If the running shoe fits…


BACK TO BASICS When choosing new runners, comfort trumps scientific sales patter and unnecessary expense.

Andrew O'Brien

Finally, the gyms are open and we’re back to group exercise. Perhaps there is light at the end of this tunnel after all. Obviously, plenty of people have been running and walking throughout the lockdowns, and well done to you, but for those who are only just getting going again, perhaps we should talk about shoes. Running shoes in particular. What should you consider when buying your next pair of runners?
First, a bit of history. There is evidence of leather moccasin-type shoes going back as far as 40,000 years. These were most common in colder climates as protection from the cold. Native Americans wore moccasins in the winter and went barefoot during the warmer seasons. Over time, shoe design became more about fashion and social standing than function. Indeed, high heeled shoes have been around since the 15th century and were originally worn by both men and women.
Running shoes are a different matter altogether. In the ancient Olympics, the athletes competed naked and barefoot. Athletic shoes only appeared in the late 1800s, and were typically made from soft leather with spikes in the sole for grip. If you see a sprinter’s spikes, they really aren’t much different to what was worn a century ago.
Distance running shoes were much the same, but without spikes. In fact so were tennis and basketball shoes. There was no arch support, motion control, cushioning, gel or air. Look at Converse runners; not so long ago, they were the shoe of choice for professionals in the NBA.
What changed then, and was it for the best? In the early 1970s, Nike released the ‘Cortez’, with a cushioned midsole that allowed runners to increase their stride length by landing on their heels rather than having to land on the forefoot as was the case in the earlier plimsoll type shoes. This was a significant change in the gait pattern of runners, and resulted in different forces and movements that hadn’t previously been observed.
Pronation perspective
Anyone who has ever attended a physiotherapist with running problems, or gone for a fitting session in a sports store, would have heard about pronation and motion control. Pronation is a natural movement in which the arch of the foot compresses under load, absorbing the impact and storing elastic energy for release on the next stride.
‘Over pronation’ has long been blamed for running injuries, but, interestingly, there is no clear definition in the literature as to how much pronation is normal, and how much is too much. There is no magic number.
When analysis is done in shoe stores, you might walk down the aisle, or run on a treadmill and, if your foot is observed to ‘over pronate’, you will likely be prescribed a motion-control shoe to support your arch. But here is the problem. Remember: there is no clear definition of over pronation. Besides which, research shows that motion-control shoes only reduce pronation by about 1.5 percent anyway.
And perhaps most importantly, an analysis of the scientific data by doctors at the University of Newcastle in Australia found no evidence that running shoes of any kind prevent injury. Added to all of this, research shows that selecting running shoes based on a certain prescription is more likely to result in injuries than selecting shoes based comfort!
Comfort is king
What does this mean when you go to buy your next pair of running shoes? Firstly, be guided by comfort. There are two reasons for this. If the shoes aren’t comfortable, you’re less likely to wear them, and therefore just less likely to run.
Also, discomfort when walking or running will alter your gait pattern, increasing your risk of injury. (Remember when new school shoes always used to give you blisters, and how you had to limp home? Now double the impact forces and imagine how unpleasant running in shoes that will cause blisters could be, and how likely you are to get hurt by running with a limp.)
Secondly, be guided by your budget. It has long been implied that expensive is best when choosing running shoes, but this may not be the case. Whilst not showing that shoes are the cause of injuries, research suggests that runners who wear more expensive running shoes have higher injury rates than those who wear shoes that cost less than €40! So, if you love the colour and design on a pair in the bargain bin, and they’re comfortable, give them a try.
And finally, don’t be blinded by the so-called science. Remember, until the 1970s, running shoes, tennis shoes and basketball shoes all looked much the same.
And for 6.5 million years of our evolution, we only wore shoes to keep us warm.

Andrew O’Brien is a chartered physiotherapist and the owner of Wannarun Physiotherapy and Running Clinic at Westport Leisure Park. He can be contacted on 083 1593200 or at www.wannarun.ie.