Football, soccer, and basketball are the most popular sports at high school. We have all played at least one of these sports! But did you know that certain types of shoes are more likely to cause injury while playing than others? I am talking about non-contact injury, which results from rotation, slipping and similar movements.

Athletic shoes are designed to have two kinds of traction. Forward traction enables you to move forward without slipping back. Rotational traction helps you make cuts (move sideways or change direction) without slipping on the side.

Here is an example of a move that requires forward traction:

Forward Traction

And here is an example of a move that requires rotational traction:

Rotational Traction

Researchers from the University of Calgary tested the athletic shoes of hundreds of high school soccer players, and they found that the shoes that provide the most rotational traction caused the most injuries. In contrast, the shoes that provide the most forward traction caused the fewest injuries.

I read an article that talks about these findings in New York Times and suggests that we buy athletic shoes that have low rotational traction and strong forward-oriented traction. In other words, especially in soccer and football, use shoes that allow your foot to rotate relatively easily. Go and try on field before you buy them. This will prevent you from having ankle, knee and ligament injuries (injuries that do not involve contact).

Read that article and tell me, what is your experience with athletic shoes and injuries? Here is what people who read that article say:

Tremayne, Toronto: This is interesting. Rotational traction directly influences one’s ability to change direction. I.e. the faster you go straight and want to cut the more force required to change direction. Cutting could not happen without a reaction force, in this case friction and rotational traction. The correlation between high rotational traction and injury could suggest that people are not as well prepared to handle these forces, similar to people in the gym lifting weights that exceed their current threshold which leads to both acute and chronic injury. Increasing resistance (weight, speed, etc…) or technique requirements increases an athlete’s responsibility. A degree of rotational traction is necessary to provide the forces needed to cut quickly, so IF sacrificing performance is not an option perhaps injuries could be prevented through strategic training that increases the bodies tolerances for such activity both neurologically (appropriate orchestration solutions) and structurally. It would be interesting to see if studies attempt to establish a minimum threshold for rotational traction. Naturally I think that too little would not provide the resistance and reaction forces needed to change direction in a timely manner, limiting the athlete’s ability to avoid a hard tackle or body check, etc… Or more simply cause the athlete to slip and loose control. I think extremely low thresholds would also contribute to injury, for example attempting to “cut” on ice (without skates).

Tom, United States: I would advise people not to give preference to fashionable and stylish shoes over comfortable shoes. Wearing the wrong shoes is the main reason why millions of people are suffering from foot pain nowadays. People should make sure that their shoes are well fitted and comfortable to run or walk in. They should prefer comfort over style in order to avoid numerous foot tribulations. It’s better to consult a podiatrist if one finds any difficulty in picking the right shoes for your particular type of feet. I always test my shoes by flipping it over. The better they twist and bend, the better they’re following the mechanics of our feet, and thus the movements of our body. I hope this tip would help!

Liz, Seattle: Having played rugby in metal cleats for many years, I can absolutely attest to this. It is tempting to want to have a lot of stability when moving sideways or rotating, but too much joint movement when the foot is planted in place means that ankles and knees get twisted. It’s better for the foot to slip a bit than for the knees, ankles and hips to twist excessively.

I would notice this a lot on days when the ground was softer and so my cleats would grip more tightly on turns. Unfortunately soft ground conditions often occur in Spring when athletes are showing up out of shape to their first practices of the season, and that’s the worst time to suddenly inflict excess wear and tear on their joints.

Frank: amazing you don’t spike any of the other players… i thought baseball was the only sport that allowed metal spikes (and track too)

DDH, CT: Back in the mid-60s, this was of concern to coaches. One solution that was tried (think old-school, Johnny U high-tops) was to replace the rear cleats with a disk about the size of a hockey puck. Theory was that the puck slid rather than dug in when you rotated your foot or got hit from the side.

In college, our team cleats were sturdy canvas shoes, mid-height with short, rubber cleats – quite different from the long steel-tipped cleats cleats common on football shoes.

I can recall few knee injuries in either high school or college – but then it was a somewhat slower-paced game played by less muscular and speedy players – we were counseled NOT to lift weights, an activity that would bulk us up and make us muscle-bound. As well, salt tabs before practice but no drinking water on the field. One bucket;one ladle, and woe the man who approached that bucket during practice.

Mark, Manhattan: Yeah, the good old days. Some of those “coaches” should have been out of a job for child endangerment.

DDH,CT: Yea, I suppose you are right about some of the old-school coaches, but I also recall that most of my coaches thought of football as a gentleman’s game that was played for sport.

That may also explain why I was never played on a winning team. But my frame and joints are intact and functioning quite well at 65.

Never forget my college coach’s half-time speech on our way to a 63-0 drubbing: Boys, don’t get hurt in the second half.

KMJ, NJ: Basketball sneakers have improved tramedoulsy . Anecdoatlly , at the elite levelxs there seem to be more joint injuries , without contact or collision, involving a platnted foot that does not slide as the palyer twists and cuts. The absence of give or slide , might have cuased hyper extended knees in the past , seems to be producing catastophic tortional injuries in joint of the foot that does not skid.
See the Derrick Rose injury , Iman Shumpert, the Kentucky player’s broken leg …

Jda, North Carolina: Do you have the feeling the researchers *know* which brand of shoe is more likely to injure you, and which, statistically, is safer? That is the information they need to share, in a form similar to Consumer Reports. Just list all the shoes they tested, give a photo of the sole pattern, and note how many injuries per position of the players who wore the shoes.

They know this information, and it is this information the user needs for the research to be of benefit. I can just imagine the Calgary researchers whispering to their friends, “No, don’t buy that, It accounts for more torn ligaments among soccer players who play the forward position.”

Spike Johan, Sahuayo, Michoacan, Mexico: Good article and a reasonably good analysis of what happens when shoes interfere with the the foot’s natural need to mechanically articulate. What I mean is, most of the different moving parts of the foot have the ability to act/move independently of each other. Furthermore, feet have tons of sensors; there are as many nerve endings in the feet as there is in the genitals. Bad shoes can ‘blind’ the feet through the improper application of things like orthotics, sole materials, and cleats creating situations where the feet can’t properly feel the terrain.

So by putting shoes on your feet that inhibit both their natural motion and their sensory feedback is a recipe for injury.
There is an excellent article – How To Master The Art of Minimalist Running – that further applies what happens when there are different coefficients of surface friction. And quite obviously, the use of cleats makes the surface more ‘sticky’ (aka higher coefficient of friction) and hence more problematic for the runner.

Robin, Bay Area: They are talking about playing sports with lateral moves, not running straight ahead. Sorry, playing rugby with barefeet is not wise.

Screwhead, Seattle, WA: I am recovering from an ACL rupture with significant damage to my meniscus, the injury occurred under deceleration while playing competitive indoor soccer on turf. Many of my teammates have been switching to turf shoes with shaved studs, around 1/8″, compared to the 3/8″ studs on my Adidas Mondial Team TF shoes. In hindsight, I believe the high degree of traction of my shoes and the turf contributed greatly to my injury, as is the premise of the article. When I return to the the squad, I plan on wearing shaved studs, or even shoes with more of a “tennis” sole, and adjusting my game accordingly; I’d much rather slip than go through this again.

Desert Dweller, La Quinta: Since torsion can be measured and maximum lbs. of pressure can be set on a variety of mechanical devises, theoretically, cleats could be designed to hold up to a set level of pressure – say, the strength of ankles, knees and other bones. Then, the cleat would give or retract. Perhaps, personalized for age and size and weight.

Jonesy, New York, NY: Did the study take into account the player’s position on the football field? I know as a lineman, I wore cleats commonly categorized as “football” cleats to gain better lateral traction at the cost of mobility for blocking while the running backs and receivers often wore more of a soccer cleat in order to gain better forward traction. I imagine the lineman are far more likely to get stepped on and twist an knee or ankle in a pile of 300 lb players, a risk not often shared by a down-field receiver. That could create a causation issue in your data analysis relative to cleat type.

Savior Obama, Connecticut: Sadly, there is no real take-home information here.
It is unlikely that my 14 yr old will be able to take shoes from a store to try outside, and even less likely that he will be able to make an accurate assessment.
Perhaps some regulation here might be advisable..

J. Gohlke, Oakland, CA: From the article: “Avoid models with multiple large, toothy cleats or rubbery nodules along the outside of the sole, he advises, since they can create too much rotational traction. Look instead for groupings of shorter cleats in the forefoot, which can provide reliable forward-oriented traction.”

Daniel, Dallas: As J. Gohike already pointed out, look for shorter frontal cleats. The Pumas (v1.11 SL) I’m playing in these days have noticeably shortened frontal studs. The Nike T-90s that I blame for causing my now persistent proneness to aggravation, had only a slightly smaller reduction in the two forward-most studs. The results of this study correspond with my subjective personal experience.

DD, NY: Regulation! Are you kidding me?

I’m hardly a Tea Party Republican type but regulating the design of athletic shoes? Anything else the government can do — like regulate how I fold my laundry? Spoken like a true upper-middle class armchair public policy hobbyist who has no clue as to what the ever burdensome regulatory scheme means to business and the prices of items desired by real people.

How about first trying the time-proven approach to these problems that’s well exemplified by this article and the research it discusses. Yes, regular people, researchers, orthopedic practitioners, and athletic shoe companies exchange information and advance the development of safe marketable athletic shoes. Wow what a concept!

BC, Canada: Did the athletes with less rotational traction end up with more head injuries?

HKGuy, NYC: So these brainiacs built a robot, did multiple tests and their brilliant conclusion was to try shoes on before you buy them because there’s no other way to tell whether they’ll be good for you or not.

Robert, London, UK: No, they told you WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN YOU TRY THEM. Does all of America hate smart people so much, and science? A sadly doomed empire…

DD, NY: Robert: The answer to your question is unfortunately, yes. While it is no doubt a sweeping generalization and sad to say, Americans are indeed anti-intellectual. Where else do people in such massive numbers seriously question the scientific phenomenon of global warming despite the prodigious scientific evidence? Likewise with respect to the concept of evolution.

Felicity Fair, The Middle: I could not get a copy of the full article but there is no indication in the snippet provided that they controlled for player position or what their confidence intervals are so I would not go out and buy new shoes if I were you….

Drew, New York, NY: If the correlation holds up across the board, which it does, this is not necessary. The article gives actionable advice at the end and everyone concerned about their long-term health should heed it.

Incidentally, dancers have known this for a long time, which is why dance shoes are designed the way they are.

Chris, Ann Arbor, MI: Felicity, In Table 1 of the paper (which I was able to view) injury rate is calculated for each position. So the variable ‘position’ was available to the authors. (FYI, highest rates were defensive back, linebacker, and wide receiver). However, the statistical method used to study the relationship between injury count and traction (Poisson regression) was only the crude model. No multivariable analysis of confounders (e.g. position) was reported. Furthermore, Poisson regression is notorious for underestimating standard errors. A slightly different analysis allowing for ‘overdispersion’ is often preferred by statisticians.

Drew,
I’m not sure what you mean by ‘holds up across the board”. I think Felicity’s (and Jonesy’s above) point is that position may be confounding the association between traction and injury. Hypothetically, (1) among linemen there may be no association between traction and injury, and (2) among wide receivers there may be no association between traction and injury, but (3) when you put them together the low injury linemen with predominantly low traction shoes and the high injury receivers with the high traction shoes create the appearance of high traction causing injuries. Not enough information is given in the article to investigate.

This report, like most research, is certainly not definitive; it just adds another bit of information with which to build.

Thoreau101, Earth’s eye: Unless your athletic shoes are custom made, rotational traction is an issue in any sport or exercise.

Runners, for example, love light weight shoes, but they don’t always provide critical support.

The trick is to find the right balance. Not an easy task.

Karl, Detroit: It seems intuitively clear to me that rotational “stickiness” would contribute to knee injuries or even ankle injuries. With the foot relatively fixed and the upper body rotating why would not the lower limb joints experience increased torque.

Martin, Fort Collins, CO: this is exactly what happened to me when i tore two knee ligaments playing soccer. my foot planted and my knee turned. pop. three and a half years later and still only about 90 percent.

Torres Fitness, New York: What a great article. I really enjoyed the tips on what to look for when picking out an athletic shoe. This is the type of information that coaches, players and parents need to be aware of.

I work with a number of injured soccer players, and the most common injuries are ACL strains and tears. Most of these injuries occur when players are switching directions and one of their feet gets stuck on the ground. Unfortunately it is not only professional level athletes and weekend warriors that are getting injured, but also little leaguers.

When someone chooses to play a sport getting injured is part of the risk. However, risk of injuries can be minimized by simply being more knowledgeable about purchasing the proper athletic shoe. With the use of proper athletic shoes, athletes may experience less injuries and increase the longevity of their careers.

DJ, California: Second to last paragraph “Still, there are some broad guidelines to consider when purchasing athletic shoes, especially for team sports like football, soccer or BASKETBALL, Dr. Wannop says. Basketball and cleats? Not sure if this is a NYT error or the Dr doesnt know that BB is played on hardwood, but sort of makes you wonder if anyone knows what they’re talking about.

Dave, BC: Avoid models with multiple large, toothy cleats or RUBBERY NODULES along the outside of the sole, he advises, since they can create too much rotational traction.

Shoes without cleats have forward and rotational traction too. The shoes you’re wearing at your desk right now do.

DaveyG, Westchester, NY: If you think about the way that athletes have gotten physically stronger and then add the ability to stop and cut faster the torque placed on the human joint has to have increased. It seems to make sense that a shoe that allows one to stop harder and cut more sharply only compounds that effect. I think of a pro football running back who at 240 pounds, with lower legs like trees, planting his foot so far outside of his frame and stopping on a dime as an example of this. 20 years ago that cut might not have been possible, the foot would have slipped thus a running back or other player would have to keep his feet under him a bit more, reducing the stress on joints. Modern science outpacing human anatomy seems to be what this is all about.

doG’s best friend, NY: I wonder if lots of our sport injuries would be lessened if rules limited cleats. It seems rather obvious that knees, as this article points out, would be happier if cleats were not so sticky. But would concussions be lessened in football if behomoth players couldn’t push off the ground like spiderman and spear another player who is similarly rooted to the ground with his head down, braced for impact?
Is it worth considering an outright ban on cleats, or at least some sort of regulated limit? It seems like too much traction has been achieved.

TechView, Boston: How about some pictures of the kind of cleats that would be good and those not so good. hard to understand from the description what should be looking for

Willie, Rhode Island: The challenge here is that rotational traction is often most valued in sports where sharp cuts left and right are a valuable skill. It may be that a combination of improved training about the safest way to make such cuts coupled with shoes that offer less rotational traction are needed.

Sam Diener, Arlington, MA: I agree. And, because cutting side to side is vital for many sports, if the answer to Willie’s question turns out to be yes, there are cutting methods that are safer, are there cleat patterns that could be designed to work best when cutting in the safest way?

In the meantime, are there ways of cutting laterally well even with shorter, more forefoot-oriented cleat patterns?

Sess, NY: Seems like a hopeless bit of advice at the conclusion. Cleats for most sports (baseball is the notable exclusion) are desirable precisely because they help one make hard cuts and directional changes. Who would want to buy cleats that don’t give you that much needed traction? What I would like to see is better ankle support built into cleats, in the hope of maintaining traction while reducing risk of injury. Baseball spikes fit the bill described by the author very well: very effective for sprinting forward, very ineffective for changing directions (look how often base-runners and outfielders end up on the ground when they try to change directions). But they would be a disaster in soccer, ultimate, lacrosse, etc.

Drew, New York, NY: If you can rotate your foot in the (rotated) direction of your hips to avoid injury you can now use forward traction to change direction. So the two are not mutually exclusive.

RollEyes, Washington, DC: The author wrote: “Most important, try the shoes before buying, if at all possible. Ask the salesperson if you can go outside while wearing them. Find some grass and sprint, halt, pivot and cut.”

*****

Really?

Once a pair of shoes have been “tested” by someone running around in grass/ dirt/ mud/whatever, those shoes can’t be sold to anyone else as “new” if the “tester” decides to take a pass on buying them.

You’ll get about the same reaction from any shoe salesman as you’d get from a waiter if you walked into a restaurant and said “Hey, I want to compare the ‘flavor’ of several of your dishes to be sure I don’t buy something that will give me heartburn. Bring me several different options. I’ll take a bite of each. Then, I’ll let you know which one I’ll buy although there’s always a possibility I might not buy any and instead go get something different from another restaurant.”

Garbanzo, New York, NY: In a different context, I had a pair of running shoes that broke my leg. It ends up that motion control shoes can defeat the body’s biomechanical responses to pronation. I had a pair of shoes that were very stable in this respect and ended up placing undo stress on my medial tibia to the point of causing a stress fracture. After recovering, I throttled back to less controlling shoes and have been injury-free since.

Rookie, NY: I wonder how well these results would generalize to injuries suffered by soccer players. I broke two metatarsal bones in my foot in a non-contact injury while using grass cleats (firm ground) on an artificial turf field. There have been many injuries in professional soccer players (e.g. ,Wayne Rooney) who have suffered similar injuries using high tech cleats that sideline them for months. I hope that manufacturers will follow up on this study and find optimal designs for cleat patterns that balance performance and injury. It could also be a good marketing tool for selling more cleats!