Do Cushioned Basketball Shoes Reduce Injury Risk?

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Ankle support and stabilisation have long been hot topics for basketball players hoping to avoid injury—that old chestnut about high-tops versus low-tops—but a shoe is built from the ground up to help keep ballers at peak health. Cushioned soles (at least, in theory) are made to absorb the impact of running and jumping. Left unattended, stress from repeated footfalls can lead to complications in your ankles, knees and hips, all the way up your spine. But is more cushioning in footwear design better for a player?
 
There’s a shortage of studies out there on the topic, but we gathered a few to demystify the subject. Ultimately, it appears that cushioning does more good than harm.

Cushioning plays a role in preventing foot injuries, to a point
A randomized study published in the journal Current Orthopaedic Practice suggests that shock-absorbing shoes do help reduce risk of injury, but might not postpone the inevitable. Researchers outfitted army recruits with modified basketball shoes during 14 weeks of military training. They found that recruits training in padded footwear experienced fewer overuse injuries than those wearing combat boots. However, recruits who developed overuse injuries did so at roughly the same point in their training, regardless of their footwear choice.

Form, degree of physical conditioning and proficiency in soft landing techniques may help explain why this is true. Shoes are an excellent tool for preventing foot injuries, but if a recruit (or basketball player) is already at risk of injury, it’s possible that he will eventually get injured regardless of what’s on his feet.

Cushioning does help as a last resort
A well-cushioned shoe may help minimize injury risk when a player’s least expecting it. In a study published in Footwear Science, researchers dropped subjects wearing basketball shoes with and without cushioning from varying heights. They found two things. First, the type of shoe a subject was wearing didn’t change the amount of potentially harmful vibrations coursing through a subject’s bones and muscles as they hit the ground, provided they were anticipating the fall. That’s because the subjects’ quadriceps and hamstrings would tense to catch their fall, effectively cutting the choice of footwear out of the equation. However, when subjects weren’t anticipating hitting the ground—what we’d call an accident out on the court—cushioned shoes did indeed help minimize at least some of the impact to help prevent injury.

Cushioning doesn’t increase the risk of ankle injuries
Special types of cushioning purporting to increase vertical leap and absorb impact have become standard on many basketball shoes. However, some experts believe that the spring-like columns, especially the kinds found in the heels of shoes, may increase a player’s risk of lateral ankle injury. This might not be true. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Athletic Training recorded about the same number of ankle injuries in male and female NCAA players wearing shoes with rear- and full-foot cushioning as those without them.

Shoe design was not recorded by the survey—for instance, whether the subjects’ kicks provided ankle support. However, there’s no reason to believe that cushioned shoes featured more or less ankle support than those without padding. Sole cushioning doesn’t seem to decrease side-to-side stability while absorbing vertical forces.
 
 
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