A run for your money

Dom Cadden

You can blow a lot of money on a pair of running shoes, but sports science studies show that spending more doesn’t necessarily reduce your chance of injury. There’s only so much the latest whizz-bang shoe technology alone can compensate for good technique – in fact, the top-of-the-line shoes might cause more injuries than their cheaper competitors.

Price vs injury

A University of Bern study of 4358 runners found that the most common factor among those who got injured was the high price of their shoes. Similar studies also pointed the toe at the more expensive running shoes, claiming that their wearers are injured significantly more than runners wearing less expensive shoes with less support features.

“The $280 shoes aren’t always the best – price is not a good indicator,” says Tom Sampson, sports scientist, owner and director at Footpoint Shoe Clinic in Mosman, NSW. “If you are a serious runner, I wouldn’t purchase too many shoes below the $150-180 mark, but anything above that is not a great improvement. With the most expensive shoes, you’re often paying for new technology that no-one’s ever had before and it’s not proven yet.”

Fit for your biomechanics

Serious runners should consider consulting a podiatrist to make sure they get a shoe best suited for their biomechanics, says Meredith Quinlan, 40, an architect from Sydney who won the bronze medal at the Commonwealth Mountain and Ultradistance Running Championships in 2011.

“I used to order the cheapest Asics I could find online, which ended up being inappropriate for my gait and landed me with a serious foot stress fracture,” Quinlan says.

“The shoe I’ve ended up with is not top-of-the-line, but it’s not one of the cheapest, either,” says Quinlan, who now does the majority of her long runs on soft trails to ensure she uses a range of muscles instead of constantly slamming the same muscles, “which is what happens in road running”.
Serious runners should consider buying shoes at specialist running stores where their running gait can be filmed and assessed, both barefoot then in the shoes they wish to trial. If you can’t do this, then several big shoe brands have an online shoe selector tool that will help find an appropriate shoe based on a number of factors, such as biomechanics, usage and injury history. If you’re not hung up on brand loyalty (and you don’t have a shoe sponsor!), here’s our fave online shoe selector, which makes its pick across many brands based on a range of data from you.

Technique vs technology

Dr Craig Richards was part of a team of researchers at the University of Newcastle who challenged shoe companies to provide evidence that their products prevent injuries in runners. He says that many people with poorer running technique and a tendency to injure themselves attempt to compensate by buying a more “technological” shoe.

“Some runners are seriously affected by running shoes with thick cushioning and elevated heels and the prominent heel-strike running style that is encouraged by these shoes,” he says.

Dr Richards believes that ideally, all runners should use a shoe that mirrors a natural foot shape. At a minimum, this means the toes should be allowed room to point directly forwards rather than inwards. The options for this are no longer limited to the dead flat ‘barefoot’ style of shoes. For example, this shoe looks much like a normal runner, but has a slimmed-down heel to encourage the foot strike to be further forward and the toe box has splits in it to allow greater forefoot flexibility and independent toe function.
For those looking for technological support over technical improvement for heel striking and overstriding, Sampson suggests looking at shoes with good medial support. The medial support is a post through the mid-sole of a shoe that helps correct the roll of a foot when it hits the ground. A little inward roll (pronation) is good. Excessive pronation or supination (roll to the outside of the foot) can cause injury further up the body – to ankles, calves, knees, hips or back.

Know when to throw

Another problem with top-dollar shoes is that there tends to be a reluctance to toss them. “Even the most expensive shoe will injure you if you wear it 12 months after it’s stopped doing what it’s supposed to do,” Sampson says.

Most people look at a shoe’s tread for wear, but once the tread is worn out, the shoes are long dead. “Check the mid-sole, which is the functional part of the shoe that does all the work,” Sampson says. “If the cushioning there is compressed – you can bend it in many directions and you can see creases through it – then the shoe’s had it.” Another hot-spot is the hard plastic around the heel, which should still be fairly rigid and hold its shape. Another test – put a shoe on a table and if it has a lean to either the inside or the outside, then it’s approaching the end of its life.

“Running shoes can last 800-1000km, but that really depends on running style, weight and sex,” Sampson says.

 The shoe rundown

  • Fit your feet. Leave half a thumb-width between big toe and the end of the shoe. Go shopping in the afternoon, because feet tend to swell through the day.
  • Get the right type and amount of support. “A lot of people who are pronating have been put in ‘motion control’ shoes, but there is so much support that their foot is actually thrown out the other way,” says Sampson. The best way to avoid this is to have someone look at you run both barefoot and then in the shoe you’ve chosen.
  • Wide feet need wide shoes. Look for brands that have multiple width fittings – running shoes don’t actually “loosen up” after you leave the store.
  • Beware of bare. Choose ‘barefoot-style’ shoes for walking, short runs (5km or less) or only if you are prepared to retrain your running technique and build up the kilometres very slowly.
  • Don’t just keep going back to the same model. “Your speed changes, your technique and strength change, so despite your love for your last pair of shoes, they should be reassessed,” says Sampson. “Besides, shoe companies update their models every 12 months – and sometimes it’s a considerable change.”
  • Check the midsole. Squeeze the white material between the upper and the outer sole on sports shoes between your finger and thumb. If you can squeeze the two together very easily, then the midsole has probably compressed and your shoes should be replaced.
  • Keep a record of your runs so you can start checking for wear after the 800km mark.
  • Look after your feet. Business and dress shoes are built for looks, not health. If you are walking for more than 15 minutes to and from work, then you need to put on sports shoes.