The variety of running shoes available today is stunning. There are shoes designed to help with pronation, supination, motion control and cushioning. There are shoes with gel midsoles, air midsoles, even shoes with computer pods built into the sole.
But do these shoes do anything to help us avoid injury?
In 2009, a Runner’s World study indicated that approximately 2/3 of runners are injured at some point during the year. Statistics show that the percentage of runners who are injured every year has remained relatively stable or even increased since the development of specialty running shoes in the early 1970s. All indications are that the advances in running shoe development over the past 40 years have done little if anything to stem the tide of running injuries.
A study conducted in 1989 by Dr. Bernard Marti at the University of Bern in Switzerland involving over 4,000 runners found that of the runners injured during the previous year, the most statistically relevant factor wasn’t the type of training they did, their speed, weekly mileage or prior injury history.
It was the cost of the shoes the runners wore!
Those who wore shoes that cost more than $95 dollars were twice as likely to get injured as those who wore shoes costing $40 dollars or less. (For those of you wondering where you can get running shoes that cost less than $40 or even $95, keep in mind that these are 1989 figures).
Why would that be?
The study offers no suggestions as to why this would be the case, but my take is that the more expensive the running shoe, the heavier and more feature-filled it tends to be. In other words, the more expensive the shoe, the more it messes with the foot’s natural running motion.
With the rapidly increasing popularity of minimalist running shoes and even barefoot running, we’re beginning to see a return to the days of lighter, simpler shoes. It’s too early to speculate on whether that will affect injury rates among runners, but my own personal experience running in lighter shoes has reduced the frequency of injury, once I’ve had a chance to get used to them.
When switching from heavier shoes to lighter ones, I felt a little more soreness at first, but that gradually went away after a couple of weeks and things returned to normal, except that now I feel lighter, perhaps a little faster, and have built the strength in my feet and ankles to give me a better chance at avoiding future injuries.
The difficult part is managing the transition.
When you’re making the switch from heavier shoes to a more minimalist model, I recommend cutting your weekly mileage in half for a week or two and then gradually building it back up over the course of maybe a month or so. This goes for the length of your long runs and interval workouts as well. You should also reduce the pace of your usual runs until you’re more comfortable with the new shoes; the faster you run, the more stress you put on your lower leg muscles which may not be ready for the additional workload.
Don’t simply switch shoes and continue on with your normal program. Your muscles, tendons and ligaments don’t respond well to sudden changes and you’ll be more likely to suffer an injury during this time. Be prepared to ice any sore spots after a run, and don’t be afraid to take an extra rest day every now and then if you’re concerned about any unusual pain.
Another thing I like to do is to add small amounts of barefoot running to my program in the form of 6-10 repetitions of 60-80m fast but relaxed sprints a couple of times a week following a normal daily run. This helps build even more strength in the calf and ankle muscles and reinforces good running form. It’s also fun!
I do these on a well maintained soccer field, along one of the sidelines after I’ve checked the area for debris such as glass or rocks, etc. This type of running seems to have significantly helped the mild but chronic Achilles problems I’ve had over the last couple of years.
Switching to a more minimalist shoe type isn’t for everyone, but it’s something you might want to try if you’re a frequent victim of injuries and want to try something different.
Here’s a video that explains why running barefoot or in minimalist running shoes can lessen the chance of injury: