Runners have strong opinions about nearly everything related to running, and one of the most hotly debated topics is shoes. Minimalist or maximalist? Neutral, stability or motion control? Elevated heel or zero-drop? The choices seem endless—and confusing.
But does the type of shoe really matter that much? To find out, we spoke with physical therapists and running shoe specialists for their take.
Neutral, Stability or Motion Control? It Doesn’t Matter
Ten years ago, running shoe debates focused on a runner’s favorite brand and his or her designated type of support structure. For a long time, shoe companies have asserted that runners had to match their foot type to a shoe’s level of support. Runners with “perfect” feet and form got to enjoy wearing a relatively light, flexible and cushioned neutral shoe, while those with flat feet or who tend to overpronate were relegated to wearing the running shoe equivalent of combat boots.
However, research published within the past decade has shown that there is little to no benefit in wearing stability or motion control shoes versus neutral shoes. In fact, some experts contend that runners who rely solely on shoe type to fix their injuries are likely making things worse.
Good Running Mechanics—Not Shoes—Prevent Injury
Many runners too often rely on the “right pair” of running shoes to address their injuries, says Denise Smith, a licensed physical therapist, Certified Running Technique Specialist and the owner of Smith Physical Therapy and Running Academy.
“Runners—and especially new runners—get lots of advice from friends, and one of the first things a friend will say is, ‘You need new shoes,’” Smith says. Instead of rushing to your nearest running store, she recommends addressing poor running mechanics.
“New runners and those prone to injury would be better served by spending some time with a running technique specialist to get their form down, and then find the shoe that’s right for them,” she says.
Andrew Walker, a physical therapist and owner of PhysioWorks Sports and Wellness, echoes Smith’s sentiments.
“People are often prescribed shoes based on a trend, their arch height, or amount of pronation, but the research just doesn’t bear it out,” Walker says.
Walker specializes in running gait analysis, injury prevention and rehab, so he has seen foot problems of all kinds.
“I think the word ‘pronation’ has become demonized. It’s actually a shock absorbing mechanism,” he explains. “I’ve seen patients placed in a stability or motion control shoe that has limited (their) pronation too greatly and may have actually contributed to their injury.”
Better Buying Advice
So if recent scientific data and today's running experts are saying that shoe type doesn’t really prevent injury, how has this myth managed to survive for so long?
"Trends come and go," Walker says. "But none of them have been shown to reduce injury."
He adds that the research surrounding barefoot, minimalist, traditional and maximalist shoe options has largely come to the same conclusion: It’s the runner’s mechanics, not the type of shoe on his or her feet, that cause or prevent injury.
Walker notes that for some runners with specific injuries, a gradual progression from one type of shoe to another can have favorable results, but only if overall running mechanics are modified in conjunction with the shoe change. Runners should avoid switching to a drastically different type of shoe and running the same number of miles with the same running form.
What Should You Care About Then?
Despite the evidence against running shoes preventing injury, this is not to say that running shoes don’t matter. Walker recommends going to a specialty running shoe store and trying on lots of shoes.
"(You should) actually run in them on the treadmill," he stresses. "Pick the most comfortable pair in terms of support and your foot’s preferred path of movement."
He explains that your feet should be allowed to move the way they naturally want to, rather than be forced into a so-called “normal” position.
Smith, the physical therapist and Certified Running Technique Specialist, has similar advice for runners. She stressed the value of a good running shoe and a good running shoe store. When it comes to choosing footwear, she tells her patients to consider three important C’s: comfort, cushioning and color.
“Comfort is the most important feature of a running shoe,” she says. A shoe should fit well and feel good on the foot while you are running.
As for cushioning, Smith cautions that a shoe should not have too much.
“People tend to use cushioning to alleviate pain and absorb shock,” she explains, asserting that good form is much more important than shoe type when it comes to distributing ground reaction forces. To help her clients learn to feel those impact forces and how foot strike and stride can alter them, she occasionally has them do running drills barefoot in the grass. This let runners feel the natural dispersion of impact without a shoe involved.
The third “C” of Smith’s running shoe rules, color, is less scientific. When you’re happy with the appearance of your shoe, you’re more likely to feel better overall.
The next time you find yourself staring at endless rows of running shoes, follow Walker and Smith’s advice. Find a friendly, knowledgeable sales clerk, then grab a seat, get comfortable and try on as many shoes as it takes to find your perfect pair.
Find your next race.