A decade ago, an Australian sports-medicine physician named Craig Richards launched a ferocious broadside at the running-shoe industry. Writing in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, he and two colleagues argued that there was no evidence whatsoever that modern running shoes prevented injuries – and that, as a result, such shoes should be considered “unproven technology with the potential to cause harm.”
That critique went mostly unnoticed at first. But a year later, in 2009, the bestselling book Born to Run ignited a surge of interest in barefoot and “minimalist” running, and a corresponding wave of scorn for conventional running shoes. Richards and his colleagues suddenly looked prescient – the progenitors of a new, evidence-based approach to footwear.
As the years have passed, though, demonstrating the superiority of other types of running shoes has proven to be more difficult than expected. As a new editorial in the same journal now argues, we’re still waiting for evidence about the injury-preventing powers of running shoes – except that the critique now extends to newer approaches such as minimalist shoes, supercushioned maximalist shoes and even the suggestion that you should simply choose a shoe based on comfort.
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The editorial, from physical therapists Chris Napier of the University of British Columbia and Richard Willy of the University of Montana, identifies a series of logical fallacies that permeate current debates about running shoes.
For example, assuming that the lack of evidence for conventional shoes means that relatively untested maximalist shoes must be better is a fallacious “argument from ignorance.” And the idea that a more natural foot motion, as permitted by minimalist shoes, is more desirable represents an “appeal to nature” fallacy. (Richards and his colleagues, in their 2008 paper: “Evolution would suggest that a return to running in bare feet should be the first choice.”)
Of course, a lot has happened in the running-shoe world since 2008. In addition to minimalist shoes such as the Vibram FiveFingers and maximalist shoes such as the Hoka Bondi, other options include “zero-drop” shoes – for example, the Altra Torin, which has the same height of cushioning under the heel and toes.
And some researchers, most notably the now-retired University of Calgary biomechanist Benno Nigg, have argued that the best guide to choosing a shoe is comfort. In this view, your feet and legs have a unique “preferred movement path” that will minimize injury, and comfort is the best – and perhaps the only – way of determining whether a given shoe allows you to move along that path while running.
What does the evidence say about all these approaches? There are plenty of studies that explore how different shoes, or ditching shoes entirely, affect the way your joints move and the forces that impact them – but whether those changes actually affect injury rates remains unclear.
The conclusion, according to Napier and Willy, is that for injury prevention advice “runners should be instructed to choose a certain type of running shoe over another shoe no more so than a blue shoe over a red shoe.” Instead, Napier suggests, the best ways to dodge injury are to be cautious about how you increase your training load, and perhaps to make adjustments in your running form to avoid problems such as excessive braking.
Of course, the problem with this scientifically rigorous but practically nihilistic perspective is that it tells you nothing about what you should put on your feet.
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When I asked Napier, himself a 2:35 marathoner, what he runs in, he listed an eclectic collection of shoes – Adidas Adizero Boston Boost, New Balance 1400 and 1600, Nike Zoom Turbo – that he’s identified through trial and error as feeling comfortable, durable, light and cushioned in varying proportions.
For a healthy but inexperienced runner, he suggests heading to a local independent running store with knowledgeable staff, and trying out a variety of shoes to find what feels best. That may sound suspiciously like Nigg’s unproven comfort paradigm – but there’s a deeper rationale at work.
“I really do suggest comfort as the most important factor,” Napier says, “because they have to like the shoe in order to get out and run in it!”
Alex Hutchinson is the author of Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Follow him on Twitter @sweatscience.
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