Running shoes, injuries, and the Great Nike Conspiracy
Over the last week, there has been another bubble of excitement about the impending demise of conventional running shoes, spurred by the publication of a couple of studies that found no reduction of injuries when runners are fitted with shoes specific to their running stride — “motion control,” “neutral,” “stability” and so on. Gretchen Reynolds at the Times does a nice job of summing up the studies.
These are important studies. But I found the reaction to be a bit overblown, in some cases. Chris McDougall, the author of Born to Run, wrote a blog post with the title “Breaking news from Nike: We’ve been talking a lot of crap, and selling it,” calling the results “mindboggling and explosive stuff.” I don’t think he can be referring to findings themselves — he wrote a book on this stuff, so there’s no way he doesn’t already know that there’s never been a study linking shoe choice to injury rates. What he finds so amazing is that one of the co-authors of one of the studies works for Nike. (It’s actually Gordon Valiant, who figured in a blog post just last week.) To him, this is evidence that Nike is peddling stuff that it knows doesn’t work.
Another point of view comes from blogger Pete Larson. In his initial summary of the research, he also marvels at this apparent contradiction:
Makes one wonder if the shoe makers actually have “proprietary data” supporting these designs, or if the whole pronation-control shoe paradigm is nothing more than a giant marketing gimmick.
Larson followed up a day later with another post titled “What is Nike doing? Speculation on a Shoe Market in Motion,” which I think is more on the money. In that post, he notes that “the questionable benefits of pronation control shoes have been present in the scientific literature for some time now (see this 2001 paper by expert biomechanist Benno Nigg).”
Here, for the record, is a list of the footwear companies that have employed Nigg’s consulting services, including Nike, Adidas and Mizuno. All the major shoe companies are perfectly aware of the strengths and weaknesses of current shoe research, and they all fund studies trying to learn more. It certainly looks like what Larson calls the “pronation control paradigm” is due for revision, as more than one shoe researcher has acknowledged. (Asics consultant Simon Bartold, for instance, told me earlier this year that Asics has completely abandoned the concept.)
The question is, what do we replace the pronation paradigm with? Nigg’s advice is to run in a shoe that feels comfortable to you — his group has produced some interesting studies suggesting that your body “knows” what will help it minimize the energy needed to stabilize your muscles.
To Larson (and McDougall, needless to say) the answer is even more obvious: “Your body evolved to run long distances, and it evolved to do so barefoot.” On the surface, it’s hard to disagree with this statement. But if you’re asking “What shoes are best for recreational runners in modern Western societies?” rather than “How did our ancestors run 100,000 years ago?” then I’m not sure we can assume the answer in the absence of studies. The barefoot/minimalist argument is extremely logical and makes a lot of sense — exactly like the “use shoes to cushion feet and reduce biomechanical forces” argument was in the 1980s and 1990s. Let’s not fall for the same mistake again by skipping the part where we check that the idea actually works in the real world.
[AUG. 5 follow-up: orthotics study suggests there’s life in the pronation paradigm after all.]