There are several factors to consider when buying a pair of running shoes for your child. 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 gym shoes, track shoes and more.
Important shoe characteristics
Ultra-thin soles allow proper proprioception, meaning the sensory information that contributes to the sense of position of self and movement. Thin soles also allow for neuromuscular activation in the entire kinetic chain. They 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 shoes with a profile flat to the ground 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).
Look for a single piece midsole/outsole allowing protection on unnatural surfaces (concrete, asphalt) and natural rough surfaces (rock, dirt, grass, woodchips). It should also allow good proprioception and natural dissipation of ground reaction forces.
Additional tips, from socks to cleat advice
Look for shoes with soft, breathable and washable upper materials. Kids’ shoes can be washed in a washing machine or soaked in diluted bleach and allowed to air dry.
Note that shoes do not necessarily 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 any sock-liner insole can improve the foot’s interface with the ground.
Be aware of the smaller scale of children's shoes, which affects shoe geometry and function. For example, a 4mm heel-to-drop in a size 1 shoe creates a slope equivalent to a 12mm drop or more in an adult shoe three or four times longer. Also, a 40-lb girl cannot bend the midsole of a shoe that might be considered relatively flexible for a 165-lb man. The lighter the child, the more important it is that the shoe can roll up with no effort.
And finally, 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 only the small areas.
AMAA member and ARA Clinic advisor 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, WV, Cucuzzella has been a competitive runner for more than 30 years, completing over 70 marathons and ultras with a marathon PR of 2:24.