Sunday, March 23, 2008

Corrective Running Shoes

The link of the week is: Jonathan Dugas and Ross Tucker, a couple guys with Ph.D.'s in Exercise Science and Sports Medicine Research, do a great job looking as the science of training and sport. One recent post that got a lot of feedback investigated whether running shoes actually cause injuries. It started with a post on proper running technique, and became an ongoing series of posts that examine the relationship between running injuries and "corrective" shoes. The result of one study is that more expensive running shoes have the same percentage of injuries as cheaper shoes, which may lead to the conclusion that innovative gadgets and doo-dads in shoes are at most ineffective.

Personally, I will go further to say that "corrective" running shoes often do more harm than good. As an experienced runner, I'm going to pretty much stick to shoes that I know work for me - simple, "neutral" shoes, and I'm going to be very conservative in trying something different. Of course, I don't suffer from many running-induced injuries specifically because I am an experienced runner, so I'm not going to fall for promises or claims of new shoe technology that alleviate stress or pain of which I don't suffer.

[For example, here's Aetrex, a self-described "industry leader in pedorthic footwear," which has "raised the bar in footwear, having developed technology and fashion-forward footwear that provide customized comfort to individual needs that help eliminate foot pain. This is a significant development considering 70% of Americans will have painful foot problems at some time in their lives." Strange. So, the only way to avoid foot pain is to get custom-made shoes? And since everyone's a bit different, that means everyone needs a custom-fit shoe? A running shoe should have some cushion, some support, and fit well, but that's about it. People's feet differ slightly in shape and size, but as there are many different brands, some will naturally fit better than others. But, if you can't find a single standard athletic shoe that fits your foot that doesn't cause pain, then the problem isn't the shoe.]

I did, however, accidentally buy a pair of correctve shoes once, and that sucked. I should have known better, but I mistook the new style of Pumas for a previous neutral design (they looked virtually the same), and they felt OK when I tried them on, so I bought them. A couple weeks later, right about when the pain started, I was updating the website for the very same running store that sold me these shoes, and found out that these shoes were for over-pronators. Well, I threw these out immediately, and replaced them with a new pair of Nikes that I knew were good and neutral, and the pain immediately subsided. (The guy who sold me the Pumas knew that I was an experienced runner, as well as a fellow employee of the store, so I'm sure he figured I knew what I was doing.) It was a silly mistake, but if an experienced runner can buy the wrong shoe, think of what must happen with inexperienced runners. I don't blame Puma, as they're one of the pioneers of the running shoe, and Nikes aren't necessarily superior - their shoes just happen to fit my feet well. But those particular Pumas, as well as all non-neutrual shoes, should have came with a warning label.

My previous post on shoes dealt with the concept that many if not most running injuries, apart from those caused by simple biomechanical problems that can be corrected, occur because we keep running (or walking) in shoes after they're worn out. We used to by Shoe Goo to fix soles, but no one does that any more because we now realize that once the outsoles are worn thin, the insoles are going to be wasted. Yet, there are so many companies still selling insoles and orthodics that you're supposed to place inside your old, broken-down shoe. Why not simply buy new shoes when they wear out? You can examine the soles of your shoes to see how they wear, (or test the compression of your shoes' insoles to see how your foot wears down your shoe) to see if you need to correct your running form or biomechanics, but new shoes will be the primary solution to foot pain. However, since half of the running store's shoes are going to be designed for people who pronate, supinate, or otherwise have bad running form, they're going to want to subscribe these special shoes for all those who qualify (otherwise, they would never sell all those shoes.) Thus, those with bad running form or less-than-perfect biomechanics get talked into the belief that they need a special type of shoe or insert in order to participate in running, and their real problem never gets addressed.

Then, of course, there are the Pose and Chi methods, which specifically address the problem of imperfect biomechanics, and many runners have become believers, ditching their corrective shoes for neutral ones. The problem with the Pose and Chi methods is is that they aren't really training methods at all - they're just common sense. So, you don't need a running coach that is certified in Pose or Chi or whatever brand of training technique - you just need a coach or friend that has a bit of experience in running biomechanics. If you want to be serious about swimming, it is widely accepted that you need a coach to show you how to swim effeciently. I'm a very strong swimmer, but I'm not fast at all, because my form sucks. Still, I don't mind, because swimming with my head out of the water isn't going to lead to injuries - it is actually good strength training, and I only swim for pleasure, not for competitive or regimented exercise. But if you want to run seriously, and your form sucks, you're most likely going to run into problems.

I remember a high school PE class where a friend of mine announced that he was quitting running because of shin splints that wouldn't go away. He was a naturally strong athlete with a fairly powerful build, so I suspected that his form could use a bit of work - perhaps his calves were over-compensating for his weaker shins. Well, once I saw his running shoes, I burst out laughing, as they were a pair of old, heavy, flat-soled, leather high-tops - they looked more like hiking boots than basketball shoes. Wouldn't you think that our PE teacher, who claimed to be a scientifically-minded fitness enthusiast, would have mentioned that he should be running in running shoes? He would have been better off running in bare feet. So yes, you do need a bit of technology in your shoes. But, there's sometimes a fine line between adequate technology and too much.

Something fairly alarming in a recent article Oregon Distance Runner notes that "while abnormal running mechanics are often cited as the cause of injuries, few suggest altering a person's running pattern in order to reduce the risk of injury because locomotion is predominantly thought to be automatic, and thus difficult to change." Hence, doctors and therapists often prescribe orthopedic insoles, lifts, or specialized shoes for the majority of problems when genetic traits that they are supposedly treating, such as flat feet, bow-leggedness, or a slight difference in the length of one leg to the other, rarely hinder proper running motion or cause injuries in and of themselves.

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