Cheap running shoes as good as expensive ones?

Yahoo! has an article today which describes some analysis done by researchers in Scotland that concluded that low-mid price running shoes were as effective at cushioning the foot as more expensive (GBP 70+) shoes.

The researchers added two caveats to their findings:

The kinetics of running on the treadmill may have been different for the volunteers wearing the test shoes, when compared to wearing their own personal shoes.

The durability of the shoes' mid-soles and in-soles -- whether the "cushionability" of the footwear either faded or endured with prolonged use -- was not put to the test.

That's quite some cop-out, if you don't mind me saying - particularly the durability issue.

I am not a scientist, but I have been running for a while, so I think I know a little bit about it by now...

Firstly, as most runners will attest to, the kinetics of running on a treadmill are vastly different to running on the road:

  • The treadmill is a moving surface, so this requires less effort to "move" the body forward than would be required on the road. I therefore suggest that the amount of pressure on the forefoot on "pushoff" would be lower on the treadmill than on the road.
  • Most treadmills have a cushioned bed. Whilst this might not affect the pressure measured in the test shoe, it does alter the way a runner runs because it adds "spring" to the running step.

Secondly, by adding a pressure plate ("Pedar") inside the shoe presumably between the insole and sole, the researchers would seem to be completely ignoring the effect of the cushioning provided by the technology in the shoe's sole, or at the very least skewing their data. In my research for shoes for myself, I can safely say that the more expensive shoes tend to have different technology in the sole to cushion and/or provide better running dynamics, so this is not something that can be ignored.

Finally, this research only focussed on cushioning. Whilst I prefer a well-cushioned shoe, it is not a priority for all runners, some need motion control, some want the shoe to be very responsive to their running gait. Whilst not all shoes are strong on these three details, the cost of the shoe is generally related to its ability to do one or more of these things very well.

I am not suggesting that everyone invest in a pair of expensive shoes. Buy what you can afford - particularly if you are new to running. However, I would not blindly accept this research as being gospel. Test shoes for yourself in the shop and figure out what is comfortable for you.

Comments:

I agree, the mechanics of a treadmill differ from the road or trail. I find the treadmill to be quite boring and dont know how anybody can endure more than 45 minutes on one. (Mine came programed to stop after 1 hour... I wonder why)

Oh yeah, on to running shoe cost. I currently use two different running shoes: The New Balance MR810 (US$85) and New Balance MR790 ($75). Previously I would typically spend $140+ on running shoes. I use the '810s for training (450+ miles on my current pair) and the '790s for races and speed work (they are super light but I would not expect them to last past 150 miles)

Please note that almost all of my miles are on trails in the pikes peak region in colorado. This means hills (think 2,000+ ft up... and then back down) and lots of rocky surfaces. While the path up is easier on the body compared to a road, the trip back down is anything but.

I've discovered (personal experience, your mileage will vary), that price has nothing to do with longevity. Oh yeah, I also discovered that your shoes will last longer and you will have fewer problems if you adjust your running style. In other words, the trick is to not heel strike. (note the photo in the yahoo article... take a guess how that guy is running)

Almost everybody does it at first. Its easy and feels "natural". You get a nice long stride and can go faster with a low cadence. The problem is that it sends the shock right up your leg and pounds the shoes into mush in under 100 miles (now think of what it does to your knees). Then you need things like 'cushioning' and 'motion control' since your form is horrid. You find that the shoes cant last 200 miles before they are "blown out".

I cant really blame the runner, even the local running stores look for this with their 'gait' tests. They watch you on a treadmill and make sure that the way your heel hits the treadmill is 'correct' and then you then roll off of your forefoot correctly.

Try this: find a nice length of sidewalk (a few hundred yards will do), clear of any nasty objects (glass, sticks, etc). Take off your shoes and run like "normal". Let me know if you get more than 100 yards down the road. Now, lean forward from the ankles (not the waist), shorten your stride, increase your cadence and land with a midfoot/forefoot strike (think ball of the foot, not the big toe). It takes some getting used to but your body will no longer protest.

Now, go back and find shoes that are 'neutral' and as light as possible. Note how the price is also 1/2 of the normal cost of a running shoe with all of the motion control and cushioning features. You will have to look in the 'performance' section of the store to find them :-)

Now get out there and run. Things will be sore the first few times as your body adjusts, but after a while you will be able to go further and faster than before, all with less wear and tear on your shoes and your body.

for more information, google the 'pose' running method.

Posted by John on October 12, 2007 at 10:18 AM BST #

Nice comment John, thanks!

I did research the 'pose' method a couple of years ago, and had a rather weak attempt at it before giving it up as 'not for me' - it was too uncomfortable, but it obviously works for some people.

Posted by Trevor Watson on October 12, 2007 at 10:39 AM BST #

I have not fully adopted the pose method myself. I did cherry pick a few main tenants due to the amount of downhill running that I do (what goes up must come down).

On the downhills, heel striking was just way too painful for the mileage. I was having trouble keeping up with other folks in the running club who would go blowing by me on the downhills. Once I switched to the fast turnover w/ midfoot strike, my speed went up and the pain went down.... Well, almost. My shoes were correcting for a gait that I no longer had, thus they introduced their own issues after a few miles. I pulled a pair of very old neutral shoes out of the closet and had a perfect run. I then went down to the local store and picked up a pair of very training shoes with almost no cushion. Perfect. And now that I didnt need the extra padding, I picked up a pair of off-road racing flats for the races.

Of course, it took a few weeks for things like my calf to get used to the extra work. In general, one should allow 3+ months to switch (dont try this the week before a big race)

Now if I could just figure out the hydration and fuel issues for my longer races, I'll be set (the Pikes Peak ascent averages 4+ hours, and I'm toast after 2:30 if I dont fuel correctly. )

But like I said before: your mileage will vary. The fact that I run mostly on trails with a lot of hills will push me to one style vs somebody who does nothing but flats on the road.

Posted by John on October 12, 2007 at 11:53 AM BST #

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