The Art of Lacing: Yep, It Matters How You Tie Your Running Shoes

Published Monday January 2, 2017

Even if you’ve visited your favorite running store, analyzed your gait, and found the perfect shoe for you, how you lace your shoes can affect your performance and overall running experience.

“I’ve had runners slip on a pair of running shoes and say they feel great, but when they stand up, or jog around the store or on the treadmill, they’ll tell me something just doesn’t seem right,” said Rob Voigt, who manages the Georgetown Running Company in Washington, D.C.

“I’ll re-lace their shoes and ask them to take another jog around the store, and I already know by their smile that the lacing made all the difference.”

In fact, according to podiatrist Adam Spector, of Foot and Ankle Specialists of the Mid-Atlantic in Wheaton and Rockville, Maryland, if you don’t lace your shoes appropriately for your foot, your performance may suffer and you may have a less-than-pleasant experience as you run.  Dr. Spector is a co-founder of the Montgomery County Road Runners Club’s (MCRRC) Stride Clinic to evaluate runners.  He was a national level swimmer on scholarship at a division 1 college and used running for cross training.  Now running is the centerpiece of Spector’s regular exercise regimen.

Even worse, Dr. Spector said, runners can suffer both minor and major injuries if they do not lace their shoes optimally.

And that’s because correctly lacing your perfect shoes can keep them perfect while you run.

“Your foot and shoe need to become one,” Dr. Spector said.  “The key is to make sure the shoe fits well and then to lace your shoes so that your foot stays stable.”

For example, excess side-to-side motion of your foot as you run can create irritation and sheer that may result in blisters, tendonitis or other over-use injuries, according to Dr. Spector. If your foot moves from front to back, you risk experiencing a burning sensation on the bottom of your forefoot or bruising of your toes, which can become increasingly painful.  When the toes get irritated, possibly traumatizing the nail bed and causing bleeding under the nail bed, the nails can turn black and blue.

“It’s a myth that you’re not a real runner unless your toenails turn black,” Dr. Spector said.  “They shouldn’t.”

Yet you don’t want to secure your feet too tightly either, according to Dr. Spector. “Locking down the tendons in your feet and preventing them from moving freely can injure the tendons or joints and irritate the nerves, conditions that can be difficult to treat and take a long time to heal.”

The goal is for your foot to be stable as you run, said Voigt, an endurance runner who played division three lacrosse and hockey in college.  He said a number of lacing strategies are designed to secure your foot while accommodating such common foot issues as bunions, or bony joints at the base of your big toe, a cavus foot, or a foot with a high arch, flat-footedness, or when the sole of your foot comes in complete contact with the ground when you stand or run, narrow heels, and heel spurs, or calcaneal spurs, which are build ups of calcium on your heels.

In addition, some lacing techniques can be used to adapt a running shoe if, for whatever reason, you don’t have access to a variety of shoes.

“Overseas I didn’t have the luxury of going and trying on lots of different pairs of shoes so I had to make do with what I had,” said Steve Royster, a foreign service officer who just finished his ninth marathon and is currently serving an assignment in Washington, D.C.  “I noticed that if I laced them with different levels of tension or skipping certain eyelets I would get different and sometimes helpful effects.”

Royster said he has flat feet so he’s benefited from lacing his shoes through all of the eyelets but then tying them pulled to the outsole, away from the arch.

“This helps to adjust shoes that don’t fit as well to give me more support,” Royster said.

Voigt also noted that it’s a good idea to ensure that your laces are flat and not twisted as you tie them.  “This is another way to avoid chafing and irritating any of nerves on the top of your feet as you run.”

While it’s important for runners to be properly fit for shoes that are comfortable, support their specific foot type and gait and are appropriately laced, runners experiencing pain, skin issues or numbness in their feet that does not resolve quickly, should consider an evaluation by a podiatrist to rule-out more serious local or systemic problems.  Dr. Spector said.

He suggests that since “our feet are attached to our bodies, optimizing their biomechanics and function will improve how the rest of our bodies work.”

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