Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sun, 8 Nov 1998 09:36:49 -0500

Shoe Safety

(from RC 268)

A story out of Canada got lots of ink and airplay on both sides of the border. I first heard it on NPR, then received a Toronto Globe & Mail story from Canadian friend John McGee. The newspaper article's provocative headline: Pricey Shoes Overrated, Report Says." Its subhead read, "Cheap footwear offers just as much protection to runners as the expensive kind."

Reporter Beverley Smith's story began, "People are being duped by claims that expensive athletic footwear is safer than cheap shoes, according to a Canadian report published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Advertising claims of superior cushioning and protection create a false sense of security in the user and actually increase the chance of injury." These were the findings in a study by Steven Robbins and Edward Waked of McGill University in Montreal.

John McGee, running columnist for an Edmonton newspaper, wanted my views on the subject. The response: It's as much an oversimplification to say that shoes "cause injuries" as to claim that they "prevent injuries." In both cases the shoes are probably minor players. The research I've read indicates that the main cause of injuries has always been, probably still is and may always be mistakes in the way we run. Meaning: too much, too fast, too often.

That said, I can tell you that the percentage of runners getting hurt has dropped steadily since the 1970s. Back then Runner's World surveys indicated that about two-thirds of runners were injured (an injury being defined as anything serious enough to disrupt the routine). The figure has since dropped to about 50 percent, which is still too high. We could take two different readings on our improving health:

1. Runners have grown smarter, or at least more conservative, in their training over the years.

2. Shoes have gotten better in their protective qualities in this time.

The answer is probably some of both. But my guess is the first factor is the more important of the two.

I've known about Steven Robbins (the main author of this study) for at least 10 years. His long-standing thesis is that the best shoe is the least shoe, and that we might be best off running barefoot. I too happen to prefer the least of all shoes (see next section). But while Robbins uses science to support his contention, mine is just a personal preference and not a claim that anything is wrong with the way most of today's shoes are made or marketed.

My unscientific bias is that choosing shoes isn't so much a matter of safety (or even performance) as one of comfort. I'm most comfortable in light, flimsy shoes. This is out of step with most of today's majority, which feels best in more substantial models. To each his (or her) own. I don't think they're suffering for their choice, and neither am I.

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