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If you walk into any running shoe store, you might be overwhelmed by the plethora of running shoes stacked high up and across the walls. You might wonder: how do I choose a pair of running shoes best suited for me? This is a more complex question than you think – the true answer to that question is still baffling many researchers to this day. In this series of posts, I will examine the information around this topic, answer this question, and explain to you why you should choose your running shoes based on PURPOSE.

Choosing Running Shoes Is Hard

Choosing a pair of running shoes is difficult because of two reasons: 1) there are many different brands and models on the market, and 2) there is no valid model that we can use to guide us to do so. The most common and well-known model that retailers and runners use is the pronation-control model/ wet footprint test (Figure 1). But is this model accurate and valid?

Fig 1. The pronation-control/ wet footprint model is the most common and well-known way runners use to select shoes. It matches a runner’s wet footprint and static foot type to the shoe type. Unfortunately, it has been shown to be INVALID.

Why Is The Pronation-Control Model Invalid?

In the first part of this series, we delved into the evolution of the modern running shoe spanning from the 1950s till present day. A pivotal juncture in this evolution timeline emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. During this period, running shoe manufacturers sought to reduce injury risk and time loss in runners. This was based on the hypothesis that a pronated foot was the chief culprit of lower limb running injuries. Consequently, these manufacturers took the pronation-control model into shoe design and simultaneously propagated it as the way to select running shoes. To this day, it remains the model by which many runners choose their running shoes.

However, since the paradigm has been introduced, many research studies have debunked the validity of this model. They found that matching the type of running shoes to a runner’s foot type had no effect on injury risk 1,2. Unfortunately, despite being erroneous, the pronation-control model has been deeply ingrained into the mainstream. It remains the most common way that many runners, and even healthcare professionals, choose and prescribe running shoes.

What Is A Better Model Then?

If the pronation-control/ wet footprint model is erroneous, what is a better and valid way of selecting running shoes? While there have been several models proposed 3, many lack practical applications or are inconclusive. A good model must be both 1) practical, and 2) have good reasoning. The best model that means these two ends is the PURPOSE driven model. It is sub categorised into a) PURPOSE for performance, and b) PURPOSE for injury management.

Purpose For Performance

This approach is for uninjured runners or runners with no recent injury history. Selecting running shoes with this approach aims to allow the runner to reach their performance outcome (whether it is an easy 5km run, or to hit a PB in a marathon) and to get the best experience for their running load. This is based on the individual runner’s frequency, duration and intensity of their runs. The shoe choice is based on the characteristics of the shoe for the type of run, so that the best experience is attained. For example:

For a short duration (30-60min), light intensity run: a suitable shoe might be the New Balance Fresh Foam X More v4 (Figure 2). It has a soft compliant cushioned sole with a wide base and good stability, which is good for easy running on pavements. For the serious runner, this shoe would be suitable for those easy recovery days.

Fig 2. The New Balance Fresh Foam X More v4. Soft cushioned sole, wide base and good stability. Good for the short duration, light intensity runs.

For a long duration (90mins-2hrs) run: a shoe with a more resilient foam that provides a similar feel of cushioning at the start and end of the run would be preferred. A good example would be the Asics SuperBlast (Figure 3). Compared to the shoes for shorter durations, these shoes would feel stiffer and firmer to run in as they are required to handle the longer duration and higher load. For the serious runner, these shoes would be suitable for those long tempo training runs.

Fig 3. The Asics Superblast. A shoe for long tempo runs, being stiffer and firmer in the sole. The feel of cushioning feels similar at the start and end of the run.

For race day: a lightweight shoe with high resilience, energy returning foam and a rocker shaped sole. These features help enhance race day performance and improve running efficiency – a “super-shoe”. The Saucony Endorphin Elite would be one that belongs to this category (Figure 4). For the serious runner, these shoes would be your race day go-to pair from 10kms to marathons.

Fig 4. The Saucony Endorphin Elite is lightweight with high resilience, energy returning foam and a rocker shaped sole. This “super-shoe” would be one for a race day.

Purpose For Injury/ Pain Management

This approach is for runners dealing with an existing injury, or having some pain/ niggles from an old injury. The idea here is to use particular shoe attributes to reduce load and stress from the injured or troublesome tissue. It can also help runners prevent old injuries from flaring up.

For example, a runner with a troublesome Achilles tendon will be looking for a shoe with a higher drop as that helps reduce the load on the Achilles tendon. Such a shoe could be the Mizuno Wave Rider 25 with its 12mm drop, wide stable base and softer cushioning (Figure 5).

Fig 5. For a runner dealing with a troublesome Achilles tendon, the Mizuno Wave Rider 25 offers a 12mm heel-to-toe drop that helps offload the Achilles tendon. In addition, it has a wide stable base with softer cushioning making it a good daily trainer for short duration, light intensity running

Another example would be a runner with a painful big toe joint would benefit from a shoe with a stiff rocker sole that prevents bending at the big toe joint. The Hoka Clifton 9 would be a good example of a shoe that meets those needs (Figure 6).

Fig 6. The Hoka Clifton 9 has a stiff rocker sole that prevents bending at the big toe joint. This could be a suitable shoe with a painful big toe joint or forefoot issues.

Prevents bending at the big toe joint. The Hoka Clifton 9 would be a good example of a shoe that meets those needs (Figure 6).

As the choosing of shoes using this approach is condition and injury specific, it is best that runners work with a knowledgeable healthcare professional to accurately diagnose and prescribe the appropriate shoe with the desired attributes.

Take Home Messages

The pronation-control/ wet foot print for selecting running shoe is inaccurate and not valid

A better model is the PURPOSE driven model: a) PURPOSE for performance b) PURPOSE for injury management

The PURPOSE for performance approach is for an uninjured runner. It directs the runner to select a shoe based on reaching their performance outcome and to get the best experience for their running load.

The PURPOSE for injury management approach is for an injured runner dealing with pain/niggles. It directs the runner to select a shoe based on particular attributes to reduce load and stress on the troublesome tissue.
A runner using the PURPOSE for injury management approach should work with a knowledgeable healthcare professional to accurately diagnose and prescribe the appropriate shoe with the desired attributes.

 

References:

(1) Knapik JJ, Trone DW, Tchandja J, Jones BH. Injury-reduction effectiveness of prescribing running shoes on the basis of foot arch height: summary of military investigations. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2014 Oct;44(10):805-12. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2014.5342. Epub 2014 Aug 25. PMID: 25155917.

(2) Nielsen RO, Buist I, Parner ET, Nohr EA, Sørensen H, Lind M, Rasmussen S. Foot pronation is not associated with increased injury risk in novice runners wearing a neutral shoe: a 1-year prospective cohort study. Br J Sports Med. 2014 Mar;48(6):440-7. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2013-092202. Epub 2013 Jun 13. PMID: 23766439.

(3) Nigg BM, Baltich J, Hoerzer S, et al. Running shoes and running injuries: mythbusting and a proposal for two new paradigms: ‘preferred movement path’ and ‘comfort filter’. Br J Sports Med. 2015: 49: 1290-1294.

(4) Michael Nitschke. Running Shoe Prescription: Think Purpose, not panacea. Presentation. 2023.

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