Cut through the hyperbole
I AM running on a treadmill at a predetermined pace while an expert assesses every aspect of my technique. There are cameras positioned to catch my footfall and to monitor my stride length and cadence (steps per minute), the drop of my hips and the line of my shoulders.
When I step off I am shown video images of my technique from every angle, told I might need to work on the flexibility of my left ankle and to do more core work to prevent the slightly uneven tilt of my right hip from deteriorating.
You may think I am taking part in some elaborate study in an exercise science laboratory. Actually, I am in a running shop and all I am after is a new pair of trainers.
It’s not the first time I have undergone such painstaking analysis when shopping for sports shoes, and neither, I suspect, is it new to you. If you have bought running shoes in the past few years, you will likely have been through at least some level of biomechanical assessment. From running over a force plate in a shop, to heading outside for a jog with sensors stuck to your skin that feed back to a computer, to 3D “foot mapping” that uses lasers and cameras to check your arch height and the alignment of your achilles tendon, there is an ever more bewildering array of technological tests that precede the purchase of a pair of shoes. How did it become so complicated?
Perhaps it is because running’s popularity is on the rise. With such growth, the market is ever more competitive and manufacturers vie to gain a winning margin over their rivals. Technical claims about a trainer’s heel drop, stability, cushioning and forefoot or rearfoot striking can be baffling but, in short, the promise is that if you choose the right shoes you will run more efficiently and avoid sore knees and tight tendons. However, is that the case?
John Brewer, a professor of applied sports science at St Mary’s University, near London, believes much of what we are told when taking up running is unnecessary.
“Running is one of the simplest of all sports and we are all designed to run,” says Brewer, the author of Run Smart: Using Science to Improve Performance and Expose Marathon Running’s Greatest Myths.
“All too often runners become victims of marketing and pseudoscience, which is used by manufacturers very carefully to stimulate consumer demand.”
When choosing a shoe, he says, the only thing you should consider is comfort. “Some support and cushioning are important but if a shoe doesn’t feel good, it’s quite likely that you will be getting abrasions and blisters before long, regardless of how much they cost,” Brewer says.
Paul Freary, whose social media handle is “the running shoe guru”, has tested thousands of trainers for the magazine Athletics Weekly, yet agrees that science should not be a deciding factor. “The most important thing to look for in new running shoes is comfort,” Freary says. “More than anything else the shoes should feel like they are ready to run in as soon as you put them on.”
He has a point. Two years ago a review of decades’ worth of research into running shoes and their link with injuries came up with the most unlikely conclusion. Publishing findings in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Benno Nigg, an emeritus professor of kinesiology at the University of Calgary in Canada, and his colleagues discovered that there is scant evidence that any trainers are helpful — or necessary — in preventing many of the problems they purport to correct.
Overpronation, where feet roll inward, is considered a red flag for runners and shoes designed to correct it are big sellers. Yet Nigg and his team found that overpronation was not a problem that needed ironing out, that runners with normal gait were just as likely to get injured and “that a pronated foot position is, if anything, an advantage with respect to running injuries”. They also found little evidence that changing your running shoes alters the shock that naturally reverberates through the body when you run. What did matter, they decided, was simply that a shoe felt good when you put it on.
What of the suggestion that a shoe has an impact on your running style and that, by addressing your gait — or the way you run — you will find the experience more enjoyable, not to mention less stressful on your joints? Brewer is sceptical.
“I’m always a bit concerned when I see people plonked on treadmills in stores as a means of analysing their gait and choosing a shoe,” he says. “Treadmills create a different running gait to outdoor conditions.”
There is, he insists, no need to make drastic changes to even the most unusual running style. By adulthood most of us have adopted a technique that best suits our bodies. Yes, we can make tweaks that enhance our movement patterns but generally we become more efficient at running just by doing more of it.
“Trying to make major changes to your running style can often cause problems, reduce running efficiency and may even increase the risk of injury,” Brewer says. “Just because a style may not look good does not mean that it doesn’t work for a particular runner, and changing it for aesthetic reasons, or because of a certain shoe, does not necessarily mean better running.”
In a recent trial at Brigham Young University in Utah a team of sports scientists recruited a group that included experienced runners and beginners and asked them to perform treadmill tests in their performance laboratories.
In the first part of the trial they were asked to run at their preferred pace while the scientists kept a tally of their strides and worked out their stride length. On their second visit the runners repeated the test but were asked to wear masks that measured their oxygen uptake and to run at their same preferred pace, but in time with a metronome that, unbeknown to the volunteers, meant that their stride length was altered.
Their results, published in the International Journal of Exercise Science, showed that shortening or lengthening their natural stride not only made running feel more arduous for the volunteers but also rendered their technique less economical. It suggests that we have a “built-in” running stride that is perfect for us, says Iain Hunter, the professor of exercise science who led the study and who is an adviser to the US track and field team.
“Don’t worry about changing your stride length,” Hunter says. “You should just leave it alone or you’re going to use more energy in the end. Your body is your best coach for stride length.”
There are things you can change for the better.
“Overstriding is one of the most common errors and can cause knee, hip and back discomfort over time,” says personal trainer Matt Roberts. “Ideally you want a relatively short stride with high cadence and good engagement of your core muscles.”
Strengthening your buttock muscles and stretching your hip flexors (inner hip muscles) will reduce the need to overstride, Roberts says. However, if it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it, the experts say. –THE TIMES