US Government Researchers are Right… for once.

A few years ago, before I started running barefoot, I remember taking a local running shoe store up on their offer for a free pair of shoes – in exchange for routing my patients to their store no doubt….

After an apparently expert evaluation of my walking gait, the sales associate announced his assessment that my feet were flat and that I pronated.

Then he recommended “motion control” shoes to help me dodge running injuries.

Apparently my feet are flawed and I shouldn’t be walking on them without $115 of technology between them and the ground. “Good thing I was born in the 20th century,” I thought.

But despite all the training this man had received on how to identify foot types and recommend the best running shoe, I had the nagging feeling that he was just trying to sell me something….

What he was ‘selling’ was the philosophy most of us have bought into. It’s the philosophy that we shouldn’t stand – much less run – on unsupported feet lest we get hurt.

In an effort to prevent injury, the US Army has adopted a shoe philosophy similar to the one I heard at the running shoe store: flat feet get “motion control” shoes; feet with high arches get “cushioning” shoes; and so-called normal feet get “stability” shoes.

A number of medical research studies have anticipated a reduction of running injuries when people wear the ‘right’ type of shoe. But the results have not turned out that way. The US Army recently decided to see if it was wasting its time and money by getting every new recruit a pair of high-tech shoes that matched their foot type. The results of their research are published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (Injury reduction effectiveness of selecting running shoes based on plantar shape; May 2009)

The Research…

3062 Basic Combat Training recruits were randomly assigned to two groups:

  • In one group (1530 men and women), researchers determined whether each person’s arches were flat, normal, or high. Recruits with low arches (flat feet) were issued “motion control” shoes to prevent pronation. Those with medium arches (normal feet) were given “stability” shoes to help control motion and provide cushioning. And those with high arches were issued “cushioning” shoes to provide maximum shock absorbency.
  • A second group (1532 men and women) had their feet checked for arch structure and, rather than prescribing different shoes for each foot type, all subjects were all issued “stability” shoes – the same kind only the “normal” feet were issued in the first group.
  • At the end of 9 weeks of combat training, the research team tracked down the injury rates in the two groups. Their findings: “…selecting shoes based on plantar shape [low, medium, and high arches] had little influence on injury risk….”
  • After looking at different foot types, the research team found something interesting: People with high arches in cushioning shoes sustained more injuries than anyone else.

The Bottom Line…

This research study had a good experimental design and a large, fairly random sample of active people who demand a lot of their bodies. The researchers conclude that matching a running shoe with a person’s foot type does not significantly reduce the risk of injury. In fact, people with high arches were more likely to get injured regardless of having highly cushioned shoes.

Maybe the “right” shoes have little to do with injury prevention. One might even question whether the highly padded shoes given to people with high arches could have increased their chances of injury by altering their natural gait.

This topic needs more discussion. In future posts, I’ll cover the research on:

  • the anatomy and mechanics of the different foot types;
  • how the foot handles shock absorption;
  • how shoes can actually reduce the body’s ability to absorb shock efficiently.

Run With Brains,

Scott Hadley PhD, DPT

2 Responses to “US Government Researchers are Right… for once.”

  1. Linda Rusiecki DPT said:

    Apr 18, 11 at 10:56 pm

    This study doesn’t surprise me, Scott. I have ridiculously flat feet, and all the $110 shoes from Gazelle plus the $40 orthotics did was make my naviculars hurt. If you use a midfoot strike, what difference does pronation really make anyways? I’ve never enjoyed running so much. Of course, the YMCA requires some form of footwear on the track (they don’t want sweaty footprints), so I use Vibrams with Injini socks.

    I did once read a blog where a guy used a six dollar pair of “water shoes” from Target as his minimalist running shoes. They wore out after about 1000 miles, and no injuries.

  2. TrekoScott said:

    Apr 19, 11 at 5:55 am

    I have very flat feet and have had a similar experience with orthotics and motion control shoes. My feet and knees stopped hurting when I started running barefoot. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that our feet are actually OK without support. Almost like the 26 moving bones of the foot are there for a good reason ….

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