The 3 worst running shoe gimmicks

With just about every new shoe launch, brands promise a revolution in running! New breakthrough technologies that will help us run injury-free and faster than ever before.

But when you look deeper, most of these technologies aren’t real advances that will help us improve our running. They are marketing gimmicks designed primarily to sell shoes. Each new shoe may work for some people, but generally, the promised benefits don’t materialize for most people.

These gimmicks are used to try and differentiate products. To convince us that this new shoe really will make us better, faster, stronger, and less likely to get injured. Assuming the best of intentions from the companies, this would be a good thing. The problem is it’s largely pseudo-science.

A gimmicky shoe

We won’t be going into the long list of shoes like this.

Here’s our list of the top running shoe gimmicks we’d like to see retired. We’re going to ignore the one-off things. Never mind the ridiculous hyper-technical shoes, we want to focus on the popular technologies that make dubious claims.

1. Pronation Control

This is the most common gimmick that has a whole myth built around, frightening millions of runners who want to avoid injury.

The story is that injuries are caused by over-rotation of the ankle, over-pronation in technical terms. Thus, running shoe brands created “stability” and “motion control” shoes designed to limit pronation and prevent injury. Shoes without these stability elements were called “neutral”.

But the scientific research shows this claim is bogus, especially in novice runners who are the group most likely to suffer from injury. It was such a big finding, they put it right in the title:

“Foot pronation is not associated with increased injury risk in novice runners wearing a neutral shoe”

Yet so much of the running shoe industry was built around this myth that you still see some brands and running stores categorizing their shoes as “neutral” and “stability”. 

This isn’t to say you can’t enjoy running in a support shoe. But there are two important things to consider:

  1. Runners don’t need to go get tested for pronation control shoes. Going to find the most comfortable shoe is a good idea, but if a store tells you to buy a certain model because of stability - they’re selling you BS.
  2. Don’t fear trying new shoes. If you’ve been running in stability shoes, and are tired of them, you don’t need to worry about trying new things. Of course, make any change gradually, but know you can safely try out other shoes.

2. Minimalism

The book Born to Run kicked off a revolution in running footwear.

It’s a well-told story about how over-built running shoes (see “stability” shoes from before) were the cause of most running problems. They cause us to overstride and land on the heel, slowing us down and potentially leading to injury. Instead, the argument goes, we should try to have as little shoe as possible.

Thousands made the switch and promptly ended up injured. Vibram ended up settling a class-action lawsuit brought by people who had bought their popular five-fingers shoes.

The core argument is a strong one: most running shoes are over-built and cause people to adopt an inefficient heel-striking gait. Indeed, many young Kenyans run barefoot or in minimal slipper-like shoes at a young age. This has been the case for the current top Kenyan runners when they were young.

Kenyan runner in sandals

Many young Kenyans run in whatever shoes they have. Sandals are common.

But the problem comes when there is an immediate switch to a minimalist shoe too quickly.

Furthermore, it is possible to run with an efficient gait and avoid overstriding in most running shoes so it’s not necessary to go minimal if you want to improve your form. A running coach could help make this transition.

If you want to switch to lighter footwear while making that transition, then a gradual transition process may involve a number of activities. You could start by going barefoot around your house and doing half raises. Then incorporate walking 30 minutes in a minimalist running shoe for a few weeks. Eventually start doing your shortest runs in minimalist shoes. Your feet, achilles tendon, and calves may be sore so remember to stretch plenty and never push too hard too fast.

But overall, it’s a false to say a lighter shoe will sort out all your running woes or that it’s impossible to run well in anything but a minimalist shoe.

3. Maximalism

As people were starting to feel the pain from jumping into minimalist shoes before they were ready, the opposite trend started to take hold.

Companies made super-cushioned shoes, with the story that the shoe would absorb more impact and thus reduce the chance of injury.

They’ve been in the market for a few years, and the research shows they’re just another gimmick. A study earlier this year concluded:

“Greater loading rates and impact forces were previously found in maximal running shoes, which may indicate an increased risk of injury by increasing leg stiffness and escalating impact loading. The evasion mechanics observed in the maximal shoes may also increase the risk of injury. A 6-week transition to maximal shoes did not significantly change any of these measures.”

So while these shoes may feel soft underfoot, they actually increase the total amount of impact that your body has to absorb. Of course, depending on your training or racing, these shoes might have a role to play. But the science seems to indicate they increase the chance of injury.

Conclusion

There are, of course, more gimmicks out there. But these are the biggest three that we’ve seen in running shoes. They’re so popular that brands and stores end up categorizing shoes based on them.

Of course, if you’re happily running in a shoe that fits these categories, then stick with it! But please don’t look to pronation control, minimalism or maximalism to sort out any running problems.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, “Overtraining is a leading cause of overuse injuries.” You can’t look to a shoe to solve that. You simply have to be careful to only increase your training gradually while making sure to get plenty of rest.

Instead of gimmicks, we propose you find a shoe that matches the type of training run you’re doing, and to train with consistency. And of course, next time you hear of a new revolution in running shoes, listen with a healthy dose of skepticism.


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