Debunking running shoe myths
“If the shoe fits, wear it.” The above phrase usually refers to someone taking responsibility for a certain character trait. But when Dr. Benno Nigg uses it, he really is talking about shoes.
When it comes to athletic footwear, people pay attention to whatever the charming Swiss expat has to say.
So when it’s announced Thursday that his newest book reveals that those increasingly expensive accessories make almost no difference to running injury rates, we media types run, rather than jog, straight to the University of Calgary’s human performance lab. That’s where Nigg, now in his early 70s, has toiled for the past 30 years.
Earlier this week, the New York Times devoted a feature story to Nigg’s latest findings, which include the claim that even though orthotics has now become a billion-dollar industry, it’s really not clear how they work, or how they are supposed to correct mechanical-alignment problems — which can lead to such painful conditions as shin splints, knee and foot pain.
In essence, says Nigg, the world’s top minds in the field simply cannot yet predict the effect of a given orthotic.
What he has determined, though, is that when it comes to orthotics, there appears to be a correlation between what an individual finds comfortable and its ability to prevent or alleviate such common biomechanical problems.
“There is no question that some orthotics work,” says Nigg, who was inducted into the Olympic Order in 1998 for his work in the science of sports injuries.
“But some can actually do damage.
“We’re still trying to find out why.”
Over the past 30 years, the human performance lab, with Nigg at its helm, has worked with some of the biggest names in running shoes, like Nike, Adidas, Reebok and Mizuno.
In 2003, he garnered worldwide headlines when it was revealed the lab was behind the new Adidas Predator Pulse soccer shoe, said to give players extra “kick power,” and worn by star David Beckham.
More recently, Nigg and his team were involved in the creation of the MBT shoe, named after the Masai tribe of East Africa, a chunky, ugly-looking shoe that nevertheless reduces the joint loading on the hips and knees compared to conventional running shoes.
Nigg says when it comes to buying runners, rather than be dazzled by high-tech claims and store employees telling you which shoes will complement your gait, go with what feels good.
“The frequency of running injury hasn’t changed substantially over the past 30 years,” he says. “Intensity is the biggest predictor of whether you’ll develop an injury, not the shoe you’re wearing.”
This fact, says Jeremy Deere, won’t have an impact on how he does business.
“We give advice, but listen closely to what the customer says. It’s very much a collaborative process,” says Deere, a former Canadian champion in the men’s 5,000 metres and now an owner of Strides Running Store in Marda Loop.
“We don’t push more expensive shoes on anyone, but injury prevention is just one component. Some shoes are just more durable, better constructed and feel more comfortable because of good workmanship.”
One group that might be heartened by Nigg’s latest findings is the barefoot running movement, with which the good doctor doesn’t have a problem.
“It certainly has its advantages, one being that you use all the muscles you have,” says Nigg, a competitive sprinter back in his younger days.
“But it’s a fad that comes back every few years.”
Fad or not, Nigg’s colleague Reed Ferber is giving it a try.
“I completely agree with Dr. Nigg,” says Ferber, who plans to run in some upcoming 10k races wearing the Vibrum Five Fingers, which is more like a foot “glove” than a shoe.
“I believe that orthotics do work, but we don’t know why. I also agree with him that running shoes aren’t the silver bullet. And as far as barefoot running, there is no research to support whether it offers less injury, or more. I just want to try it.”
Despite the continuing questions surrounding the biomechanics of running, both men are excited about their research.
As director of the U of C’s running injury clinic, Ferber will begin offering in May a service to help people choose running shoes, while Nigg hasn’t given up on designing the world’s best running shoe.
“We know now that there might be a perfect shoe for certain groups of people,” says Nigg, who envisions one day running shoe stores being set up according to what group you fall into as a runner.
“There is still a lot of mystery — but we are getting closer.”