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Busting myths about running shoes and running injuries

A new paper’s revolutionary finding: just wear what’s comfortable.

No good evidence supports the idea that pronation leads to injuries, the researchers found.
MinnPost file photo by Steve Date

You don’t need an advanced degree in biomechanics to buy a pair of running shoes (or any other kind of sports shoes).

And forgot whatever you’ve been told (or warned about) regarding foot pronation and impact forces.

Furthermore, never let someone tell you that you need to buy a particular shoe (or purchase orthotics) to “fix” a mechanical-alignment running problem.

For according to the Canadian authors of a paper published recently in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, you need to consider only one thing when buying running shoes: comfort.

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Your comfort.

“Comfort is difficult to define and to quantify,” write the authors of the study. “However, it seems that shoe comfort is important for running injuries as well as running performance.”

Fortunately, most of us instinctively choose a comfortable running shoe (unless we’re talked out of it by a salesperson or an ill-informed trainer). That factor probably explains, say the study’s authors, why the rates of running injuries have remained essentially unchanged over the past 100 years — despite the fact that today’s running shoes are so much fancier (and more expensive). 

Dispelling two myths

The lead author of the new paper is Benno Nigg, an emeritus professor of kinesiology at the University of Calgary and a world-renowned expert on biomechanics. He and his colleagues searched PubMed for the best studies they could find (including several conducted by Nigg) regarding running injuries and their relationship to different types of shoes.

An analysis of that data uncovered two big myths that dominate the prevailing “wisdom” regarding running shoes.

One of those myths is that runners should worry about pronation, the rolling inward of their feet when they hit the ground. No good evidence supports the idea that pronation leads to injuries, the researchers found.

In fact, one study that followed almost 1,000 new runners for a full year found that people whose feet pronated actually reported fewer running injuries.

The other great myth is that runners need shoes that attenuate and redistribute the heel-toe patterns and forces with which their feet hit the ground. “There is no supporting evidence that vertical impact peaks and/or vertical loading rates are variables that contribute to running injuries,” Nigg and his co-authors write.

And as for shoe inserts and foot orthotics, the researchers found (as Nigg has reported in an earlier paper) that there’s no consistently strong evidence that they offer any benefits to runners. The only characteristic about inserts and orthotics that seems to matter is their comfort.

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“A softer shoe insole seems to reduce injuries in military shoes and (we speculate) probably also in running shoes,” say Nigg and his colleagues.

New paradigms

Based on their analysis of all the existing research, the researchers suggest that we choose our running (or sports) shoes using two new paradigms: “comfort filter” and “preferred movement path.”

In other words, each of us should choose the shoe that makes us feel most comfortable as we run — with the emphasis on how we run (our individual “preferred movement path”), not on how other people think we should run.

That should make your next shopping trip for running shoes a lot less complicated.

You’ll find an abstract of the paper by Nigg and his colleagues on the British Journal of Sports Medicine website, but the full paper is, unfortunately, behind a paywall.