The not so great running shoe debate

It is with some trepidation that I will attend a great running shoe debate to be held in Melbourne on Friday evening this week. On one level I’m happy to go along and hear what people have to say, these events can often deliver a thought provoker or drop useful knowledge into your lap. I’m also pleased to be able to finally make the acquaintance of Robbo from The Naked Runners, who along with Mossy, I’ve been corresponding with during the past year. It’s also a good chance to meet the experts in the field who will be taking the stage to slug it out with a bit of intellectual kick-boxing.

But debating by its nature is combative and rarely conducive to imparting knowledge, especially in this context where the debaters are experts/scientists with reputations to protect or enhance. To a running public that isn’t familiar with the scientific literature, how studies are designed and what makes a good and bad piece of research, it can be confusing. It’s worth checking out the blog of scientist and author Alex Hutchinson – he’s got a great nose for BS and is well qualified to sort the good from bad.

Entertainment versus knowledge value?

I’d go so far to say the actual narrative of debates like this can be meaningless to runners and coaches who are craving good information; however entertaining they are for running nerds and scientists. If you think I’m mistaken, visit the comments stream following the last of these debates.

Public exchanges of professional vitriol are of questionable benefit to the education of the running community at large. I’m thinking here of runners and running coaches. However, I concede there is value in raising the awareness and knowledge of developing issues amongst the professionals that might attend this debate.

There is a much needed shift in attitude that I think needs to occur amongst professionals that runners generally come into contact with. Runners need their physiotherapists and podiatrist to be more holistic in their approach and I acknowledge a change in attitudes to minimalist running footwear and orthotic prescription is part of this process that debates like this can help, but by no means is it the complete picture.

Debating shoes – a narrow focus

My real worry here is not this particular debate or the participants involved, but the continued narrow focus on shoes being the main (or only) lever available for runners to pull in their search for injury free running and proper running form. Why? My personal and practical experience in helping runners improve technique and find long term solutions to injury problems  strongly suggests that shoes are only one part of a multi-layered learning and conditioning approach. I agree with Pete Larson on the point that “bad shoes can lead to bad form” and removing a poor shoe choice can eliminate an unnecessary hurdle to improving their technique.

So why are we still only talking about running shoes?

I’m no scientist, but I did look into the possibility of formal study to examine some of the aspects I wrote about in my book. The main reason I didn’t undertake a Masters or PhD is that science is hard and running is complicated .It wasn’t a cop-out exactly, but I was firmly informed by one of the plain speaking academics I met that what I was considering doing wasn’t viable at a PhD level and that I’d have to narrow my focus so far that any results would be meaningless to someone who wanted to coach and write about running technique.

Stuff is hard to prove. That’s why there are so many studies that look at small and isolated aspects of running – like taking off your shoes. In my opinion, observational studies of actual out of the lab running such as the one performed by Pete Larson and colleagues on foot-strike patterns during a marathon are far more useful than something narrowed down to get past a bunch of hostile PhD examiners or the requirements of peer reviewed academic journal publishers.

Practical observations better than studying narrow interventions?

The type of study done by Larson gives you something real and practical to think about and they trigger new theories and stimulate discussion – I was quickly able to add something potentially useful to the observations of the authors of this study. They also help provide actual evidence to support things that you thought you knew in your gut. For example, it’s probably not a good idea for runners completing the marathon in more than three hours to wear zero drop shoes or racing flats unless they are extremely well adapted and experienced. It’s long been recommenced that only efficient runners wear flats in a marathon and this study supports that notion by identifying an increase in heel-striking as the marathon enters its closing stages.

The debaters

Back to the debate at hand. Craig Payne is a Podiatrist and barefoot running industry critic. Simon Bartold, another Podiatrist, who works with the ASICS shoe company as a consultant, is traveling overseas and will not be attending, but will be contributing via scripted questions.

On the case for minimalist running we have Blaise Dubois, a physiotherapist that advocates for minimalist running shoes and runs workshops around this topic and other trends in running injury prevention for physiotherapists. It’s good news as far as I’m concerned to have a physiotherapist advocating amongst physiotherapists to raise the profile of the potential benefits of minimalist running.

Also on the panel is Craig Richards, a researcher who has done much to debunk the pronation foot type myth by trying to find evidence (and not finding any) that there was some rational behind fitting runners into shoes loaded with motion control features based on the shape of their feet. Richards is also a strong critic of Sports Medicine Australia (SMA) for their endorsement of the ASICS running shoe brand.

More debates about shoes? How about better, more holistic information for runners?

I don’t personally know any of the debaters and will be interested to see how this thing plays out. My personal view is that we don’t really need more shoe debates, what we should be looking for is the different players and leaders within and around the world of running to make a bigger commitment to education by providing better quality, more holistic information to someone quite important, the runner.

The runner is currently on the receiving end of a whole bunch of mixed messages from direct and indirect influencers of opinion. They’re also likely to receive contradictory advice depending on who they’ve last talked to. It’s easy to see how runners get trapped in the injury doom cycle with so much going on.

My take on running shoe minimalism

My views about the benefits of wearing relatively less shoe as part of an overall program to improve running technique are in plain sight on my blog, but I’ve been cautious about insisting that the only way to run well is to just jump into extreme minimal shoes. This isn’t smart, nor is it correct, but if you’re a runner absorbing mainstream and some online media, this is exactly what you might decide to do. In fact, when we work with runners in the coaching context, a minimal shoe transition is one of only four main areas we work on, and even then many runners are not recommended a minimal or even a transition shoe because they are clearly not ready for it.

Coaching and discussing running technique, a practical multi-layered approach is needed

I’ve been providing (with Mark Gorski) a running technique coaching service for almost a year now, and the strategy we use is relatively straight-forward, but so far has been quite successful. We provide some basic information and instruction about how running should work and where a runner needs to focus to get from A to B. Often the gap between the current and future runner is too great to bridge in a single step, so we very much focus around the critical principle of hip strength, stability and the ability to activate the buttocks and hamstrings.

All good runners share a common running engine room – strong and stable hips. They are able to activate their buttock and hamstrings muscles as they contact the ground to facilitate an active landing that provides more power and better absorption and use of ground reaction forces. We’ve found foot-strike and running shoes are a secondary consideration if you can’t activate these major running muscles.

Shoes are definitely in the mix of factors we look at, but are only one of four main interventions we work on with the runner. I wouldn’t downplay the relative importance of any of the measures we use because they all feed off and enhance each other:

Learning from the experience of trying new things

We try and provide enough information, instruction, stimulus and a training approach that allows a runner to learn their way to technique improvements. I’ve had the good fortune to correspond with Dr Mark Cucuzzella over the last week or so as he prepares a presentation to be given at the University of Virginia – yes another debate, but about gait, not just shoes, this is a step in the right direction. We’ve talked a bit about the importance of experiential learning (trying stuff out) as part of the gait retraining process.

His recently released barefoot running video and principles of natural running has been a big hit – and contains great information for runners. But while it’s relatively easy to describe the principles of good running technique, we agree it’s harder to learn them. This is where experiencing different stimuli such as a small volume of low intensity barefoot running, wearing minimalist running shoes for some of your running, strength training, a change in training approach and using specific mental cues to activate better muscle activation patterns can all help.

Learning any new skill takes time and experimentation, so it’s better to think of it as a cycle rather than a short, linear progression with a fixed end point. You can always keep learning and evolving; new discoveries feed your progress and inspire new levels of performance, but you must be prepared to try and fail as part of the journey.

This is where taking things slowly is all important, as it keeps the magnitude of any failure small i.e. a bit of soreness and a day off running, rather than a full blown injury that keeps you out for months.

None of this is particularly radical, but the combination of measures used is effective. The reason for explaining it is this: I’d like to see more discussion, research and debate about a range of helpful measures for runners and coaches, not just shoes. I’d especially like to see more research into various coaching and teaching strategies. What I’ve outlined in our way of approaching the issue, I know there are others that are also effective; tapping into and sharing different strategies is what I’m getting at. This type of research is unlikely to prove anything in a black and white way, but observing what works and doesn’t work in practice can be a valuable learning experience.

More leadership, better education a bit of humility

So what we need is leaders and spokespeople in the running industry to step back, take a deep breath and give some ground on your position. We also need a clearer narrative and people to take a little effort to put any new research, products and advice in context so they have a sense of relativity and connection to the general running public. This doesn’t mean being patronizing, but just providing that extra layer of information that makes data or facts mean something to the person about to run in different shoes, try that new drill or make a sudden switch to forefoot or barefoot running.

The minimalist movement hasn’t done itself any favors by some companies and distributors getting into the mainstream media with simplistic messages about the benefits of barefoot shoes. Sure there are benefits to be had, but these messages don’t come with a warning label or point out that it’s not all about the shoe. Equally some running shoe manufacturers need to listen a bit more to what’s working in the real world and spend less time and energy on trying to polarize opinion. There’s plenty of profitable and helpful middle ground for those with a bit of vision to make the most of it.


So I’m looking forward to the debate, but I’m hoping that in the future these types of discussions will center far more on the runner and that researchers will move away from trying to prove narrow interventions. A focus on observing what happens when a range of measure are used by runners to improve their fortunes would be far more helpful. Yes you might never get that funny professor’s hat or find the running silver bullet, but you’ll be far more likely to help runners and running coaches develop better approaches to injury prevention, recovery and training.

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16 Responses to The not so great running shoe debate

  1. Jeff Gaudette April 3, 2012 at 12:15 am #

    Great piece, Brian. I completely agree with you, especially about the coaching and practical application of minimalism running and form changes. Without the proper guidance, just throwing someone into minimalism without the proper instruction on how run is an egregious error.

    Science of Sport just posted a great article on the “skill” of barefoot running: I think their thoughts align very closely with yours.

    Thanks for your detailed post, loved it.

    • Brian April 3, 2012 at 6:49 am #

      Thanks Jeff, appreciate the feedback. Thanks also for the link. Brian

  2. Alex March 24, 2012 at 12:24 am #

    I agree with you that a stable chassis is needed before you can expect to run well. I will say, however, that hamstring and glute activation, in my experience, is much easier in low (or zero) drop shoes. A higher heel tends to invite overstriding, and thus a technique based on absorbing the impact with the quads, and then simply rolling through. That is, I think “minimalist” shoes are useful form coaches and strengthening tools, whereas conventional trainers are more of an obstacle to those things. In any case, I do think your focus is on the right areas. A stronger runner is a healthier (and faster, probably) runner as well.

    • Brian March 24, 2012 at 9:35 pm #

      Hi Alex, totally agree with the comments about better glute and hamstring activation in minimalist shoes, definitely one of the benefits of gradually heading in that direction. Brian

  3. charles March 23, 2012 at 8:07 pm #

    Sounds like it should be a good night for debate Brian. From a runner’s perspective it is difficult to decide what pair of shoes to purchase sometimes with advertising power of the shoe companies, against (what seems at time) conflicting views from other experts. In the end it comes down to (I belive) no one size solution fits all (as the running companies would have us believe). A runner needs to spend time to understand their body, running style, goals, and what the environment and purposed the shoe will be used in.

    Looking forward to some feedback from the debate. Enjoy.

    • Brian March 24, 2012 at 9:33 pm #

      G’day Charles, wise words as always – that’s the voice of experience speaking! Will have an update up in next few days. Brian

  4. blaise dubois March 22, 2012 at 8:40 pm #

    Now, “My” debate is not so much on barefoot-minimalist versus big bulky shoes… but more now on “How contaminate by marketing and shoe companies we are”… Will try to keep the debate at the level of the runners… see you tomorrow.

    • Brian March 22, 2012 at 11:05 pm #

      G’day Blaise, thanks and looking forward to hearing some more tomorrow. Brian

  5. Gorsk March 22, 2012 at 6:03 pm #

    Gday Brian,

    It will also be interesting to see which shoe companies send people along tomorrow night and whether they get involved in the discussion.

    See you there.

    • Brian March 22, 2012 at 6:49 pm #

      Hi Mark, reckon there will be a few. Hopefully Adidas will come so I can ask them where the Hagio is!

  6. Craig Payne March 22, 2012 at 1:22 pm #

    I think my position was supposed to say something like critic of the barefoot/minimalist “INDUSTRY”, not of the actual technique.

    • Brian March 22, 2012 at 1:31 pm #

      Yep it does say that. I’ll check the article to make sure this is reflected.

  7. Craig Payne March 22, 2012 at 12:41 pm #

    The only criticism I have of barefoot/minimalism is the continual misuse, misrepresentation, misunderstanding and misquoting of the research by those promoting it. I have never said there is anything wrong with it. I not sure where you are getting your information from.

    I did not know Simon Bartold was part of the debate on Friday.

    • Brian March 22, 2012 at 1:15 pm #

      G’day Craig, only info I have about the debate and the participants is from the debate promoter’s website (link in article). I’ll do a write up following and summarise the positions of each speaker so it’s completely clear where you’re coming from. Brian


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