Running shoes are stupider than I thought

Alright, so here’s an article about that military study which found that running shoe design is complete and utter voodoo. McDougall has a couple of good posts on the topic. I do my best to be skeptical about any study involving the human body because there are so many uncontrollable factors. The Lieberman study, for example, is interesting but doesn’t really prove anything. I’m having trouble finding something to criticize with this latest one.

If I’m understanding it correctly (a dangerous assumption), the military was about to purchase a bunch of foot-specific shoes for the troops, who like the general public seem to be plagued with running related injuries. Surprise #1: instead of just going ahead and spending taxpayer money on a bunch of unproven remedies, they conducted their own study to see if it was worth the investment.

Question interjection: why is the military doing this, and not Consumer Reports, or the FDA (or whichever bureaucratic entity that’s supposed to protect us from snake-oil selling ne’er-do-wells), or the BBB? Or, for that matter, the shoe companies who are selling the stupid things?

Anyway, what did they find? Here’s a quote from the NYTimes:

Injury rates were high among all the runners, but they were highest among the soldiers who had received shoes designed specifically for their foot types. If anything, wearing the “right” shoes for their particular foot shape had increased trainees’ chances of being hurt.

Surprise #2: the “right” shoes were actually worse. I figured it would be random.

I can’t think of a counterpoint argument. A bunch of runners, all on the same training plan, in about as controlled an environment you’re going to get, getting hurt regardless of what fashion crime was attached to their feet. If they’re wearing the shoes they’re “supposed” to be wearing, even more get hurt. The uncomfortable truth is that the consensus could not have been more wrong. Smart people believe BS, buy BS, and preach BS. Here’s some more BS:

For now, if you’re heading out to buy new running shoes, plan to be your own best advocate. “If a salesperson says you need robust motion-control shoes, ask to try on a few pairs of neutral or stability shoes, too,” Mr. Ryan says. “Go outside and run around the block” in each pair. “If you feel any pain or discomfort, that’s your first veto.” Hand back those shoes. Try several more pairs. “There really are only a few pairs that will fit and feel right” for any individual runner, he says. “My best advice is, turn on your sensors and listen to your body, not to what the salespeople might tell you.”

… and you’ll still walk out of the store $100 poorer with a remarkably unstudied product that is just as likely to cause you pain. In order to be a smart customer, you have to know what you’re looking for. If your form is messed up, a shoe you like will probably expedite your injuries. If you’re a new runner, you don’t know anything yet. If you’re an experienced runner who’s doing fine, well, the shoes you like will be discontinued eventually and you’re going to have to find a new pair that works with your form pronto, and keep your fingers crossed you don’t get hurt in the expensive trial and error process.

Frankly, I think most of the shod running community is screwed. They’ve been running in cushy-bouncy ankle brace shoes for years. Most seem to have it down well enough that they only get hurt once every other year or so. What’s going to happen to them if their cushy-bouncy ankle brace shoes are taken off the shelf, as many barefooters advocate? Are they going to be able to make the transition to cushionless shoes? No, they won’t. They’re going to break every metatarsal in their feet. And forget barefooting; that’s just a fad. And the ground is saturated with rat poison and nuclear waste and poo. And it’s gotta hurt!

The only difference between the motion control (or whatever) shoe and the PMS shoe is that consumers think one makes sense and the other is silly. There is no science, only producers catering to the preferences of consumers. They each rely on he assumption the other knows what they’re doing. Blind leading the blind.

But you like your shoes? That’s fine; go ahead and enjoy them with your magnetic bracelets while reading your horoscope and having your palm read to tell you what homeopathic remedy you need in to remove the toxins from your body should you bump into Bigfoot on your next trail run.

Was that too mean? That was too mean. I just couldn’t bear to delete that last run-on sentence.

My next post: My wife wears shoes, I’m totally cool with it, and why.

PS I’m feeling much better today, thank you. It’s nice to be able to take a break from running without worrying about “messing up” training for some race or another.

PPS Some of the lack of confidence in humanity expressed in the above post is no doubt related to a rough week teaching art camp. Teaching while sick is not fun, and yesterday as I was cleaning up after class one of my students rushed in to throw away some of the art she did. “I don’t feel like carrying it to the car,” she said. “I thought you did some nice work,” I said after she left.

14 thoughts on “Running shoes are stupider than I thought

  1. So I’ve already read several articles on this subject over the last couple of days but this is the first one that actually made me laugh. Freaking hilarious! Love your blogs!


  2. Iv’e been listening to people talk about their shoes. I just sit an listen. I have no opinions anymore, because everything I think about running has flipped over for me. I want to talk about barefoot and its virtues, but I know i am new and people think i’m nuts. I can’t even quote this kind of stuff, as people believe what they believe and there is no changing that. no matter what.

  3. Your blog sucks.
    The PMS shoes work! When I am feeling bloated and irritable I throw them at people and I feel much better.

  4. seriously, it is only a matter of time before a class action lawsuit against the shoe companies.
    If you think about it, pushing “motion control” shoes is actually more malicious than selling cigarettes. At least the tobacco companies never said that cigarettes were good for you and you needed them to prevent cancer. or did they? wouldn’t put it past them.

    However, I think it is important not to extrapolate the conclusion of this study to a case against all shoes. Only the “motion control” and “stability” ones.

    • ac: And then there’ll be another class action lawsuit against Vibram’s from all the runners getting hurt making the switch to no cushioning. Re study, it’s not an indictment against shoes so much as the companies who sell them with claims they haven’t even studied, let alone proven, the experts who recommend untested products, and consumers who expect to have their hands held their whole lives.

      Russ: You’re probably right. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

      Johnny O: I’d rather step in shit than shoes! There you go, now make some bumper stickers.

      skinshoes: The problem is there’s no evidence that the supposedly abnormal feet require any”fixing” in the first place.

  5. Unfortunately, I believe it would take an experienced runner with access to video of his/her gait to make a qualified guess as to which shoe is best for him/her. And I include in this assumption the fact that an experienced runner may train barefoot and is aware of the differences and the force in his/her footfall both shod and unshod.

  6. I think a class action lawsuit will be the reason that the shoe companies will never come straight out and admit that they either released shoes without truly knowing their effect, or purposely misled people into thinking that the motion control shoes help and not hurt. So it’ll probably just hover in the gray area for ever.

  7. You forgot broken glass. Even worse, broken glass underneath poo! When I step in poo, very infrequently, I laugh because of the conflict between the actual sensual feeling – like running in mud – and disgust that I didn’t recognize it before I stepped in it. I take pride in the fact that I will experience this unique divergence in thought and people with shoes will not. And you know what? the smell isn’t as bad as when a runner takes off his/her shoes!

  8. I’ll just copypasta this comment from your link:

    “From what we read, it seems more likely to suggest that runners whose feet fall outside the “normal” range, i.e. those identified as needing special shoes, are more prone to injuries, no matter what shoe they wear.

    It seems more likely that those feet identify prevalence for running injuries, and that footwear can do little to change the odds of injury, than that footwear designed to alleviate problems identified with high arches, say, actively do more harm than good. More likely, they just do not do enough good.
    — Jim Turner ”

    I think Jim here has a point. I mean, if one is near-sighted, no doubt will glasses help one to see, but never as good as someone with 20/20 vision.

    Whether they help or hurt doesn’t matter to me, though. My sneaker days are over. If I get hurt running barefoot in such a way that I may only run in shoes, I’ll stop running.

  9. Skinshoes: If I am understanding you then, your running is barefoot or nothing? That seems extreme to me. Even if the majority of shoe claims are false, I would opt for running over not running, whatever is or isn’t on my feet. Just my $.02

  10. I was laughing out loud at that last run-on sentance. Hilarious. I’ve only just begun starting to walk/run barefoot and I totally love it. Thanks for being such a great resource.

  11. I think you’re a little harsh on shod runners. Its not necessarily the shoes that injure people its the people who wear them running wrong. They heel strike. Like C. McDougall said, people need to be taught how to swim or throw or kick, it makes sense that they should be taught how to run. I’ve been running shod for 8 years now and have only been injured once which I’m fairly sure was from overtraining. I step with my midfoot not my forefoot and my only problem with my shoes was that they were heavy. I got some 6oz racing flats and am super happy. and quite interested in barefooting.

    • Thom: I’m a little harsh on everybody… my gripe isn’t “shod runners” so much as lazy consumers (which describes me much of the time too). People should ask for proof of claims before they make their purchases, but they (we) don’t. Runners like you who have figured out that there’s a “how” to run should be good to go, whether you choose to run barefoot or in shoes that don’t get in the way. I feel for the runners who have become dependent on cushy shoes, especially if those shoes get taken off the shelf.

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