The Perfect Running Shoe: Physical Necessity or Marketing Fad?
Buying a decent running shoe ain’t what it used to be. There is such an overwhelming overload of information out there, compounded by ever-changing trends: minimalist, anti-pronation, trail, road or hybrid… how are we supposed to know what it right for us? Or is it all just marketing hype? I spent some time with local specialists to find out.
It’s unlikely you’ll find anyone who knows more about running shoes than Grant Bryant. After 12 years in the industry, Grant is now the owner of RUN Specialist Store in Cape Town, home to a vibrant community of pro-runners, sports scientists and some of the most beautiful running shoes I have ever seen.
But RUN is not just about aesthetics. Grant is a veritable fountain of knowledge, as are his trusty sidekicks. The team works closely with physiotherapists, podiatrists and other specialists, and their enthusiasm is as impressive as their practicality.
“You can’t prescribe a shoe as a cure,” says Grant. “The right shoe can assist with and support the treatment of an ailment, but there are multiple determining factors – your lifestyle, history, bodyweight, how often you train and what exercise you do. A super fit 45 kg pro-marathon runner who pronates severely will likely need far less support than an overweight weekend warrior with a very mild pronation.”
Which brings me to an interesting fact: About 80% of the shoes in RUN are neutral. At your average sports store, the reverse is often true. In my experience, most women’s shoes at local, big-chain stores provide anti-pronation support. “There are a lot of old school beliefs and misconceptions out there,” says Grant. “Anti-pronation shoes tend to be over-prescribed and unnecessary.”
According to Grant, Asics remains the dominant brand for your average South African runner. “They are reliable and consistent,” he says. “Brands like Nike or Adidas invest considerably in innovation, which means their products change often. Asics are not prone to fads – they didn’t even produce a minimalist shoe during the ubiquitous barefoot phase. With Asics, you know what you’re getting.”
Carlo Longano’s running lab at the Biomechanics Institute is a sight to behold, a laboratory of gismos, gadgets and complex machinery. But Carlo, an esteemed and outspoken local podiatrist, is not in the business of selling shoes. I ask him frankly: “How detrimental is it really to run in the ‘incorrect shoe’? Our predecessors were fine with nothing, are we not being a little… well… over the top?”
Carlo laughs. “You can’t prescribe a Palaeolithic lifestyle to someone who sits at a desk all day. That said, you should aim to remain as close as possible to your natural biomechanics. For example, excessively soft and supportive shoes can be detrimental to your muscle function, because the shoe does most of the work and as a result certain muscles can deteriorate and weaken.”
Carlo explains to me how an incorrect shoe can cause defects in your running, throwing out your alignment and leading to injury. Ideally, runners should invest upfront in having their gait and stance analysed and the correct shoes fitted. “Perhaps the process is expensive initially,” says Carlo, “But the cost of an injury will inevitably exceed the cost of prevention. I get so many patients coming in with injuries that could’ve been prevented from the start.”
Carlo takes me through the parameters required to asses which shoe would work best for a particular individual. The process is lengthy and incredibly detailed, and includes an array of measurements and methods, including Surface Electromyography (SEMG), video analysis, muscle function tests and, if necessary, x-rays.
“We want to move clients away from the myth of the brand and towards a scientific truth,” he says. “When it comes to shoes we don’t go by manufacturer or fad. We go by science and body mechanics.”
Neil Hopkins is the gold standard in Biokinetics – young and smart enough to be at the cutting edge of research and innovation, experienced enough to run a substantial and varied practice. In an hour with Neil, he is likely to cite more academic papers than a university professor. As someone who works closely with injured patients aiming to get back into their running shoes, I decide to spend a morning with him to find out how much the ‘right’ running shoe really matters.
“Ideally, we aim to get the body correct as much as possible first, rather than relying on a shoe to solve a problem,” he says. “Conjunctive therapy is the most viable solution – a combination of prescribed exercises together with a correctly fitted shoe or insert. Although each individual is obviously treated on a case-by-case basis, and re-assessed over time.”
Neil explains how there is no formulaic, one-solution-fits-all prescription when it comes to buying the right shoe. The entire body needs to be taken into account. Yes, you might spend thousands on a great pair of shoes to support you through the rehabilitation of an injury, but are you working the correct muscle groups? What about your posture and alignment? From Neil, I gain a deeper understanding of the full chain of effect: How our foot mechanics are not determined by our shoes, but rather by our entire body. How we can make incremental changes to those mechanics through correct exercise and movement.
“There is a lot of anxiety for clients,” says Neil. “They have an issue, they ask Dr Google for answers, and the sheer magnitude of information available is overwhelming for them.”
Neil suggests approaching a shoe purchase like a scientist: start with a hypothesis, but be open to disproving it based on evidence. Notice if there is an increase or decrease of pain, observe your body’s movements. Awareness is key.
“Remember at the end of the day it is a subjective appraisal from the professional that is assisting you with what shoe to wear,” says Neil. “You still need to add in your own subjective appraisal to ensure the best fit. Don’t dumb down your own ability to listen to your body and take your own personal evidence into account.”