Running shoes, injuries, and the Great Nike Conspiracy


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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.]

20 Replies to “Running shoes, injuries, and the Great Nike Conspiracy”

  1. Saw the link to this post via Steve Magness – thanks for the links to my Runblogger posts. You’ve characterized what I had to say very well, with one exception – I’m not a barefoot running advocate. In fact, I have only run barefoot 3 times in my life for a total of less than 10 miles (mainly just to try it out because I had heard so much about it – my nature is to experiment on myself). I see barefoot running as a tool to help with form and strenghtening on occasion, but not an everyday running style – this is where McDougall and I differ most. I do believe we evolved to run barefoot, but there are both practical and personal reasons why I don’t think most people will do so on a regular basis (myself included). Given that, the goal should be to find the best shoe possible for each person.

    The thing that I fail to understand is that if people like Nigg have been working with these companies, if his work has been around for so many years, and others have questioned the value of the “pronation control paradigm,” then why is it still so ubiquitous? That’s the question I’m asking. It’s one thing for top notch biomechanists like Nigg to consult with shoe manufacturers, but it’s only of value if their ideas get incorporated into the shoes being produced and those ideas make it past the marketing people. It doesn’t seem like this has happened based on the fact that he was saying a lot of these things 10 years ago.

    My main interest is in people being able to find the best shoe for them without getting advice that has little backing in science (as was pointed out by the BJSM study). At this point, my basic philosophy is for people to run in as little shoe as their body will allow them to comfortably do. You’re right that it’s an inexact science at this point, but to move forward we need to move beyond old paradigms that don’t seem to be working out very well. That’s simply the nature of science.


  2. I think that this all makes a lot of sense. But I am not going to run 80 mlies a week barefoot on concrete, dirt roads with rocks or back alleys, I would be way to scared to cut up my feet. Not to mention that my lower legs are not ready/strong enough yet to go from orthotics and stability shoes to barefoot running.

    I am very interested to see what shoe companies do over the next few years. It seems to make more sense to me to make 3 or 4 different cushion shoes and sell the heck out of those. You have less money on research, or having to produce all the different types of shoes. Maybe companies could have levels to work you down to more “minimalist” style of running.

    What i feel that shoe companies need to change is heal to toe ratio, and the curve at the front of the shoe. Neither of these do not go along with biomachanics or the foot or shoes capabilities.

    Just my 2 cents on the issue.

  3. @Peter Larson
    Thanks for the interesting thoughts, Pete — and apologies for leaping to the conclusion that you’re a committed barefoot runner! I just discovered your blog yesterday, and I’m looking forward to digging more through the archives.

    The points you make here are very interesting, and I don’t have any simple answers for them. Your basic question (I think) is: Why is the pronation control paradigm still so ubiquitous if respected researchers have been questioning it for so long?

    I think there are a lot of different factors that play into it, but your choice of the word “paradigm” (as popularized by Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher and sociologist of science) highlights an important one. I think you’re right that we’re in the midst of a paradigm shift in our understanding of the role of running shoes. But we should be careful about looking back with the benefit of hindsight and trying to judge what should have seemed obvious a decade ago.

    In any evolving scientific field, there are always dissenting voices advancing “radical” theories. Most of them turn out to be wrong, but occasionally some of them turn out to be correct. Looking back, it’s tempting to wonder why everyone didn’t listen to the lone voice in the wilderness who was shouting the truth. But in the case of running shoes, for example, there were plenty of biomechanical studies (much like Lieberman’s vaunted study from earlier this year) that supported the dominant paradigm. Let’s be honest: it’s a surprise to discover that cushioned running shoes don’t make things easier for your feet. Yes, we can now understand why they might not work after all, but we should also be able to understand how good, well-meaning scientists might have been convinced that the shoes should work, especially given the biomechanical data they were collecting.

    So does this mean shoe companies are blameless? Well, of course they’re going to be hesitant to abandon a technology that has proven extraordinarily successful at making them money, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them dragging their feet a bit (e.g. Nike’s several false starts and missteps with the Free). But as for the point you raised in your second post, what exactly is Nike supposed to do? If pronation control doesn’t work, what does?

    Maybe what works is to find shoes that feel good, as Nigg suggests. Maybe it’s run barefoot, as McDougall suggests. Maybe it’s run in the least amount of shoe that’s comfortable, as you suggest. These ideas all have merit. But the point I was raising in my blog post is that none of them have any EVIDENCE behind them (at least no evidence as strong as what critics demand from the shoe companies). So if I was Nike, I wouldn’t be abandoning all my old shoes (many of which are greatly loved by millions of runners) and leaping into a new, unproven paradigm. I’d be doing what they’re doing: continuing to try to figure out what shoes are best, and in the meantime responding to market forces by introducing some more minimalist shoes. To me, that doesn’t mean they’re “talking a lot of crap, and selling it.” It means they’re navigating an area of complex and conflicting science — and, undoubtedly, being steered in part by their marketing department.

    And what do I, personally, think? I just don’t know. I don’t think we have the answer to the “best” way of running. And I don’t know if we ever will. It may be that the way you build up your running regimen is more important than the type of shoes you wear (or don’t wear). Or it may be that completely different solutions are appropriate for different people. These are open questions that lots of people — including the scientists at Nike and other shoe companies — are interested in finding the answers to. Until then, I think your advice (the lightest shoe that doesn’t injure you) sounds as good as any to me!

  4. Alex,
    You make an excellent point about hindsight and Nigg being a lone voice in the wilderness. I guess my biggest concern is the following statement in the BJSM paper:

    “…despite over 20 years of stability elements being incorporated in running footwear there is, as yet, no established clinically based evidence for their provision.”

    Maybe I’m being naive, but I generally like to think that the technology that we use to help us avoid injury has been proven to do so. In this case, that proof/support was apparently never there, and these new studies seem to show that the technology doesn’t really do what it’s purported to do. McDougall may have overstated things in his post title, but I agree with him that it was remarkable to read this statement in a Nike supported and co-authored paper. However, I applaud Nike for doing this, and think it was a big step forward for all of us.

    For the time being, I’d simply like consumers to be made better aware of their options, for marketing to be more honest when it comes to science and biomechanics, and for shoe stores to stop conducting all of these pronation tests to determine which shoe a person should wear. People I know are afraid to experiment with a different shoe simply out of fear that if they don’t choose something outside of the category they were first “prescribed,” they will get hurt. I was told I needed stability and was in the same boat. I decided to make the change largely because I wanted to wear flats for racing, and nothing bad happened. I now realize that as long as a shoe doesn’t feel really awkward, I can probably run in it just fine (I never did get hurt in stability shoes, maybe I would have eventually, who knows?). My own path has taken me to more minimalist shoes, but I also realize that not everyone is going to go that route, not matter how much I or anyone else might think it’s the right one.

    There’s a lot of science that needs to be done on all of this, and it’s going to be very interesting and exciting to see what happens going forward. I tend to agree that there is probably no single optimal shoe or form due to simple human variability, but there may be some general principles that can be identified. I’d love to see each company provide a full range of shoes from traditional to highly minimal, and simply let people experiment on themselves and figure out what works best. Several are already doing this – Nike, New Balance with its upcoming Minimus shoe, and a few others, but more need to join in.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful response!


    I would by no means tell shoe stores were recommending shoes using tests that supposedly could assign you to one of these categories

  5. The great arthur Lydiard
    said years ago that the best running shoes to wear was a light flexible flat shoe.
    but question is; would Nike and all the rest be happy to sell this type of shoe alone when they could charge all sorts of extra cash selling you a shoe that had shed loads of extra crap that we never needed, but brain washing us in to believing was the answer to eternal injury free running!
    Our world is based on making money out of each other, not on commen sence!

  6. I think it might be overstating it to say that pronation control “doesn’t work.” Clearly it works for lots of people (or at the very least, it doesn’t hurt them). It makes sense to me that shoe companies would be slow adapters because there is already so much capital invested in the way they do things. It’s funny that Nike is the focus of this discussion, for me anyway, as I have always viewed Nike as the least focused on “control” shoes of all the major shoe companies. Nike shoes have always seemed to me to be the lightest, most flexible, and the least bulky and controlling.

    I guess the problem with the debate for me is that it turns around finding a paradigm of what is best for everyone, when what should really matter is what works for each individual. Of course, that doesn’t fit with a mass-market shoe company’s mandate, does it?

  7. I think this post is one of the most logical and most balanced that I’ve read on this topic. I think the take home message on this topic is that there is no evidence that says that one running method is superior to the other in terms of injury prevention. Furthermore, while running companies seem to be getting a lot of the blame for “marketing” motion control shoes, I don’t really recall any specific marketing campaign that made the claim of preventing injury. To me, calling a shoe “motion control” is simply a description of shoe design. Does a motion control shoe do what it claims to do, control motion? No one is calling these shoes “injury prevention” shoes (unlike Sketchers claims of their stupid rocker bottom shoes). At the end of the day, you’ve still gotta evaluate a runner individually based on many factors.

  8. Well spoken. The whole shoe thing doesn’t seem to add up as well as once though. I recognize there are certain instances where structural changes require the prescription of an orthotic, however, in functional instances (as most are) we’re sleep walking with such a prescription.

    Carson Boddicker

  9. More interesting comments — thanks, guys. Maybe what we can take from this is not “shoes don’t work,” but rather “the simplistic, generalized way of assigning people to one of three categories of running shoe based on their arch height” doesn’t work. As John says, there may not be a simple, universal paradigm — it’s what works for the individual (something that will depend, I suspect, on temperament and personal history as much as on foot structure).

  10. I also think it’s a little odd to call out Nike specifically for advertising motion control shoe technology. I think of Nike as the least stability oriented of the major running shoe manufacturers.

    Although I’m not a runner, I love wearing running shoes for their light weight and flexibility. My favorite shoe ever is a Nike shoe that is very flexible and has little support. I have spent more time barefoot than probably most people buying running shoes, and I can’t stand stiff shoes. My feet get tired and fatigued in stiff shoes. I feel like my feet are constantly working against them. Flexible shoes allow my feet to do the walking.

    I’ve heard/read a lot about motion control shoes, and, as an overpronator, thought they might be a good fit, but I’ve not found a pair that I really love.

  11. Fair point, Christoper. I think people use “Nike” as a shorthand for “big companies that make expensive shoes,” simply because they have the biggest profile. As you point out, Nike’s hardly reactionary — they were making the Free back when Vibram was just a twinkle in Chris McDougall’s eye.

  12. First with the suggestion that a standard for running technique exists with Dr. Nicholas Romanov’s Pose Method, through the hype surrounding Chris McDougall’s book, we’ve been hedging around the wrong question of “What is proper running technique?” The question should be “what is movement?” and that answer should be applied to all movement activities. All living systems move by the basic tenets described by Aristotle:

    We must now inquire generally into the common cause of animal movement of whatever kind – for some animals move by flight, some by swimming, some by walking and others by other such methods…for if any of their parts moves, another part must necessarily be at rest”

    In other words, motion is defined by the bodyweight moving from a (still) point of support, with gravity causing the acceleration of body mass around this point. For running there becomes a definite position where this occurs. At this position (falling forward), overpronation, heel-striking, etc. cannot occur. Why current
    science still debates this fact, is baffling considering the evidence throughout history that supports the idea that these principles apply to all. Shoes cannot correct this problem (why so many people still get injured) and just being barefoot doesn’t solve the problem either (proper integration of gravity and muscle action).

    As long as there’s money at stake, lines will be drawn and opinions, heresy and anecdotal evidence rampant. Unfortunately, it’s the consumer who loses. Think about the potential conspiracy theory connecting shoe companies with biomechanists with doctors with physical therapy with insurance companies…

  13. i have found this fascinating to read, i work for Nike and i have been looking for journals and other reading material so that i can perform better in my job and give people honest feedback and advice rather than just repeating what I have been told (i do not want to become brainwashed into thinking everything Nike works miracles). Since you all seem knowledgeable and objective in this field would anyone be able to point me in the direction of some useful reading material? I would greatly appreciate it and you can feel better knowing that we do research and we do want to provide the best shoe for each individual, not just make a sale.

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