Monday, October 12, 2009

Running Tip #22 - Are your running shoes injuring you?

Runners know the importance of getting the correct running shoe. After all, the right shoe will correct your biomechanical problems and prevent injury, right? Maybe not.

There is no evidence that running shoes reduce or prevent injuries [1]. In fact, all of the evidence is that running shoes and injuries go together [2]. Also, more expensive running shoes are linked to more injuries than cheaper ones, even after allowing for mileage and injury history [4, 8].

This is all counterintuitive, because running shoes reduce the impact of running, don't they? Wrong again. It has been shown that running shoes do not reduce the impact [5, 6]. It seems that the cushioning from shoes messes with the body's natural way of running [7]. One study went as far as describing running shoes as "safety hazards" [3]. One study showed that when stepping down to a cushioned surface the more cushioning, the more impact [11].

But we need arch support, right? Nope. An arch is a self supporting structure. If you push up under an arch, you dramatically weaken it.

There is indirect evidence from the human body; we are designed to run long distances. Regardless of your belief around the mechanism for that design (divine or evolution), our bodies have only had running shoes for a few decades, but we have been running for millennia. Currently, 24-65% of runners are injured each year [10]; it's hard to imagine humanity surviving if such rates are typical of the species. Many features of the human body are believed to be adaptations to running [12, 13].

There is also a growing body of anecdotal evidence that moving from traditional running shoes to minimalist shoes or barefoot cures chronic problems [9]. My experience is part of that anecdotal evidence. I used to find that I would suffer various nagging injuries, mostly around the knee, hip or ankle until I swapped to a more minimalist shoe.

Running shoes; an analogy

Here is an analogy. Imagine you are running through the woods blindfolded. This is painful, because you keep running into trees. To ease the pain, you get a bigger, more padded blindfold. This helps a bit, as it cushions the pain of hitting the trees, but does not solve the problem. If you take off the blindfold, you will actually see the trees. Running in traditional running shoes is like running blindfolded. Your feet are very sensitive so that they can detect and adapt to the surface. To see this adaptation, check out this video -

Are running shoes always evil?

So, are all running shoes evil? There is ample evidence that for most people, shoes are a significant evil, causing a variety of injuries. For a few, they are able to run correctly in traditional running shoes. But even for those people, they are probably slower and less efficient due to the extra weight.

Barefoot Running and Primal Running

The alternative to running in traditional running shoes is barefoot running and primal running. Barefoot running is pretty obvious; it's running without shoes. Primal running is inspired by the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico, made famous by the book 'Born to Run'. The Tarahumara run vast distances in sandals made of deerskin or sections of car tires. Primal running is to run in shoes that are very minimal, with no cushioning. Both barefoot and primal running create a running style that is natural and efficient. The body then absorbs the running motion in the way that it has for millennia. This barefoot/primal running style is very similar to Chi Running or the POSE method. The Chi/POSE methods teach the conscious mind a new way of running, which you then practice. The barefoot/primal running approach seems to bypass the conscious mind and taps into the instinctive ability to run correctly.

What does this mean to you?

  • If you are a runner and had any running injuries, I would strongly recommend that you try either barefoot or primal running.
  • If you are a runner who has never been injured, I would suggest you try either barefoot or primal running. You may find that it improves your speed, efficiency and more importantly, your love of running.
  • If you are not a runner, but would like to get fit, lose weight or live longer, running is a great way of achieving these goals. Just remember that barefoot and primal is a better way.

What's next?

I will be writing more on this in the next blog entries on 'Primal Footwear' and 'the journey to Primal Running'.


[1]Is your prescription of distance running shoes evidence based?

[2]Robbins SE, Hanna AM (1987). Running-related injury prevention through barefoot adaptations. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 19, 148-156

[3]Robbins SE, Gouw GJ (1991). Athletic footwear: unsafe due to perceptual illusions. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 23, 217-224

[4]Robbins S, Waked E (1997). Hazards of deceptive advertising of athletic footwear. British Journal of Sports Medicine 31, 299-303

[5]Robbins SE, Gouw GJ (1990). Athletic footwear and chronic overloading: a brief review. Sports Medicine 9, 76-85

[6]Mechanical comparison of barefoot and shod running

[7]Running-related injury prevention through barefoot adaptations

[8]MARTI, B. “Relationships Between Running Injuries and Running Shoes – Results of a Study of 5,000 Participants of a 16-km Run – The May 1984 Berne ‘Grand Prix’”

[9]Minimalist Footwear

[10]Factors related to the incidence of running injuries. A review.

[11]Balance and vertical impact in sports: Role of shoe sole materials

[12]Running paced human evolution

[13]Running Extra Mile Sets the Human Apart

Further reading,0,5107405,full.column