For the recreational runner, there are a myriad of running shoes to choose from. Certainly shoes have come a long way in the past 40 years but what’s the science behind the evolution in footwear?

In the early 1900s, small rubber companies who specialized in the production of bicycle tires primarily produced running shoes. It was Nike in the 1970s that transformed the running industry since jogging quickly became popular and along with it the need to have a pair of running shoes. Incredibly, between 1984 and 1986, approximately 25 million Americans started to run on a regular basis for the first time.

With running came the inevitability of overuse injuries and Dr. Stan James first published and coined the term “over-pronation” in the classic 1978 article that appeared in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. Thus, research began to transform the running shoe away from performance and into a therapeutic device to control your foot, reduce impact forces, and reduce your potential for injury. The first research study on the occurrence of running injuries was published in 1981 with another in 1989 and 1991 and all reported annual injury rates of 24%–65%.

In response to the high injury rates, many models of motion control shoes were introduced the 1990’s and marketing campaigns, along with scientific research, transformed the word “pronation” into a negative connotation and branded this as the root cause of running injuries. However, a 2002 research study showed no reduction in injury rates over the past 10 years and concluded that shoes were not reducing injury occurrence. This study actually reported an increase in certain injuries linked to the over-prescription of footwear. In other words, wearing a motion control shoe when, in fact you only needed a neutral shoe, was a significant contributing factor and cause of injury. In 2009 a systematic review concluded that “the prescription of shoe type to distance runners is not evidence-based” and concluded that the science behind matching runners with the correct footwear was non-existent. Another study conducted in 2011 firmly substantiated this claim by randomizing runners to receive a neutral, stability or motion control running shoe. It was reported that prescribing motion control shoes incorrectly, without proper justification or rationale, is potentially injurious.

So where does that leave us today? Considering the complexity of running injuries, one must assume that changing footwear, or even eliminating shoes altogether, cannot eliminate the potential for or serve as the only treatment for a running-related injury. Research is certainly evolving and with it the ability to properly and scientifically determine the ideal shoe for every runner. Certainly this has been a serious research topic for our lab at the University of Calgary. Will the proper prescription of footwear eliminate your potential for injury? Research shows that only 10% of running injuries can be blamed on running in the wrong shoe. Research also shows that there are many other factors to consider such as previous injuries, training errors, your training program, muscular strength, and flexibility.

Please don’t get me wrong: running shoes are an important piece of your injury puzzle. Interestingly, the one thing research from the past decade clearly demonstrates is that you run best when you are in a comfortable shoe. So listen to what the staff at the Running Room has to say but ultimately let comfort be your guide.

The Running Injury Clinic is also working with the Running Room to develop innovative methods for shoe prescription and build upon the expertise of their staff. Look for these new methods to be implemented in a store near you in April 2012.

As the research also continues to improve, shoes and shoe prescription will continue to transform and evolve so you can confidently purchase a $250 piece of fused and stitched vinyl, ethylene vinyl acetate, and rubber.

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