erratic bounce on the ball or a sprained ankle.

An ankle sprain is the most common type of injury in basketball, accounting for a quarter of all injuries by some estimates. Just ask the NBA's Stephen Curry, who sprained his ankle for the fourth time this season last week. The Warriors' title hopes may rest on his precarious ankles, which he bandages and orthoses for every game due to his well-documented injury history. Further protection comes mainly from its namesake high-top sneakers made by Under Armour.

"I think shoes are very, very important in any sport," he said.jose hamill, a biomechanic at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "The shoes themselves are designed to try to mitigate certain factors in terms of minimizing the risk of injury."

From classic Chuck Taylors to the latest Air Jordans, basketball shoes often mean high tops, the higher cut supposedly providing support against sprains. Over the years, basketball shoes have evolved from simple canvas sneakers to a variety of high-tech gadgets and bold styles. As sneaker culture has thrived and manifested itself as a complex intersection of fashion, capitalism, politics, culture, race, and society, basketball shoes continue to be at the forefront of shoe technology. footwear. Whether it's air-cell cushioning in the sole, new types of rubber for better traction, lighter materials, or even the more complicated inflatable ankle brace of Reebok pumps, the basketball shoe has always been a combination of form and function.

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"It's got to be the shoes," said Spike Lee, who played his character Mars Blackmon in Nike's iconic Air Jordan ad campaign that began in the late 1980s. Yes, the shoes matter. But when it comes to injuries, they're not everything.

The Science of Running Shoes: High vs. Low (1)

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Ups and downs

At first, high tops dominated the basketball court. Shortly after basketball was invented in 1891, Spalding developed the first basketball shoe: a high top. It was made of canvas and had a thinner rubber sole compared to the Converse All-Stars that debuted in 1917 and became known as Chuck Taylors in 1934.

While the safety feature of a high-top shoe became a selling point, it probably wasn't the focus of early shoe designers. "The real reason we had ankle-high sneakers in the first place was because they mirrored the boots that men wore," he said.Elisabeth Semmelhack, Senior Curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. Ankle boots were the norm in the late 19th century, and basketball shoes reflected that style.

The Science of Running Shoes: High vs. Low (2)

Kobe Bryant driving in a game in 2012.

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Adidas released the first all-leather low top basketball shoe, the Superstar, in 1969. But throughout the 20th century, high tops remained the norm. Then, in 2008, Nike introduced low tops as part of its Nike Zoom Kobe line, and buoyed by the Los Angeles Lakers star's endorsement, low tops have grown in popularity ever since. Players cite greater freedom of movement with a lower cut.

Today about half of NBA players wear low tops.Howard Ostermann, a staff podiatrist for two Washington professional basketball teams, the NBA's Wizards and the WNBA's Mystics. Most college players also choose low tops, said Patrick Talley, strength coach for the UCLA women's basketball team.

Conventional wisdom would say that running low pipes is a recipe for more injuries. But most ankle sprains, like the one Curry suffered recently, happen when one player falls on another's foot. The resulting forces are so high that no high ceiling could prevent a sprain.

"There is no evidence that different types of basketball shoes prevent ankle injuries," he said.jay hertel, professor of athletic training at the University of Virginia.

Overall, the study results are mixed. Two of the more recent studies, in particular, found no difference between high and low ceilings in how muchankle twistsMy noup and down movementjump and landing. According to the first study, high-top shoes may even slow the muscle's response to ankle rotation, increasing the likelihood of a sprain.Otherssuggested that wearing high tops increases the forces and risk of Achilles tendon injury.

But those studies were biomechanical experiments, with researchers measuring the forces and movements in the feet of volunteers running, jumping and chopping in a laboratory. Because large-scale epidemiologic studies of athletes who play basketball are difficult and expensive, they are rare. And none conclusively implicated high-top or low-top shoes in ankle injuries.

for example a 1993learnthe survey of 622 college players found no difference in the rate of ankle injuries between high and low tops. in alarger studioIn 2001, researchers studied more than 10,000 Australian basketball players and found that high or low shoes were not the main risk factors for ankle injuries. Instead, increased risk was associated with prior injuries, whether a player stretched before a game, and the presence of air cells in the shoe, such as Air Jordans at the time. But the meaning of damping is also confusing. to 2008learn, which surveyed 230 college players, focused on springy cushioning and found that the incidence of ankle sprains does not depend on shoe design.

Function, form and science

The Science of Running Shoes: High vs. Low (3)

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Converse Chuck Taylor All Star II Turnschuhe

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Still, the cut and cushioning of a basketball shoe are just part of the design that's come a long way since Chuck Taylors. "Sneakers have always been associated with technological advances," Semmelhack said. Even the first basketball shoes were state-of-the-art, with rubber soles, a new and expensive material at the time. And the ankle patches on the early Chuck Taylors were also designed to cushion impact, he said.

It can be hard to tell true innovation from marketing, but most shoe manufacturers invest a considerable amount of research into their shoes. Before joining Adidas, Tobias Luckfield thought shoe companies were full of bullshit. "But I think we have a lot of people who want the best for the athlete," said Luckfiel, now a senior manager of sports science at Portland-based Adidas, where he helps develop new materials and tests shoes, measures traction and cushioning. and stiffness. .

Published studies on basketball shoes are sparse, especially when compared to shoes used in other sports, such as running and soccer. But shoe companies do a lot of their own unpublished work. "For everything we publish, we create 100 technical reports," said Matthew Nurse, vice president of Nike's sports research lab in Portland. Nike researchers, he said, use motion capture systems, sensors, cameras and other tools to zoom in on the movement of basketball players. you even usedX-raysto measure the effect of shoes on how much the ankles bend inward during cutting. TOafter 2017by Morgan Stanley estimates that Nike has invested approximately $2.5 billion in total research and development over the past five years.

This research helps designers understand factors such as traction, sole stiffness, heel height, and stability when the foot moves laterally. Basketball shoes should be lightweight, comfortable, and provide cushioned support. It must allow natural movement of the foot during the game, but not too much.

The problem is that basketball requires a variety of movements: jumping, landing, running, side-sliding, and everything in between. "It's really hard to fit all those qualities into a basketball shoe," said Hamill, who, like many athletic shoe researchers, receives funding from shoe companies (he works with Brooks on running shoes and FootJoy on golf shoes).

And all of these factors have trade-offs. For example, a stiffer high top can improve ankle support. But just like a ski boot, excessive support transfers forces and potential injury to the knee. "You change one thing and it's better for one area and unfortunately possibly worse for the other," he said.jeffrey taylor, a physical therapist and biomechanics at High Point University in North Carolina, who receives research funding from Adidas.

Minimize the risk of injury

Due to the multitude of factors, the right basketball shoe must be individual. At the collegiate level, coaches like UCLA's Talley make sure each player wears the proper footwear. In the NBA, about half of the players wear custom insoles made from a computer scan of their feet, said Osterman, a podiatrist for the Wizards and Mystics team. The other half use ready-made insoles or insoles that come with the shoe. "Technology has improved, but the shoe alone probably isn't the be all and end all and should be used in conjunction with an insole, especially if you have a history of injuries," he said.

At the highest levels of basketball, all players undergo rigorous strength and balance training to avoid injury. And most have bandaged ankles. UCLA coaches require this during games and practices. And up to 80% of NBA players use duct tape during games, Osterman said. Some studies suggest that taping is beneficial, but not necessarily for the reasons you might be thinking.

After a few minutes of exposure, the tape tends to loosen and no longer offers structural support. According to specialists, the benefit of the bandage -and the device- is mainly proprioceptive, where the contact of the tape with the skin makes the muscles respond better and prevents injuries. "If your ankle is placed in a vulnerable position, your body can feel it and the muscles contract to prevent the ankle from twisting too much," Hertel explained.

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The Science of Running Shoes: High vs. Low (4)

Aire Jordan 1

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Taping and orthotics can also benefit recreational players who have recently sprained ankles. But overall, strength and balance exercises can be even more important. For example, Hertel suggests brushing your teeth while standing on one leg.

When it comes to shoes, experts recommend wearing whatever is most comfortable and supportive. A higher brand would likely be of better quality, Hamill said. But you don't have to break the bank out loudDavid Oji, an orthopedic surgeon at Stanford Health Care, where he also works with Stanford college athletes. A cheaper shoe can be just as effective as an expensive option, she said.

more than shoes

But the purpose of basketball shoes was never just to reduce injuries. For top pro players, endorsement deals may be the number one reason they wear the shoes they do. Shoe companies also have large deals with college teams and have been embroiled in aScandalwith the participation of Adidas and several universities.

For most people, shoes are synonymous with comfort and style. Shoes are a fashion statement, and for men, Semmelhack argues, they have allowed expression in a way that preserves traditional masculinity.

Shoes are also political. Dwyane Wade wore a special Black Lives Matter edition of his signature shoe. Most recently, Curry wore custom shoes in support of former President Barack Obama's My Brother's Keeper alliance.

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Of course, shoes protect your feet. But from social status to social justice, shoes have always meant more, regardless of who wears them.


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