If there’s one thing we can say with confidence here at Highsnobiety, it’s that we know sneakers. They aren’t just something we cover for fun; they’re a lifelong passion and obsession. Whether we’re talking to the world’s foremost designers and industry innovators, covering killer new releases or crazy collabs, we live in a sneakerhead’s world, and it’s in this world we feel most at home.
We are — primarily, at least — a fashion and streetwear publication and thus the style and design of a sneaker takes precedent. We peep the shit that looks good, and wear it with what’s in style. We collect the stuff that’s limited because, frankly, some of them are works of art.
If we cover A$AP Ferg’s latest adidas collection, for example, we probably don’t give a shit if you can play tennis in them. We’ve never asked whether or not Jordans actually make people ball better, whether those SBs make people ollie higher, or whether Sambas really are great indoor soccer shoes. We've been pretty quiet on that front. That is, until now.
In the last few years, people have raised a ton of legitimate questions about the real-life usefulness of running shoes, and the intentions of the $20 billion industry responsible for them. We’ve seen the emergence of barefoot-style shoes, and we know that running-related injuries are on the rise now more than ever before. Studies suggest that despite the billions of dollars dumped into athletic research by brands like ASICS and Nike annually, anywhere from 65 to 85 percent of runners report a major injury every year.
This begs the question: do running shoes really work, or are they just expensive eye candy?
The Case for Running Shoes
The purpose of a good running shoe is all about injury prevention. Extra gummy soles, “cloudfoam” midsoles, gel technology, fly-woven extra-light fabrics, injection-molded arches, and all the other fancy upgrades all boil down to comfort and added protection where our feet need it most — or so we’re told. But how much of that actually stands true when all is said and done? Well, here’s what we know:
In the world of running, your gait is the physical way you run. A gait analysis essentially outlines everything about the way your body and legs move in order to help determine what kind of shoe would be best for your particular running patterns. It’s basically a very complicated — and sometimes problematically subjective — crash course in the biomechanics of your body. A gait analysis is important because it’ll tell you whether you’re a heel striker or balls of the feet striker, whether you’re susceptible to overpronation (whether you’re overcompensating with your foot striking), and a bunch of other little things that help determine what you need to look for when shopping for running shoes.
If you’re purchasing department store running shoes without knowing your gait analysis and shopping for shoes that fit your running style — or shoes that help correct particularly bad running habits — you’re not doing yourself any service. If a shoe isn’t compatible with your individual gait, then it may be worse for you than simply running barefoot, no matter how great its marketing team makes it sound.
Running shoes might make a difference, but only if you’re a good consumer.
One of the biggest advantages athletes have today is that analytics and metrics are becoming more and more accessible. The kind of wearable technology we now have helps runners map their routes down to the foot, identify their weak spots during training, log burnt calories, and really help them get a grip on their progress — all in real time.
Systems like Kinematix’s TUNE or Under Armour’s Speedform Gemini 2 can not just log your miles, but also get super granular, offering information for each individual foot such as cadence, asymmetry, heel contact time, etc. to provide insight on how to optimize your performance and minimize injury potential.
Those kind of metrics are invaluable, and knowing you can get them delivered straight to you just by purchasing the right kind of shoes is nothing short of amazing.
Stability and Cushioning
There’s also no denying that running shoes add a necessary level of stability that help protect runners from injury on uneven road surfaces (although if you’re doing any kind of trail-running, you should look into something that provides lateral stability, which is often absent from basic running shoes). In fact, if you’re an overpronater, stability shoes are said to be good ways to help you work on correcting your form and prevent injury. At least, that’s what we’re told (more on that later).
Of course, good running shoes provide an adequate amount of cushioning to help prevent harmful impact to your knees and other joints. Believe it or not, running is really tough on your joints, and the only real way to lessen its impact on your body is to focus on proper form and wear comfortable shoes that offer cushion—but not too much cushion—and support.
But Do They Prevent Injury?
Running shoes won’t make you run faster or longer. They won’t make you an Olympic qualifier, they won’t make the impossible possible and they sure as shit won’t lay the miles down for you. But that’s not what they’re marketed as. They’re sold to us as tools, scientifically engineered to help us run for as long as we can without getting injured and having to quit. But when push comes to shove, what does the research show?
Too Much Cushioning
The number one cause of running-related injuries is impact forces, i.e., the trauma experienced by the feet and legs as a direct result of slapping feet against pavement over and over again. So it’s common sense that shoe companies figured that by adding soft cushioning to the soles of their shoes, it would help reduce that trauma and thus, result in less injuries.
But study after study appears to prove the exact opposite. Research published in the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise journal, compiled by Dr. Hannah Rice of the University of Exeter, concluded that people who wore “minimal trainers” and less cushioned running shoes noticed a significantly lower loading rate upon impact, which means they’re stepping more lightly and safely. In theory, that means significantly lower risk of injury.
Another study by the Sports Medicine Research Laboratory in Luxembourg tested 215 runners over the span of five months and noticed literally no difference in injury rates between runners who wore super soft cushioned shoes and runners in hard, less-cushioned shoes.
Research definitely supports the idea of some amount of cushion being necessary to prevent significant injury, but it looks like too much cushion could be an excellent way to get hurt.
The “Myth” of Overpronation
I’m going to proceed with caution here because I don’t want any hardcore distance runners who read this and buy into the running shoe racket to throw up and go into a fit over it.
For years — decades, really — major shoe companies have invested a ton of cash into research (and advertising) to demonstrate to people that the second major cause of running-related injuries is overpronation. In a nutshell, overpronation is the idea that someone with a flatter foot or less arch runs in a way that strains their joints and creates injuries because their feet “roll” onto the ball in an unnatural way.
Shoe and orthopedic companies have released everything from form-correcting shoes to specialized ankle supports and entire physical therapy programs to “correct” the issue, but it seems like for every person who buys into the hype, you’ll find 10 who can’t manage to “fix” their problem.
However, the science behind overpronation is murky. A 2009 study by a research team from the University of Newcastle concluded that the widespread and popular practice of prescribing motion-controlled shoes to long distance runners to help correct their overpronation issues was not evidence-based.
In fact, a more recent 2013 study from a team of researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark found even more damning evidence that fancy running shoes actually hurt runners, concluding: “Healthy newcomers to running who overpronate/underpronate do not actually suffer more running injuries than other runners if their first pair of running shoes do not have any special support.”
What About Form?
Another critical point that helped fueled a lot of the barefoot running revolution we saw pop up over the last few years actually stemmed from the idea that running shoes do more to hurt proper gait, stride and posture than help — and there’s plenty of data to back that up.
When a team of researchers from University of Colorado, Boulder and University of Virginia, Charlottesville got together to determine the effects of modern running shoes on runners’ legs, joints and hips by monitoring a sample of 68 otherwise healthy runners, they found increased joint torques at the hip, knees and ankles when running with modern shoes rather than running barefoot. And not by small peanuts, either. The researchers found a 54 percent increase in hip rotation torque, 36 percent increase in knee flexion torque, and 38 percent increase in knee varus torque.
There are also plenty of people in the podiatry community who believe that standard running shoes are terrible for long-term use because they actually promote bad form and something called “proprioception disorder.” Proprioceptors are basically a network of “sensors” in our muscles that allow us to gauge balance. Those sensors get messed up when they’re covered by big cushiony running shoes, and make it difficult for our body to interpret our body’s relationship to the surfaces on which we’re traveling. The long-term results are that we become far more prone to accidental injury because our body over or under-compensates for one thing or another at some point.
So, What's the Truth?
The goal here obviously isn’t to get you to go toss your trainers in the trash or anything. It’s not like you could actually run barefoot (seriously, if you’re one of those people, please stop being one of those people).
It’s important to be informed about the things that could affect our health, and that’s really what this article is all about — being smart consumers. When it comes down to it, shoe companies are businesses, too. They have their gimmicks and tactics to make their stuff seem better than the other peoples’ stuff. It’s all part of the hustle. Hell, look at the way people clung to Vibram’s FiveFingers shoes, or the way people swear on the goofy-as-all-fuck-looking Hoka One One that may not actually do anything at all.
At the end of the day, it’s about selecting the right running shoe for your gait, and understanding that your health depends mainly on your form, not your gear. Look less for the gimmicky marketing stuff (the injected foams, the plastic arches, fancy liners and braces, etc.) and instead look for a shoe that fits and feels right, and works with how you run.
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