Let the shoe choose you!

Author: By Steve “The Footman” Manning Founder of intraini  

“A paradigm shift causes you to see the same information in an entirely different way.” WIKI

A historical perspective on the evolution of running shoes, their manufacturer and how you should choose shoes.

“There’s an optimum amount of support for each runner.”  Steve Manning

At intraining, we have always done things differently. That’s because our focus is on finding the best shoe for you rather than just trying to sell you the most expensive shoe.

In 2015, leading footwear researcher Benno Nigg and his researchers at the University of Calgary, published an article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine called, “Running shoes and running injuries: mythbusting and a proposal for two new paradigms: ‘preferred movement path’ and ‘comfort filter’.” This article reviewed the research over the past 40 years and in particular the relationship between impact characteristics and ankle pronation to the risk of developing a running related injury. He questioned whether or not running shoes had any influence on injury rates but concluded that the change in demographics of the running population and the inconsistent definition of running injuries made a comparison over time inappropriate.  

This paper in turn inspired me to write this story about how my thinking has evolved over time and created the procedure we use to find you the best shoe for your running.

A snippet of history

In 1979, when I first started working in the running footwear industry, Brooks brought out a new shoe with what was called a varus wedge. It was designed by their consultant podiatrist Steve Subotnik. This was a wedge of firmer density placed on the inside of the midsole (cushioning) of the shoe to stop a movement called pronation. At the time pronation was a new concept for running shoes which stated that the rolling inwards of the heel of the shoe led to increased injuries.

The pronation perspective

This shoe and this anti-pronation feature revolutionised footwear design during the running boom of the 1980’s. It was a simple story where a specific movement was the cause of most injuries. Injury risk could then be reduced by simply stopping this action. This theory of injury risk had a major impact not only on footwear design but also on orthotic prescription and gait analysis for the next few decades.

Benno Nigg has been at the forefront of footwear design and research for the last 30 years.  from the 1980’s until now with the inclusion of Carbon plates in footwear.   Way back in the mid 1980’s he had contributed to the Brooks Nexus, the first running shoe with a kinetic wedge. This was a softer section of midsole under the big toe joint which reduced the pressure from the ground allowing better flexion of the big toe in propulsion. This shoe was the most expensive shoe ever sold in Australia at $300 but it was also hugely popular. This feature was very successful for the 15% of runners who needed it but caused knee injuries in most of the runners who did not. As a result, the shoe was discontinued despite its advantages.

This story illustrates the importance of really understanding someone’s individual biomechanics before prescribing a feature in a shoe. One of the most popular running shoes in the 1990’s was a motion control shoe called the Brooks Beast. This shoe was like running with a block of wood on your foot. It completely stopped the chance of any pronation. When people went into a sports store and asked for the best shoe the sales staff would often point out the Beast as the shoe with the most protection from injury. Its popularity in sports stores was helped by the fact that it was also one of the most expensive running shoes.

Not one size fits all. Runners have different needs!

As an experienced runner and coach I was always cynical of this simplistic story. I could see clearly that different people needed different amounts of support in different areas of the shoe. People were not designed the same so the idea that there was a best shoe for everyone was false. Just like some people were better at sprinting than distance running there had to be an individual level of stability and cushioning that was best for each runner. I did not even like the idea of cushioning and stability as being the main factors in describing a running shoe and its contribution to injury. Many of my own ideas were influenced by the writings of Peter Cavanagh (The Running Shoe Book, 1980) and Benno Nigg (Biomechanics of Running Shoes, 1986).

More does not mean better

Far too frequently runners were sent into our shop with orthotics that tried to completely block pronation. They were often impossible to fit into a shoe and were often very uncomfortable to run with. The patients were also told by their Podiatrist to purchase the most stable motion control shoe. This 

seemed to be a huge overkill to me. I had done a guest lecture to the Podiatry students at Queensland University of Technology on sports footwear and injury. In it I tried to explain a new perspective that “footwear can be a direct or indirect cause of injury in runners”. I wanted to teach them that there was an optimum amount of support for each person. While a little bit of anti-pronation control might be good for a runner, that did not mean that more was always better.

Is softness better?

With cushioning I believed that softer is not better.

A Swedish research study was performed that involved an experiment where bone pins were screwed into the leg bones (femur and tibia) to identify how much force was going through the knee joint. Subjects ran over different surfaces from cement to high jump mats. The surprising finding was that there was a point where a softer surface increased the amount of force that went through the knee. My conclusion from this finding was that softer surfaces reduced feedback from the ground so prevented the coordinated contraction of the muscles which was the most significant dampener of impact forces. I thought that soft shoes might bottom out and cause an unanticipated force wave which would be more destructive - like jumping off a step with your eyes closed. I also felt that harder or firmer shoes would offer less compression and reduce impact reduction. These combined effects suggested that there was an optimum midsole firmness for each runner depending on two factors of their weight and how hard they hit the ground. Force = mass x acceleration. So, a heavier runner who landed softly might need a softer midsole than a lighter runner who hit the ground hard.

Let the person’s foot decide what's the best shoe

As a retailer, the challenge was to identify what each runner needed. At intraining Running Centre our staff are taught to let the person’s foot decide what was the best shoe. We stopped discussing any shoe technology jargon with our customers.

Instead we told the customer how the shoe was supposed to feel when running:  

  • They should be comfortable
  • Feel like there is even support on both sides of the feet
  • The shoes should be quiet to run in with
  • There should be minimal slapping or pounding

The key to choosing the right shoe. Wear, Fit, Design and Suitability!

The critical factor in selecting the ‘best’ shoe is to have the customer run in the shoes at their normal pace to see if their gait and the shoes are compatible. We focus on what I consider the four key components in choosing shoes: Wear, Fit, Design and Suitability.

You can determine these when you try on shoes, simply by running in them.  It only takes a short stretch of running on a firm surface and you can gain a good understanding of how well a shoe will work for you.  

A good running shoe should allow your body to move in the preferred movement path.  There is not one type of shoe that is most comfortable for everyone.  Comfort has been associated with a reduced injury frequency as well as better running economy and performance.  The comfort filter paradigm proposes that by selecting the most comfortable shoe a runner will reduce their injury risk.

Tried and tested for 40 years

Fortunately, this is the way we have always selected shoes at the intraining Running Centre. We let the runner and their feet decide which shoe works best. The most critical factor is to run in the shoes before you make any decision. During the trial run we tell our customers to pick the shoe that:

  • Feels like it gives the most even support on both sides of the foot
  • Has the smoothest action making it easier to roll off the forefoot
  • Is the quietest when running

Different runners will find different shoes that meet that criteria. There will always be different theories and paradigms posed to help us understand what is ‘the best shoe’. It is comforting know that a model the intraining Running Centre adopted 40 years ago, has been shown as possibly ‘the best fit’ by the leading researchers in the field of footwear and biomechanics.


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