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

Sun, 30 Jan 2005 08:21:58 -0500

Shoe Safety

RUNNING COMMENTARY 556

(rerun from January 1998 RC)

A story out of Canada is getting lots of ink and airplay on both sides of the border. I first heard it on National Public Radio, 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 reads, "Cheap footwear offers just as much protection to runners as the expensive kind."

Reporter Beverley Smith's story begins, "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.

I'd like to see the actual report of this research. Reading only a newspaper summary of it is risky, since reporters tend to misunderstand certain aspects of scientific reports and to sensationalize others.

John McGee 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 causes of injuries have always been, probably still are 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) since the 1980s. 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. 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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