Thursday, March 20, 2008

The running shoe renaissance

After 25 years of stagnation, there have been a number of innovative new running shoe designs enter the marketplace over the past few years which are well worthwhile examining. These designs can be broadly classified into barefoot running shoes and midfoot/forefoot strike running shoes.

Just like heel strike running shoes, these designs remain untested solutions to unproven theoretical assumptions. As such, it remains to be demonstrated whether a barefoot, midfoot, forefoot or heel strike shoe design is more desirable. However the very existence of these shoes gives us the tools we need to begin to test answer these questions.

The two barefoot designs to enter the market have been the Vibram Fivefingers and the Feelmax range. Both appear to successfully achieve their design objectives, the Fivefingers providing a thin rubber sole shaped to the wearers foot and Feelmax a soft flexible kevlar sole reminiscent of a moccasin.

In the forefoot strike market, Newton have released what looks like a heel strike running shoe with an energy storage and return unit under the forefoot. Unlike the barefoot shoes described above, I suspect that the wearer does not naturally adopt a mid or forefoot strike in this shoe, instead having to consciously learn this technique. The forefoot energy storage device is interesting but like many shoe technologies is really compensating for a loss of natural function caused by the shoe rather then adding any true benefit. In this case it is loss of the foots natural spring as a result of disruption to arch function.

Out of all these new designs, I think that Velocy have made the most interesting contribution. This shoe is not designed to achieve a mid/forefoot strike per se, rather its design objective is to allow the wearer to lean significantly forward when they run without overbalancing. This is based on the belief that our lack of a means to counterbalance this forward lean means that we cannot fully utilise our capacity to generate forward momentum. I love the originality behind this design but would have thought that having big feet would achieve the same objective!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Dunlop Volleys- Still the gold standard?

I had a great day today, participating in a community triathlon. It also gave me a chance to road test a pair of Dunlop Volleys.

If you are not familiar with these shoes, they are a basic canvas plimsoll with a thin PVC sole which have been sold in their millions over the past 50 years in Australia. They sell for $20, have a thin foam inner sole, no arch support and a very slight heel elevation (my only complaint). Until recent times they were the sports shoe worn by every school student in Australia and by many sports people.

I really enjoyed the run. I felt very fluid and noticed no increase in impact forces despite not having run on the road for some time. My gait felt natural and very similar to barefoot, which begs the question- do we really require new 'barefoot' designs or should we first revisit successful designs of the past?

Clearly this shoe is very different in its design intent and function from a modern running shoe. As such, there needs to be a clear justification for why it has been effectively discarded from the runner's arsenal.

Is the modern running shoe any better than this 1950s design?

No one really knows.

How could we go about answering this question? Contrary to popular belief, it is a simple matter to measure the impact of running shoe designs on injury rates and perfromance. Any argument that a $10 billion dollar industry can't afford to undertake these trials is farcical.

Two testing methods come to mind. The first is a real world trial where manufacturers compete to demonstrate their superiority such as occurs in motor sport via competitions such as Formula 1.

The second is a randomised controlled trial where athletes are randomised to train and race in different shoe types. This is the study type used to evaluate the efficacy and safety of new medications and is ideal when there are multiple other factors which could affect the outcome which must be controlled for.

Ideally the two methods would be combined so that such a Formula 1 style race series truly tests the shoes rather than the capacity of each company to hire the best athletes. This could be achieved by randomly allocating each team athletes from a common pool of elite runners

The take home message is that we have the capacity to transparently monitor running shoe design. Can vested interests be overcome to allow this to occur?

Time will tell.