Back To School: Kids Running Shoes 101

There are several factors to consider when buying a pair of running shoes for your child. Photo: www.shutterstock.com

What are the most important features to look for in kids’ running shoes?

It’s back-to-school time again, a time when parents are buying their children new shoes for gym class, cross-country and everyday wear. Given what we know about childhood development and the elements of natural running gait movements, here are a few things to consider before you start shopping for shoes.

— Ultra-thin soles allow proper proprioception, neuromuscular activation in the entire kinetic chain and complement the body’s natural ability to absorb ground forces. Kids learn movement through ground feel. The foot is the foundation of it all.

— Low, flat-to-the-ground-profile shoes are best for all play activity that involves climbing, running and jumping. Shoes should not be up on a platform or have a steep slope from heel to forefoot. In technical jargon, you want to look for a shoe with a low heel-toe “drop” or offset.

— Supple materials allow for natural foot function. The shoe should bend easily at the toe joints—where a foot is designed to bend—and not impede the forming and stiffening of the arch on takeoff.

— A toebox wide enough to allow natural toe spread is important. The toes are small but mighty. The foot produces the most leverage when the toes are straight and aligned with the metatarsals. A child’s foot is widest at the ends of the toes (as should an adult’s be if they have been in proper shoes or barefoot).

RELATED: Fall Running Shoe Buyer’s Guide

— A single piece midsole/outsole allowing protection on unnatural surfaces (concrete, asphalt) and natural rough surfaces (rock, dirt, grass, woodchips) while allowing proprioception and natural dissipation of ground reaction forces.

— Look for shoes with soft, breathable and washable upper materials. Kids’ shoes can be washed on a washing machine or soaked in diluted bleach and allowed to air dry.

Get over the notion that shoes need massive “traction.” If a shoe has too much stickiness and grip, there is more heat produced in the foot and higher braking moments (and increased torque) on running activity.

Discourage kids from wearing thick, heavy socks as they interfere with foot proprioception and a “feel” for the ground.

Removing the sock-liner insole (if the shoe has one) can improve the foot’s interface with the ground.

RELATED: Competitor’s Running Shoe Directory

Be aware of the effects of scale on shoe geometry and function. A 4mm heel-to-drop in a size 1 shoe creates a slope equivalent to a 12mm drop or more in an adult shoe 3–4 times longer. Also, a 40-pound girl cannot bend the midsole of a shoe that might be considered relatively flexible for a 165-pound man. The lighter the child, the more important it is that shoe can roll up with no effort.

Be cautious of putting cleated shoes on a very small child. Ground reactive forces are distributed over the whole foot and when only the small cleats engage the ground, as occurs with a light child and hard ground, the impact is loaded to the small areas.

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About The Author:

 Mark Cucuzzella, MD, FAAFP is a professor of family medicine at West Virginia University School of Medicine and has developed programs to promote good running form and reduce running injuries for recreational runners, military personnel and medical and fitness professionals. The owner of Two Rivers Treads running store in Shepherdstown, W.V., Cucuzzella has been a competitive runner for more than 30 years, completing over 70 marathons and ultras with a marathon PR of 2:24.

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