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Are Racing Flats The Right Choice For You?

We help you weigh the risks versus the rewards before making your decision.

We help you weigh the risks versus the rewards before making your decision.

When you’re vying for a top-10 finish at a major marathon or your most recent results determine if you can put food on the table, it’s easy to understand why wearing racing flats is a no-brainer. But can wearing racing flats help you, the average runner, even if you’re not running world-class times?

The short answer is yes, absolutely.

First, we’ll break down the scientific advantages and disadvantages of wearing racing flats, then provide specific instructions on when and what type of racing flat to wear–regardless of what pace you’re running or distance you’ll be racing.

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Scientifically Proven Benefits Of Racing Flats

Bill Bowerman and Nike became famous thanks to the introduction of the lightweight waffle racer. And since the day Bowerman first molded rubber with his wife’s waffle iron, scientists have been studying how racing flats can make runners faster.

MORE: Should I wear racing flats for the marathon?

1. Racing Flats improve efficiency.

It doesn’t take a PhD to understand that the less weight your foot has to lift with each stride, the easier it is to increase turnover and move forward. However, few runners know exactly how this drop in weight will translate into faster race times. Luckily, a group of researchers determined that the effect of extra weight on oxygen uptake is 1% per 100g per foot. Simply speaking, you can improve your VO2max by as much as 1-2% for every 3-4oz you’re able to cut from your shoes. That’s a pretty quick and easy way to improve without any extra work!

2. Shorter ground contact times.

Another benefit to the use of flats is improved ground contact time (the amount of time it takes your foot to hit the ground, roll forward, and toe off). Faster ground contact times lead to increased speed and efficiency, but only if a runner doesn’t have to generate greater force to improve contact time (i.e. it comes effortlessly). By naturally improving your ground contact time without a related increase in oxygen consumption, racing flats help you run faster and more efficiently.  Furthermore, faster ground contact times indicate mid-foot and forefoot foot strikes, which are indicators of good running form.

3. The psychological advantage.

While I really shouldn’t classify psychological advantages under the scientifically proven benefits heading, it is widely known that your mental preparation and outlook can have a major effect on your performance. If you’ve ever slipped on a pair of 5oz racers just before the starter’s gun sounded, you know how much of a mental boost it can be. Sometimes just having your shoes feel as light as feathers can give you all the confidence you need. Likewise, an important component of racing is getting “in the zone”. Any ritual you can perform on race day that helps trigger your mind into competition mode will improve your performance and execution. Slipping on the special racing shoes is a clear sign to your mind that it’s time to boogie. Remember, not all the benefits of racing flats have to be measured in a laboratory.

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Scientifically Proven Disadvantages Of Racing Flats

While analyzing the potential benefits of racing flats makes using them seem like a no-brainer, strapping on lightweight shoes does have its drawbacks.

1. Increased injury risk.

Without the abundant cushioning and support found in traditional shoes, racing flats increase peak pressure, maximum force, and contact area, which can result in higher occurrence of stress fractures and other stress-related injuries. Because training consistently and staying injury-free is the most important component to improving long-term, it’s important to think carefully about whether you’re ready to race in flats.

2. Increased recovery time after race.

Another potential disadvantage of racing flats related to increased injury risks is that the increased stress and peak forces require a longer recovery cycle. Even if you emerge from the race injury-free, racing in flats could mean it takes longer for your muscles to heal. This can be a perilous side-effect, especially if you’re already prone to overtraining or over-racing.

Practical Considerations

Like almost any aspect of training, the decision on whether to wear racing flats isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.  However, there are some general principles that can apply, from which I’ve derived a an accurate formula to help you determine if racing flats are the right footwear choice for you on race day.

1. Make sure you’re healthy.

The first consideration is to make sure you don’t have any nagging injuries or tweaks that might flare up. If you’re already training gingerly to keep injuries at bay, racing hard in racing flats might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

2. Make sure you adapt by training in flats first.

The rule with almost any race, especially the marathon, is never try something new in a race. The same principle applies with racing flats. If you’re going to test them out, make sure you take the time to run a few of your workouts in them first. It’s much easier to stop during a two-mile interval if your calves get sore than to have to walk the last 4 miles of a half marathon.

3. Heavier the longer the distance.

Finally, choosing the right flat for you is also based on your race distance. In general, the shorter the race, the lighter, less supportive, and less substantial your shoe can be. For a 5K or 10K race, a shoe weighing in the 5-6oz range is optimal for most runners. For races from 10K to the half marathon, you should find a shoe that is 7-9oz. For the marathon, a shoe in the 7-10oz is optimal, unless you’re a sub 2:40 marathoner.

RELATED: Racing Flats Just Aren’t For Racing

If you’re training hard and need to lose that last minute or two to hit your goal or qualify for Boston, give racing flats a try and see how much they can help improve your performance on race day.