High-Top vs Low-Top Shoes: Which Is Best For You
Written By: John Baker and Lily Hoog-Fry
Wearing footwear these days is pretty unavoidable -- we know because we've been kicked out of many places for attempting to go barefoot! We hopefully have already convinced you that you need barefoot style shoes, but today we are going to focus specifically on the next big choice — high tops vs low tops, which is the best choice for you and your activity (or does it even matter)?
High top shoes have historically been worn for sport. The conventional thinking is that because the material extends higher up on the leg, the material can be adhered and used like an ankle brace to support the ankle complex, providing a weak casting effect. Furthering this logic leads one to the assumption that there would be less ankle injuries due to the greater ankle stability. For individuals who want to reduce their risk of injuring their ankles, this seems like a heck of a deal!
However, as shocking as it isn’t, historical thought processes can be misleading because we don’t get the context or nuance we need to infer how these things actually work in practice and over time. Read on to learn which style of shoe (high-top or low-top) may be a good choice for you, and which situations may make you want to grab your low-top Bearfoot shoes and/or your high-top Bearfoot shoes.
Understanding High-Top Shoes
If you were to go to any basketball court, you'd see both low-top basketball shoes and high-top basketball shoes. You may even see some models of shoes offered in both low-top and high-top forms.
From a shoe construction standpoint, the shoes are pretty similar, with the main difference that high-top sneakers will rise above the ankle joint, and low-top sneakers will stop short of the ankle joint (assuming that both shoes are of the same category of shoes – you cant compare low top loafers with high top football cleats). Take the Ursus for example, it is legitimately the same construction with a different collar height.
Pop Quiz Time: What was the original Basketball Shoe?.... Chuck Taylor (Aka: Converse).
Since the dawn of the basketball shoes we've all been coerced into bundling our ankles up in stiff fabric, set forth to go clomping about a wooden court like a bunch of bound baby giraffes. Not to mention the fact that Chuck Taylors have a ridiculously narrow toe box that doesn’t at all resemble the shape of a human foot.
All joking aside, high-top shoes do offer a handful of benefits that you may want to take advantage of. A high-top shoe will provide more external support than a low-top shoe will by coming up further, and allowing the laces to affect the ankle higher up on the lower leg. The larger amount of external support is incredibly beneficial for any situation in which someone is going to be pushing their physical limits/capacity, and they have a history of ankle injury. Said more simply, if you have a chronically bum ankle and are going to try to go balls-to-the-walls on something like a sprint or a flag-football game... wear high-tops.
The high collar of the shoe will help protect your compromised ankle, by reducing load on the ankle ligaments by reducing overall motion (remember it is being bound by fabric and laces above and below the joint line), which reduces load on end range structures like the ligaments we want to preserve and not re-sprain (ankle sprains=ligament injuries). This is because the tautness of the shoe's material itself may disrupt normal biomechanical movement, preventing the ankle from being able to reach full end-range.
In this way, the high top shoe has the potential to act similarly to an ankle brace. Note, although the literature does not directly support the fact that high top sneakers decrease the risk of injury compared to low top sneakers, literature does support the use of light braces (that are very similar to high top shoes), and we therefore are extrapolating on this information to make an inference about the effects and differences of shoe construction.
It should be stated with EMPHASIS, that we are not suggesting that you should rely on this external support forever. But really the opposite — do your ankle stability movements (laid out below) to help your ankle muscles get stronger while you're using your high-tops as a crutch. By being better able to control your ankle motion via muscles, you will rely less on your ligaments by not being forced into and beyond the end-range of our joints which leads to less sprains and more play!
Additionally, if you're going to be doing something where you may have debris or shrapnel around your feet, like when doing home-improvement, lawn work, etc. then you may want to wear a high-top shoe. In these situations, the extra material will protect your skin from getting compromised (cut, burned, scraped, trauma, etc). In fact, many manual labor jobs require you to wear boots for this exact reason. And now, with Bearfoot Bruins, you can be a badass handyman, or handy-lady, in protective, good looking shoes that are designed with the natural principles we won’t shut up about (seriously this didn’t exist before so a very thankful & shameless plug for our favorite boots!).
Understanding Low-Top Shoes
As previously mentioned, in general terms, the low-top shoe is simply a shoe that has a collar height that sits below the ankle complex. This allows for less external support of the ankle, and significantly increases the susceptibility of the ankle to outside forces and far increases your ankle freedom of movement. This is not inherently a bad thing— especially if your ankles are strong enough to handle the freedom. However, people who have unstable ankles, or suffer from chronic ankle sprains may not be a great fit for low-tops until their ankle stability is adequately strengthened and rehabilitated (look into our coaching company Move Swell, if this is you and you need some help).
During the early years of American sports it was mostly just soccer players who were rocking the low top sneakers while playing. It wasn’t until Kobe Bryant strutted his low top basketball shoes onto the court on December 19, 2008 – yeah that was 15 years ago, feel old! – that low-tops and sports even became a thing to most of the general public.
Until Kobe, there were only high top basketball shoes – with the only significant difference between each shoe being brand, color and personal preference. Since then, many more professional basketball players have adopted low cut basketball shoes, such as Stephen Curry and Kevin Durrant (note that most of these players are very fast, agile and have a great ability to change direction…. interesting)
Here are some of the reasons why we like low tops:
- Low tops are lighter, allowing for faster movements and reactions.
- Low tops offer more natural movement of the ankle, which according to the joint by joint approach, allows for more natural movement of the joints that are upstream, like the knee & hip.
- Low tops allow you to move more, exposing your ankles to more varied loads & positions. This exposure, over time, will allow for more robust dynamic stabilization at the ankle. Remember, if you don’t expose yourself to a position in normal life, your risk of injury increases if you find yourself in that position in an accident!
- Low tops require less material and that means less material that needs to be made, bought and moved around the globe. Pretty simple, if we consume less then that’s a good thing, right?
How Do I Know If I need High-Tops or Low-Tops?
Each sport and activity is different, but for starters we are going to create two overarching categories to help guide shoe choice:
- Sports and activities with many lateral movements and
- Sports and activities without many lateral movements.
If the sport or activity DOESN'T have much lateral, or side to side movement (sprinting, running, jumping, beard trimming, etc.) you probably do not need a high-top shoe, even if you don’t have a very stable ankle because you aren’t applying destabilizing loads to them as often.
However, if the sport or activity DOES have a good deal of lateral movements (tennis, basketball, soccer, lacrosse, etc), and you have a history of ankle injury, a high top may be better.
This is because sports with lots of lateral movement cause significant inversion and eversion (in and out) movements at the ankle, as well as a good deal of internal and external rotation. This requires that individuals’ have another level of strength in a variety of positions in order to control all this movement and avoid injury. If you’ve previously injured your ankle, this ability to regulate and prevent excessive rotation is diminished and your risk of re-injury is higher – unfortunately ligaments undergo plastic deformity, which means they don’t return to their pre-injured state, ever.
Now like all good things in life there is nuance here— sometimes wearing both high tops and low tops may be advantageous.
For example, if you are in the process of rehabbing your ankle, you may wear the low tops during the warm-up so that your ankle gets exposed to a variety of sport-specific movements under sub-maximal effort and conditions. Once the warm-up is over, you may switch to high tops so that you can play a little harder and have that extra external ankle support.
Or you may want the psychological support of high tops, too. Although this may sound silly at first, the way we process our pain is no joke. If you have previously had an ankle injury that still mentally affects you and makes you feel guarded in your activities, you may find that a high top shoe helps you push past this mental block.
5 Take-Aways of When to Wear High-Tops
- When you're doing manual labor (Hello Bruins!).
- When you're in need of physical protection for your ankles (ever tried to do a tailwhip on a razor scooter... well this nerd has and OUCH!).
- You are about to attempt a max effort endeavor and are still in the process of recovering from an ankle injury mentally or physically.
- You have chronic ankle sprains and need some external stability for now.
- You simply enjoy they way they look better (us often).
5 Take-Aways of When to Wear Low-Top
- When having increased range of motion at the ankle joint is advantageous (i.e. squatting, lunging, running, walking, manual-laboring, playing sports, etc).
- When having the ability to cut and move laterally as quickly as possible is the goal.
- When you DO NOT have a history of chronic ankle instability or recurrent ankle sprains that haven’t been rehabbed properly.
- You are rehabbing and doing exercises for increasing ankle stability in a controlled manner.
- You simply enjoy the way they look better.
5 Moves to Improve Your Internal Ankle Support
- Ankle CARs -- It’s really important to expand the range of motion that you can actively access before trying to increase strength throughout a joint. If you have a stuck, adhered part of your ankle prior to increasing strength, you will be building compensations on an imbalanced foundation, which creates strength discrepancies often leading to more injury, aches and pains.
- Wear Bearfoot Shoes -- The reality is, if you’re not wearing Bearfoot shoes exclusively, or another barefoot-style shoe, you're not being very efficient with trying to improve your foot and ankle health. In order for your foot and ankle to become stronger in all the positions of life you need to actually allow it to get exposure to all the different movements of life without being cast inside conventional shoes... if you only go barefoot in the gym, although better than nothing, you don’t get the time or variation in load. You need to spend more than a fraction of your day in a natural foot position but also, during more than just the moves we do to workout. We need exposure during our actual activities of daily living, too.
- Cossack Squats -- Cossack Squats, also called a lateral split squat, challenge your ankle, foot and lower leg in the frontal plane (laterally stress the joints and muscles like we talked about earlier) just like most ankle sprains do! By adding cossack squats into your training you are exposing your body to frontal plane stability in a controlled environment. As you get better at handling force in a controlled manner, your ability to control these movements in spontaneous and uncontrolled times improves too (like on the court, field, or icy parking lot). One thing to note is that you should try to stay centered on your working foot, and maintain a proper tripod foot throughout the entire movement to fully get the foot benefits. For a more detailed and visual explanation watch this video by us at Swell Movement & Longevity.
- Do Single Leg Stands -- A lot of ankle injuries occur when we are only on one foot. Unfortunately, most of us never really learned how to stand on one leg and balance well (often because parents regularly have kids in supported child-seats, hunched over playing with iPads instead of having them spend hours crawling around and supporting their own bodies throughout development on varied terrain), and therefore will be at increased risk of inadequate internal ankle support. Start by aiming for 15-30 seconds on each leg and work up over time. Remember to maintain good spinal positioning and weight distribution on the foot. For a more detailed and visual explanation watch this video by us as Swell Movement & Longevity.
- Visualize Your Ankle -- A lot of people with poor foot and ankle health dissociate with their ankles over time. This makes sense because we tend to not like to think about the things we aren't very good at or hurt us (not unless you're a mutant who loves to suck, good for you). However, this can cause a SERIOUS issue! If you are already not great at controlling your ankle AND that leads to you being forced to haphazardly fling it against the ground several thousands of times a day, that's really not a good combination. One of the best ways to begin to reacquaint ourselves with our feet is by visualizing them with our eyes closed. We can neurologically change our dissociative patterns this way.I want you to close your eyes, and imagine taking a scan of your lower leg. Start with feeling your right calf, slowly move down the calf towards the ankle (what does it feel like, is it warm/ cool, does it feel the same from left to right, is there a spot that you notice you’re avoiding, a tight area, etc). Then move past the ankle and feel the foot widen (imagine your foot is so healthy and mobile that your toes extend our like branches of a strong Oak tree outwards), and then slowly embody one toe at a time (can you feel the differences in their lengths, innervation, position, mobility, amount of times they've been stubbed, etc). As we begin to bring presence to these areas of our body, our relationship with them changes, and our stability and coordination will improve as well.
There are great applications for high-top shoes as well as low-top shoes. It's important to ask yourself what your needs are, what your injury history has been, and what the use of the shoes will be. Just because you prefer low-tops in one situation, doesn't mean that you'll prefer them in all situations. NBA players may wear low tops on the court now, but there are also those who are still lacing up high tops before the games, too -- it's all about personal preference and needs. It's probably a good idea to have both low and high top options so that you can select the correct option for your ankles and the activity that day. The best choice and the right shoe will be situation dependent, and you may find that there are significant differences in your preferences from one activity to the next.
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- Jiang, C., 2020. The Effect of Basketball Shoe Collar on Ankle Stability: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Physical Activity and Health, 4(1), p.11-18.DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/paah.48
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