The lack of evidence for running shoes? – you can’t have it both ways!

by admin on February 27, 2010

Who can remember the media flurry and hype on barefoot running sites when Craig Richards published his systematic review last year: Is your prescription of distance running shoes evidence-based in the British Journal of Sports Medicine? Here is the abstract:

Objectives: To determine whether the current practice of prescribing distance running shoes featuring elevated cushioned heels and pronation control systems tailored to the individual’s foot type is evidence-based.
Data sources: MEDLINE (1950–May 2007), CINAHL (1982–May 2007), EMBASE (1980–May 2007), PsychInfo (1806–May 2007), Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2nd Quarter 2007), Cochrane Central Register of Controlled trials (2nd Quarter 2007), SPORTSDiscus (1985–May 2007) and AMED (1985–May 2007).
Review methods: English language articles were identified via keyword and medical subject headings (MeSH) searches of the above electronic databases. With these searches and the subsequent review process, controlled trials or systematic reviews were sought in which the study population included adult recreational or competitive distance runners, the exposure was distance running, the intervention evaluated was a running shoe with an elevated cushioned heel and pronation control systems individualised to the wearer’s foot type, and the outcome measures included either running injury rates, distance running performance, osteoarthritis risk, physical activity levels, or overall health and wellbeing. The quality of these studies and their findings were then evaluated.
Results: No original research that met the study criteria was identified either directly or via the findings of the six systematic reviews identified.
Conclusion: The prescription of this shoe type to distance runners is not evidence-based.

This was greeted with headlines in the news media, on running forums and on barefoot running websites as evidence that expensive running shoes are bad (do you remember the headlines?). Can anyone actually see anywhere in this study where they actually showed that? This is just further evidence of the intellectual dishonesty of the barefoot running community that they would interpret the research that way and promote it as saying that.

All the study found was that there was no evidence to support the prescription of distance running shoes. They found no evidence because there is no evidence as no one has done any good research on it! Just because there is no evidence for it, does not mean that running shoes do not help. It does not mean that they don’t either. Why did the barefoot running community take this as evidence that running shoes are bad?

I have no problems with the study and agree with the conclusion. I do have a slight problem with the way the article was written and its tone as it was obviously written by someone with an agenda (the author is a barefoot runner and has a financial interest in a barefoot running product). However, I will not dismiss the study because of that. The barefoot runners with their blinkers on will love the biased tone that the article was written with!

If a study did come out and did show that running shoes helped and was funded by the running shoe industry, how would the barefoot running community react to that? Would they dismiss it because the running shoe industry funded it? Are they prepared to dismiss the study above because it was done by a barefoot runner? Are they prepared to dismiss the Liebermann et al research because it was done by a barefoot runner and funded by a barefoot running company? It will be interesting to see how the barefoot running community react, as that research is coming.

Despite claims to the contrary by the barefoot community, there is NO evidence that barefoot running is better than running in running shoes. How should we interpet that lack of evidence? Should we do what the barefoot running community did and conclude that barefoot running is bad as there is no evidence to show that its good? Can you see the absurdity of that conclusion? Well, that is exactly what the barefoot running community did in the way they interpreted the Richards review above!

The key point is, you can’t have it both ways.

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