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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.

How Was The Modern Running Shoe Born?

A good place to start will be to look at the evolution of the modern day running shoe. Many will be surprised to know that the first modern day running shoe did not look like the running shoes of today. In fact, the earliest running shoes (such as the Asics Tigers) look like the trendy fashion sneakers that you wear today. This dates back to the 1950s/60s where running was starting to be popularised in the USA. A majority of the participants were keen runners. Similarly, these running shoes then were designed to literally just accommodate the bottom of the foot and to be as lightweight as possible. They had thin soles, some simple traction material on the bottom, synthetic uppers, and just weighed 150-200g (Figure 2).

Fig 1. The Asics Tiger Corsair. Early running shoes in the early 50s/60s had thin soles to accommodate the bottom of the foot, simple synthetic uppers, and just weighed 150-200g.

Running Shoes To Help With Running Injuries?

As running became more and more popular in the USA in the 70s, there was a big boom of new recreational novice runners participating. Running soon became a mass participation sport and also became more commercialised. What was discovered to be the top limitation in running was musculoskeletal injuries. While the key solution to this was (and still is) to reduce training errors, commercial companies sought to address this by selling running shoes that reduce the risk and time loss to injuries. This was based on the (inaccurate) hypothesis that a pronated foot posture is the culprit of lower limb running injuries. Hence, companies addressed this by introducing design features to not only reduce pronation, but also to reduce impact. Running shoes started to evolve to have thicker soles, medial wedging, and stiffer uppers (Figure 2). This paradigm is known as the pronation-control paradigm and formed the basis of the most fundamental shift in running shoe design. Importantly, it also became the model upon which many runners choose their running shoes to this very day, albeit erroneously (but more on that later). These running shoes became known as conventional running shoes and are still widely seen and used on the market today.

Fig 2. The Brooks Beast (left) and the Nike Air Max (right). Shoes in the mid 70s/80s onwards started to evolve to having more anti-pronation and cushioning features as companies looked to reduce injury risk using the pronation-control paradigm.

Barefoot/ Minimalist Shoes

The next significant juncture in running shoe evolution was the rise of the minimalist running shoe and barefoot running. This happened sometime in 2009 when Dr Daniel Liberman published his famous book “Born to Run” and articles on barefoot running. He proposed the hypothesis that barefoot running would reduce injury risk by losing the first vertical impact force peak seen in shod running because runners do not hit the ground with their heel (Figure 4). This peak is thought to be responsible for running injuries. Hence, shoes for barefoot running were designed to be extremely thin all around, with no structure whatsoever to mimic running barefoot. The most famous of these shoes were the Vibram 5 fingers (Figure 5). However, studies later revealed that the first vertical impact force peak was not associated with injuries. Barefoot shoes were also found to reduce load on some tissues during running, but increasing load on other tissues at the same time. This meant that barefoot shoes decreased the risk of certain types of injuries, but also increased the injury risk of other types.

Fig 4. Impact force peaks when running barefoot and shod. The first vertical impact peak is lost when running barefoot, theoretically reducing injuries


Fig 5. The Vibram 5 Fingers barefoot minimalist shoe.Barefoot shoes were designed to be extremely thin all around. This is to mimic barefoot running

Maximalist Shoes

Around the same time in 2009, there was also the rise of shoes polar opposite to the barefoot minimalist shoes: the maximalist shoes. Maximalist shoes had extremely thick and soft cushioning soles that were shaped like a rocker (Figure 6). The Hoka One One was the most classic of these shoes. The idea of maximalist shoes was to reduce impact forces while running, and hence reduce injury risk. While the evidence for that is still inconclusive, maximalist shoes had a big influence on the most contemporary shoe designs, with most recent running shoe design adopting the trend of thick soft cushioning soles.

Fig 6. The Hoka One One. The maximalist shoes had extremely thick and soft cushioning soles that were shaped like a rocker. It was thought that this would reduce impact forces and hence injuries while running.

Super-Shoes

Finally, the most recent significant advancement in running shoes is the advent of the “super-shoes”, first released by Nike in 2017. These shoes were designed and invented to improve running performance, with the Nike Alphafly Next % being the most famous of these shoes (Figure 7). The super-shoes had design attributes that work harmoniously to reduce the mechanical work of running. Such design features were the thick compliant and very lightweight foams, coupled with an infused carbon plate in the sole of the shoe. Runners using these shoes were shown to have reduced oxygen consumption from improved running economy due to the reduced mechanical work needed while running. These super-shoes have transformed both the sport of running and the running shoe industry.

Fig 7. The Nike Alphafly Next %. These super-shoes have been shown to improve running performance through design features such as thick compliant lightweight foams and a carbon plate infused in the sole.

Super-Shoes

With that, we have traced the most significant developments in the evolution of modern running shoes. Understanding this evolution and the general characteristics of these shoes is key in allowing us to formulate better ways in choosing a pair of running shoes. In the next part, we will delve into and examine the models used to choose a suitable pair of running shoes and explain to you why you should choose your running shoes based on PURPOSE.

If you have any questions about shoes and footwear, please don’t hesitate to contact our Podiatrists for some help and advice.

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