Are running shoes with support good for your feet or not? Is chocolate milk the best recovery drink? And is it better to land on your forefoot or your heel? The running world is full of myths and online you can find lots of advice from influencers and so-called specialists. But what is true and what isn’t? The Dutch science journalist and runner Mariska van Sprundel looked into the science behind all these claims in her book Running Smart – How Science Can Improve Your Endurance and Performance.
Nike promises you a springy ride in their new Pegasus 40, and if you buy their new Alphafly 2, you’ll have rocket ships under your feet. If you look at the shoe, it does look like something that would float on water, although with the sole in two parts and the wing on the back it looks more like a jet ski than a rocket ship.
Innovative running shoes
Nike is known for their innovative running shoes, starting with the Nike Air, back in 1979. ‘The inventors added the bubbles because they figured that running on hard surfaces meant that the legs were subjected to a high level of impact’, stays Van Sprundel in Running Smart.
Strangely (and sadly) enough the design of the first Nike shoes was based on the idea that landing on air bubbles would be better for your feet than landing on the ground. To find out if that idea is actually a good one, Van Sprundel had her feet and shoes tested at the movement laboratory at the Catholic University of Leuven, in Belgium.
Shock absorption increases shock
The results are a surprise to Van Sprundel. Her motion controlling Asics are less effective in absorbing the shocks of running on her legs than her ‘non shock absorbing shoes’. Ellen Maas, a PhD student from the bio-mechanics research team of the university, has a simple explanation: ‘The arch of your foot fails to fully absorb the shock, because the stiff part of your shoe provides the arch with a lot more support, and this prevents if from relaxing and distributing the impact of the landing evenly when your foot hits the ground.’ In other words our running shoes prevent our feet from doing what nature has designed them for.
Yet, we all go to a specialist running store to buy our shoes. And when we do, we run up and down or on a treadmill in front of a camera. ‘In a store, all they look at is pronation, but that is only one aspect of how a person walks’, tells Benedicte Vanwanseele, head of the Human Movement Biomechanics Research Group, to Van Sprundel. ‘A short video like that doesn’t tell you anything about how the foot behaves inside the shoe. You can’t see through the material.’
In other words; we’re sold shoes based on evidence that isn’t evidence. That’s why Vanwanseele warns that shoes can cause and prevent injuries, based on the individual.
Before throwing her shock absorbing shoes in the trash, Van Sprundel looked into the scientific research done into running shoes and found a study done by exercise physiologist Robin Callister at Newcastle University, titled Is Your Prescription of Distance Running Shoes Evidence Based?
Her conclusion: No one had ever conducted a clinical study into the effects of modern running shoes on the risk of injury and performance. ‘And yet almost every runner believes that they need stuff like shock absorption and motion control.’
The shoe story almost reads like an episode of MythBusters, the Discovery series in which the crazy special effects experts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman tested the validity of rumors, myths, movie scenes, and news stories.
It’s incredible how many things we believe, because we’re told they are true by influencers and even running coaches: the perfect stride, the perfect running technique, the best way to fuel during a run. Yet, often they are based on word of mouth and not on real evidence.
Personal experiences and hard science
In Running Smart Van Sprundel is the myth buster herself. She doesn’t only come up with scientific evidence she tries out different things herself. For a science nerd like me, the book is a pleasure to read. If you’re not a science nerd I think the book is still a pleasure to read. It is accessible written and a nice mixture of personal experiences and hard science.
To be fair, I’m almost sorry Van Sprundel has written a book like this, because I would have loved to write it myself. Luckily there are lots more running myths to bust, so who knows what the future brings.
Keep on running (and busting).
Title: Running Smart
Author: Mariska van Sprundel
Published by: The MIT Press
ISBN: 978 0 262 54244 9