The great running shoe debate recap

The great running shoe debate came and went without the anticipated fireworks and feisty exchanges of previous outings. The most surprising aspect of the debate was that there was little actual debate; it could have been the great running shoe agreement.  While I was happy enough not to witness pointless argument, I did leave the venue unsatisfied with where things are at in relation to discussions about running injuries, running technique and the issues facing the running shoe industry in general. As I wrote in my previous article that previewed this debate, it does seem we remain narrowly focused on a discussion about shoes, foot-strike and barefoot running.

But onto the debate at hand, the format went something like this: the panel posed each other questions and also answered some from those close to the shoe discussion that couldn’t be in attendance. I originally planned to write a complete summary, but there was too much ground covered, so I’ll stick to a small number of discussion points in this recap. I’m sure a video of the complete proceedings will appear at some stage if you’re interested in the entire 2+ hour discussion.

Why have injury rates among runners remained consistently high for several decades despite technological innovation in running shoe design? Associate Professor Peter Larson (Saint Anselm College)

I’m in furious agreement that highly cushioned; motion controlling running shoes do little, if anything to protect runners from injury and if anything can contribute to the development of poor running technique and then knock-on injuries. We’ve seen a number of runners in the coaching context that look like their shoes are getting in the way, but this has not always needed a radical minimalist transition to help start the improvement process. Often a move to a light-weight trainer makes a big difference to someone who has been running in a heavier, more structured running shoe for a long period of time.

So in my opinion, not every traditional running shoe should be thrown into the big bulky shoe category. A stripped back and flexible light-weight trainer may well be the best place for a runner adapted to heavier, more intractable shoes to start (and in some cases end) a minimalist transition. Combining this with an aspirational shoe build on a slightly lower heel-toe drop profile (used for a small volume of jogging) is a good mix. This allows the process of lengthening and strengthening the calves, Achilles tendons and deep compartment muscles (of the lower leg) to begin.

The fact that no one can agree (in a scientific debate) that there is evidence that wearing or removing shoes reduces injury risk supports the assertion that it’s not all about the shoes contributing to the running injury equation? I remain convinced that running shoes are only part of the picture, with western society being habitual sitters and wearers of raised heel shoes in everyday life. Looking at big bulky running shoes as the primary driver of injury seems an incomplete analysis of the situation.

When people take up running they are probably in worse shape than those in more active de-cluttered societies, you can observe many people walking about with poor hip strength and control. 

If you can’t control what your legs are doing under the hips when walking, what chance have you got during running?

Which brings me to Pete’s second question:

Which “form flaws” are most likely to increase injury risk for a runner?

There is a similar discussion with an expanded panel of experts planed in Newcastle this Friday, I won’t be attending, but I think it would be helpful for the experts to spend a little longer on this point. There is much more going on than just the usual suspects of heel-striking, over-striding and low stride rate.

I agree a passive heel strike that sees the foot landing well ahead of the knee with none of the buttocks, hamstrings and lower leg muscles active as the foot contacts the ground is likely to cause injury. However, heel striking in itself isn’t necessarily the devil we are perhaps led to believe.

Someone adapted to running in shoes that lightly touches down with the heel and has the previously mentioned muscles active during ground contact is likely to be able to run comfortably and injury free. Getting those bigger running muscles strong and firing is a higher priority in our coaching approach than rapidly transitioning people into minimalist shoes or altering their foot-strike posture.

I was disappointed that developing hip strength and stability was dismissed as being a trendy approach to preventing running injuries. I’d happily debate that all day long. Why? Because it is the most consistent theme we have seen when coaching runners suffering a range of injury concerns. So through practical observation of runners we know it’s something that is always in the mix as a potential contributor to an injury. It is also an area that researchers have begun to pay serious attention to, with weakness in the buttocks linked to many common knee and lower leg injuries. With a different group of academic experts in a debate this may have received more attention.

Foot type and shoe fit – a retailer’s perspective

Another item discussed was the sales model used by most big running shoe companies and retailers: choosing shoes by foot type and shape. There was agreement around the point that there is no scientific evidence to support this simplistic model, although there were valid questions about the veracity of a couple of the studies in this area.

As an aside, I’ve played around with a couple of decision support systems on shoe company websites and noticed that you can produce scenarios that confuse the system. For example telling the computer that you have high arches, but also pronate excessively will result in zero shoes being recommended to you – why? It does not fit the model, nor does the trend towards minimalism.

This is something Mark Gorksi (as a retailer) has been very close to, having taken the approach of fitting shoes based on what works best for the individual when observed running, rather than looking at their feet. Mark has hit the nail on the head with these comments in the last couple of days:

One of the biggest challenges facing shoe companies is the re-education of retail staff in regards to emergence of the minimalist running trend. This isn’t just limited to what it means technically and where certain shoes sit on the shelf, but how they relate to safely servicing runners of differing abilities, ages and backgrounds.

With increasing numbers of customers wanting to try the new minimalist shoes there’s a real risk for the industry because knowledge amongst retail staff about minimalist transition pathways is sketchy at best. Further, getting the message right about where the benefit of minimalism can most effectively be sort by runners is no easy task.

The wrong sell can easily lead to an injured runner who with a more patient approach to transition may well have got good benefits. The downside is that this runner may well be lost to minimalism forever as they lose confidence and receive conflicting advice as they recover from their injury – you may never get them back and you’ve added to the long list of cautionary tale fodder.

This in an environment where the continued use of foot-type fit needs rapid adjustment to keep up with what many runners now know from following the science and better running blogs i.e. that foot-type fit is not based on any science. These are huge challenges and a major back-pedal for many of the major shoe manufacturers, how they handle it will be interesting to say the least.

At what age should children start wearing cushioned running shoes? Blaise Dubois

Blaise’s pillow analogy was one of the highlights of the night, when children move from the cot to the bed they receive a pillow – but why? Same thought process applies to shoes, why do children need cushioned running shoes? Just as important is the question about regular shoes. I grew up, along with millions of others, wearing stiff leather school shoes with a heel.

I can distinctly recall shin-splints in the playground. Children run about, play, climb, sprint, run etc, why put them in something that is not conducive to doing these things? If you need to wear black shoes for school, look for flat flexible models with room for toe spread that are more or less minimalist running shoes in disguise.

If your child has already started adapting to traditional shoes, you’ll need to help them adapt out of it gradually, but this should be an easier path than for older runners. Keep your children out of shoes with raised heels for a long as humanly possible.

Can overweight individuals run safely barefoot or in minimal shoes? Peter Larson

Great question and I think the discussion was pretty helpful; there is no reason why an overweight runner couldn’t wear less shoe. In fact, the thinking behind being able to feel the ground and activate the correct muscles being more important for those runners that are a bit heavier makes a lot of sense.

After full adaptation has occurred, which of the following optimizes distance running performance? Dr Craig Richards

Running barefoot, Flat cushioned shoe, 5mm heel-toe cushioned shoe, 10mm heel-toe cushioned shoe.

This is a general but interesting question that depends on the race. On the track, a zero drop spike seems the right choice given all current world records belong to spike-shod runners.  Although I did have a discussion about that with world record breaking master’s runner and coach Keith Bateman a few months back on Twitter. As you can see he’s of the view that he’d be more efficient barefoot than in spikes. Could we see a return to the days of athletes like Zola Budd breaking records running barefoot?

At the marathon the argument for some heel lift seems valid and most recent fast times have been recorded in a shoe like the old Adizero Adios or similar. But equally some runners wear a flatter shoe, as did the winner of this year’s Melbourne Marathon Japhet Kipkorir (pictured above left wearing an Adizero Pro). Even experienced barefoot runner Dr Mark Cucuzzella (pictured above right) wears shoes to race the marathon. But in Mark’s case a shaved down, level Newton MV2 is likely to be roughly zero drop. He says: 

yes shoes are faster. I wear shoes in races….can go a bit reckless and less metabolic work. Hard to run on gravel and rough surface too at a fast pace.

Conclusion

Science has a hard job explaining how running works. One of the biggest things I take away from this debate is that any expert you rely on (myself included) is going to be basing their philosophy on a combination of science, observation and some practical personal and hopefully hands on experience in helping runners enjoy and get the most out their running experience. I don’t think we’ll ever reach a position where there is a uniform or consistent approach to running and perhaps this is a good thing. It’d be nice to have one area of life where there is room for the art as much as the science to lead the way forwards.

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8 Responses to The great running shoe debate recap

  1. Leon Boone April 4, 2012 at 4:10 pm #

    Brian, this is a great article. I can’t agree more with you. Why do we make kids run in highly cushion, high heeled runner shoes? When I was a kid I would run in a pair of Chuck Taylor’s and never had shin splints. When I got older and could afford a nice pair of shoes, which I though would improve my running, I started to have all sorts of running injuries. I think that we bring most of these injuries on ourselves by trying to prevent them. I have since improved my running form and transitioned to a minimalist style shoe. I have not had any injuries that stop me from running since my running form has changed. If we focus on improving our running form and improving the strength of our accessory muscles I think many more people would be injury free. Leon

    • Brian April 4, 2012 at 8:51 pm #

      Thanks Leon, it’s great to share these success stories. I think more and more we’re seeing runners make a good transition when they work on their form and get some strength training done. Brian

  2. Jacky Ledeboer March 31, 2012 at 5:40 am #

    I totally agree that good (healthy) running is all about good running education and preparing the body on a level that corresponds with the forces acquired for the job (recreational running, running on a high competitive level and everything in between). Like a well conditioned cardio-vascular system and well trained (and flexible) muscles, joints and soft tissues. IMO (in my opinion) the level of education is pretty important and should move beyond the stage of the often and nowadays everywhere mentioned advice that; cadence should be about 180spm, touchdown should be on fore-midfoot and posture should be correct like about straight or with a tad forward lean. This for reasons that the most interesting thing is; HOW to achieve such. At this moment it seems that not many of the thousands popping up running technique schools now these days, are able to explain the HOW part as well as their view and philosophy of movement in human running very well. IMO the only method being pretty consistent (for over 30 years now), straight forward and teaching the HOW (like what to do and not do) to become an efficient runner, is Posemethod. Ridiculed after publicizing its ideas (beginning nineties) and pretty ignored by the major part of the running community until now. Quite interesting.
    Keep up the good coach (-;.
    Runners trusting their shoes to do the job of better running will easily run into trouble because of ingrained bad habits; http://youtu.be/NpLTZp6xr0g

    • Brian March 31, 2012 at 8:39 am #

      Hi Jacky, thanks for comment. I agree it’s easy to describe and end point or target running technique but it’s much harder to get there. I’ll be writing a bit more about the Pose Method soon, while it has some positives, there are also some problems that need to be discussed a bit more. Brian

  3. David Berta March 29, 2012 at 9:31 pm #

    As a consistently 200 lb guy, who was 270 playing HS sports, I have to say that I have had no problem in minimalist shoes after switching to deal with emergent knee pain a year ago. I am a firm believer that while my size contributed to the development of the knee pain, better form and shoes that I can hit that form in have alleviated the problem.

    • Brian March 29, 2012 at 9:55 pm #

      G’day David, thanks for contributing to the article. I think I lot of people are scared off from trying minimal shoes because they are not built like a marathon runner. Great that you could add your perspective to show this isn’t the case. Brian

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