Misconceptions About Buying Running Shoes, Ctd.: Forget Everything I’ve Told You
A month ago, I wrote about 5 Misconceptions About Purchasing New Running Shoes, based on experiences from several years working in the industry. I felt sufficiently pleased with myself, having spouted objective analysis of the buying process to benefit the consumer.
My analysis, however, along with the entire business model around which specialty running shoe stores are based, might be fundamentally flawed.
In fact, according to a report on the NYTimes.com Well blog, running shoe advice given by everyone within the industry – from medical professionals like podiatrists and physical therapists to coaches and marketers – is almost entirely based on unscientific findings.
When scientific method is applied to examine whether running shoes serve their essential purpose – to prevent injury – studies consistently show no difference between “proper” and “improper” shoes.
Over the course of three large studies, the most recent of which was published last month in The American Journal of Sports Medicine, the researchers found almost no correlation at all between wearing the proper running shoes and avoiding injury. Injury rates were high among all the runners, but they were highest among the soldiers who had received shoes designed specifically for their foot types. If anything, wearing the “right” shoes for their particular foot shape had increased trainees’ chances of being hurt.
Among the concepts the studies debunk are whether pronation is an inherent injury risk. Pronation, the inward rolling motion of feet and lower legs upon striking the surface (caused by collapsing arches) is a distinguishing factor for determining what the “right” shoe is for runners.
The majority of runners pronate to some extent, which is why moderate stability shoes like Asics 2150 and Brooks Adrenaline, are the most oft-purchased shoes in any specialty running shoe.
But there’s a biological reason humans naturally pronate. To sustain the high impact that running has on the body, pronation naturally dissipates shock over a larger surface area of your foot, rather than being concentrated in one part.
Although it looks physically traumatic to the body, when viewed in slow motion, there aren’t much conclusive findings to connect pronation to an increased injury risk. Meaning, the in-store gait analysis process that specialty running promote so heavily would be based on little more than a marketing ploy.
There are a couple caveats to consider before you throw out your $100 running shoes and convert to barefoot running, however.
First of all, the NYTimes.com article doesn’t specify what kinds of shoes the subjects used in the studies. Are they all high-end shoes, in which the only variable is functional category (neutral vs. stability vs. motion control)? There’s a big difference between high-end shoes, which cost between $85 – $140, and low-end pairs, which usually cost less than $50 and fall apart within a month of heavy use. It’s likely that a noticeable difference would emerge if the sample size compared shoes by price rather than functionality. In which case there would still be merit to purchasing high-end running shoes, albeit less merit in the gait analysis process.
Secondly, any running store staffer who tells you that shoes will exclusively prevent an injury is either ignorant or lying. It would be an easy sale, telling customers what they want to hear, that their injury is as quick a fix as buying new running shoes.
Unfortunately, like training itself, injury prevention requires a holistic approach. Stretching and strengthening exercises, which build up flexibility and support in the muscles, ligaments and tendons that running stresses the most, are essential. So are regular massages, if you can afford them. If you can’t, pick up a cheap substitute, like a foam roller, a rolling stick or one of Trigger Points special density rollers.
Above all, don’t go into the shoe-buying process without your own information and perspective. Try on shoes in all of the functional categories, not just the ones your sales associate recommends. Try to feel the difference between the shoes and ask your associate what their purposes are. And remember that the best fitting shoe in the store will likely be the best fit for your training, regardless of whether it is the one subscribed to you.