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The Running Shoe Debate

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I treat a wide range of runners in my clinic on a daily basis. From weekend warriors to ultra-marathoners, everyone has a preference when it comes to their running shoes and most have a theory on why their chosen shoes work for them.

Often there is good logic involved in their reasoning but with so much available on the market, runners can get swayed by clever marketing gimmicks. Buying the wrong shoes can easily result in associated injuries down the line.

You may have noticed that more and more types of running shoes are available and wondered what brought about this influx of products. In 1960, Ethiopian marathon runner Abebe Bikila ran the Olympic Marathon in Rome. He shocked the world when he broke the world record and won the Olympic Gold Medal barefoot. This is, undoubtedly, the most influential barefoot running victory of all time.

Over the years other marathon runners such as Bruce Tulloh, Shivnath Singh and Zola Budd also received acclaim running barefoot. Professional runners were racing without traditional running shoes and the industry was starting to take note.

The Tarahumara Indians have also played their part in the running footwear revolution. This Native American population of Northwest Mexico is renowned for being able to run long distances barefoot or with very thin lightweight sandals. It was reported that the Tarahumara Indians ran without getting injuries and they were living long, healthy lives.

Vibram 5 Fingers

Major players in the running footwear industry started to question previously-recognised theory that cushioned shoes were best for running and we soon started to see ‘Vibram Five Fingers’ and minimalist shoes on the market. While this seems like a market reaction to evolving logic, there are some inherent flaws in the logic presented.

In particular, much of the information often recited in the running shoes debate is anecdotal. For instance, Abebe Bikila only ran barefoot because he didn’t have his favoured running shoes on the day and later he beat his barefoot world record wearing running shoes.

The Tarahumara Indians are a genetically isolated tribe who are very light and run from a young age into their senior life on varied terrain. While barefoot marathon runners and Tarahumara Indians may be experiencing great results, they are very different from the average runners that are shopping in the mall.

As well as anecdotal evidence, research conducted on running shoes has also been put forward as basis for promoting barefoot running. One instrumental article written by Daniel Liberman, a biologist at Harvard University, highlighted rear foot strike patterns as the main influence in running injuries and linked this to cushioned shoes. However, the article makes a number of bold statements that simply cannot be substantiated.

The reality is that more and more marathon runners are wearing lightweight shoes without cushioning but many do still heel strike. In fact, despite the move to lightweight running shoes there has not been a significant drop in overall injury rates over the years. Other research in this area is extremely limited and needs to be done on a much larger scale in order to determine conclusively which type of footwear is best for which foot type.

So you are most likely thinking that rather than clarifying the issue all of this information makes the matter of selecting the right running shoes even more confusing. However, here is some helpful advice to help when shopping for running shoes.

#1 Shoe Fit

Podiatrists often treat patients with toenail injuries and blisters from wearing shoes that are too big or too small. Shoe brands will differ when it comes to size so always get measured in the shop. A good sales assistant will know which brands come up smaller or have more room. Make sure the shoe heel feels comfortable and snug with a little room for movement. The shoe should be a little wider than your foot.

One way to test width is to take out the insole inside the shoe and stand on it. If your foot spills over the edge of the insole the shoe is too small. When it comes to length, the shoe should be a thumb’s width longer than your longest toe. This will give your feet room when they swell. Your running shoes should
feel comfortable in the shop and should not rub. Just remember, any discomfort you feel will be magnified when you are running.

#2 Arch Support and Cushioning

Running shoe makers design arch support for different foot types. Knowing your foot type is important when buying running shoes. Generally, a high arch foot requires cushioning and a low arch foot requires support. There are people out there who are of the opinion that arch support weakens the foot but there is no evidence to support this theory. A good running shoe shop will have a treadmill and I would recommend trying any potential purchase on this before buying it.

If you are unsure of your foot type, a sports podiatrist can help you and can offer advice on the right type of running shoes for your foot type as well as techniques on how to change your foot strike pattern. They can also undertake a thorough running gait analysis to see your overall running form and foot strike patterns and can offer advice on techniques to change this.

#3 The Sole

The sole of the running shoe should be firm. It should bend only at the point where your foot is flexed and bends. Lots of running shoe manufacturers are using materials that look firm but are actually very soft and flexible.

Play with the shoes in the shop twist and bend the sole to ensure it is firm enough to protect your foot. Running shoes designed for low arches have more material in the inside heel area of the sole and the materials used in that area may also be firmer. This can have an impact on the knee.

Those with painful or arthritic knees may find that some types of soles will aggravate the knee. Again, it is important to try running in the shop on a treadmill before you purchase and a sports podiatrist will also be able to advise you.

In general, it is good to stick to recognized brands that invest in product development. However, this can get expensive so if you are not worried about having the latest design I advise that you shop in the sales or look for the previous season’s models to keep the costs down. Running shoe shops with knowledgeable staff are great but beware of sales gimmicks. Stick to the basic advice above and you shouldn’t go far wrong.

For runners and sports people who want more advice a sports podiatrist can carry out a thorough gait assessment and will be able to recommend which type of shoe is best. For runners with foot or knee pain, orthotics are a good option as they can add structure and support to a sports shoe.

If you feel you would benefit from an assessment with our qualified sports podiatrist please call Specialist Rehab Group 97402164 and make an appointment.

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