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The Flawed Model of Running Shoe Selection

Magazines, shoe stores, and shoe manufacturers have long prescribed running shoes based on an individual’s arch type. Normal levels of supination are needed to generate force upon push off, while pronation helps to absorb the force of heel strike. Some people have foot shapes that are more at one of the ends of the spectrum, though: based on the footprint left by a wet foot, people can be described as having pronated (flat) feet, normal or neutral feet, or supinated (high arched) feet.  According to the traditional shoe selection model, they should wear motion control shoes, stability shoes, or neutral/cushioned shoes, respectively.

It isn’t clear how this relationship was first established, but current research suggests that it is outdated, and that there are several flaws with this model:

  • The wet foot test can’t predict function during walking or running

This test to measure foot shape is done while standing, and the way your foot is while static is not necessarily the way it behaves during movement.

  • There is no such thing as normal

The different shoe types all aim to get your foot into a more neutral position. The idea is that the risk of injury is reduced if we are normally aligned. The problem is, “normal” does not exist when it comes to the human body. “Normal” is specific to each individual and we all have different preferences of alignment: there isn’t just one perfect position that works for everyone.

  • Prescribed running shoes don’t prevent injury

When shoes are recommended based on static foot shape, they aren’t any more effective at preventing injury than a shoe that is not specific for that arch type. In fact, there isn’t even conclusive evidence that overpronation is actually related to injury occurrence.

The Real Causes of Running Injuries

If excessive pronation isn’t a root cause of injury, and nor is the “wrong” shoe, then what is? Unfortunately, and probably predictably, the answer isn’t that simple: the causes of injury are diverse and there are many variables that are individual-specific that may play a role.

That being said, there is a growing evidence base that points to the role of the strength of hip-stabilizing muscles. Weak hip stabilization, or an imbalance between your two sides, can affect the mechanics of everything below the hip – like knees and ankles – and result in injury.

How to Choose Running Shoes

The solution to choosing the right shoes may be a lot simpler than previously thought: pick the shoes that are comfortable. When compared to less comfortable shoes, comfortable shoes are linked to fewer injuries. Instead of trying to conform to a preset “normal”, we should pick shoes that work for us.

Each person’s characteristics, activities, and preferences will influence individual perceptions of comfort, and it’s very hard to predict what you will find most comfortable. Sometimes, people with flat feet prefer harder insert material and less cushioning. On the other hand, people with high arches may like having softer, more cushioned shoes to help absorb impact during heel strike. It’s also important to consider the type of activity in which you will be participating. For example, you may prefer a more cushioned shoe for running than for low-impact exercise – but then again, someone else may enjoy a minimalistic barefoot feel when running. Comfort is difficult to quantify, and until we have concrete, evidence-based measures, pick what you feel good in and what matches your lifestyle and activity preferences!

Ferber R, Hreljac A, Kendall KD. Suspected mechanisms in the cause of overuse running injuries. Sports Health. 2009; 1(3): 242-246.
Griffiths I. Choosing running shoes: the evidence behind the recommendations. sportEX dynamics. 2012; 53(July): 28-33.
Knapik JJ, Swedler DI, Grier TL, Hauret KG, Bullock SH, Williams KW, Darakjy SS, Lester ME, Tobler SK, Jones BH. Injury reduction effectiveness of selecting running shoes based on plantar shape. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2009; 23(3): 685-697.
Mündermann A, Stefanyshyn DJ, Nigg BM. Relationship between footwear comfort of shoe inserts and anthropometric and sensory factors. Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise. 2001; 33(11): 1939–1945.
Nigg BM, Baltich J, Hoerzer S, Enders H. Running shoes and running injuries: mythbusting and a proposal for two new paradigms: ‘preferred movement path’ and ‘comfort filter’. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2015; 49(20): 1290-1294.

About the Author: Lily is a fourth-year student in the kinesiology program at Western University. With a background in synchronized swimming, she continues to be actively involved in the sport as a coach and varsity athlete.

The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.