Whether you’re a Five Fingers minimalist or a Hoka One One maximalist, or just a Pro Keds tweener, all this foot-wringing over what kind of running shoe best prevents injuries can get pretty exasperating. One recent study says that “running in minimalist footwear appears to increase the likelihood of experiencing an injury.” While another more current one (in the same journal, no less) concludes that cushioning does not influence injury rates. Score one against the minimalists? Score one for the maximalists?
Yes, but also no. “The best shoe for a runner is highly individualized,” says Allison Gruber, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s biomechanics laboratory. “What may prevent or ‘cure’ injuries for one person may cause them or make them worse for another.”
It’s a sentiment—and not yet a fact, mind—that’s echoed by many of Gruber’s colleagues. Anyone looking for that magic-bullet “one-size-fits-all” shoe is misguided. “There are just too many variables that contribute to injury, and the shoe is pretty low on the list of possibilities,” says Dr. Paul Langer, a Minneapolis podiatrist, clinical advisor for the American Running Association.
Quite low, really. “The body compensates for what it is running on,” says Gruber. (“On,” meaning as much the substance between one’s foot and the terrain—i.e., a hard midsole, a soft midsole, very little midsole—as the terrain itself.) “How those adaptations by the body affect injury risk or occurrence is still unknown, because the answer doesn’t lie in any one variable.”
And while there are studies showing that midsoles that are extremely soft can sometimes lead to higher incidence of injury, Dr. Langer points out that that may have to do with figuring out the “ideal” amount of cushioning for each individual shoe wearer, which has not yet been determined.
Besides, what seems to be most responsible for injuries is not what you wear but how you wear it—and who you are. Up to 90 percent of running injuries could be classified as training errors, says Langer. One’s body mass index, history of injury, amount of pronation, too little rest, too much high-intensity running (hills, speed workouts), not enough cross training, abrupt changes in training volume, etc.
This blaming-the-runner philosophy is one that most people (shoe manufacturers, most of all) don’t want to hear or promote. They want a shoe that’ll absolve runners of any such responsibility. “Running is a skill and how one runs matters more than what is on one’s feet,” declares Harvard University paleoanthropologist Dan Lieberman, the popularize of minimalist running also known as the Barefoot Runner. “Natural selection is a much better engineer than any shoe designer. So my null hypothesis is that less shoe is better until proven otherwise.”
Lieberman, however, has more than a little skin in the game: his influential 2010 study that appeared in Nature, and which has been embraced by the barefoot-running community as proof that minimalist shoes cause fewer injuries, was funded, in part, by Vibram USA—makers of Five Fingers.
Still not convinced either way? You shouldn’t be. “We have a terrible track record,” says Runner’s World columnist Alex Hutchinson, “of being able to predict how shoes will affect injury rate."
“It was pretty predictable, in a way,” he adds, “after all the hype about minimalism, how could there not be a swing to the opposite extreme?” As for which shoe, or method, works best, “nobody knows at this point. I don’t think there’s a single right way to run. Minimalism, maximalism, and everything in between—all of these are useful options to have available for people to experiment with and find what works best for their particular situation and needs.”