Tuesday, November 23, 2010

An Open Letter to Steve Magness

Steve's Original post here

Dear Steve -

Unlike so many of the people posting about barefoot running and minimalism, you do a wonderful job of actually making a credible case. You actually cite studies and try to present a credible argument by discussing both the design of the running shoes and what that particular design is trying to accomplish. You cite numbers and scientists who have tried to create actual control groups so that proper use of the empirical method and modern testing equipment can be brought into play. From all this, you form a thesis and arrive at a conclusion.

So how did you get it wrong?

First lets get this out of the way: “We’ll start with the customary statistic of 33-56% of runners get injured every year (Bruggerman, 2007). That is kind of mind blowing when you think about it.” Yes, it is, because it’s been reduced so dramatically by the shoes that are now available. Look, I’ve been working in running stores since 1982, and in all these years I’ve had the good fortune to see a greater cross section of runners and walkers than any one scientist is ever going to be able to. Back in the early 1980’s you had a much higher injury rate, typically 9 out of every 10 people would walk in the store and begin with: “Well, my knee is acting up, but I have Boston coming up…” so dropping down to a high of 56% is a HUGE gain. Especially since your population of runners back then was far more likely to fitter athletes who were genetically more likely to have better form. Today’s statistics have to include an older population, with a dramatic shift in the male/female ratio, and completely different training methods.

As far as your motion control shoes discussion; lets take the argument apart a little bit, and perhaps see the forest as a forest and not just a huge group of trees, each one of which we can isolate and catalog. You’re calling for the abolition of Motion Control shoes is a perfect example of missing that forest. The three tests that you cite show a profound disregard for a conceit that we runners have long held dear: that keeping the body aligned will prevent injuries. As well, the Stacoff study from 2001 seems to show that Motion Control shoes don’t even prevent overpronation, that somehow the eversion of the foot is not contained by all the fancy medial posts that shoe business can come up with.

Yet the one simple factor missing here is the reality test: how come I can post a video from my iPhone showing a person who overpronates in a Nike Pegasus not over pronating in a New Balance 1012? Its very simple to see, and yet difficult to explain, but science has a tendency to miss that forest for the trees, because its hard to measure the forest without looking at the trees.

The very organic nature of biomechanics shows an interrelationship that is difficult to quantify. Witness the recent studies on lactate and very nature of lactic acid, something that didn’t seem to be a mystery whatsoever.

So back to the studies that show motion control shoes don’t work versus the video. When the eyeball test tells us something other than what science tells us, it simply means that science hasn’t quite described all the variables to degree where it can explain everything. To what degree can we measure the relative tightness of the hip flexor and gluteus muscle in reaction to years of constant overpronation? We can’t. The number of women that I see who have taught themselves to walk on the outside of their feet out of habit as a way to counteract the lack of support under the arch of their foot is simply astounding. Putting their foot in isolation for a scientific study will, without fail, generate incorrect data.

The data brought on from the Cushioned shoes is a good example. Almost anyone in the shoe world would expect that relative difference in the shape of the bed of the Nimbus and Glycerin would lead to pressure changes in the foot through the gait cycle. It would be odd to expect anything other than that. Not only should we prescribing shoes based on the plantar pressure, which is fairly easy to see by dissecting the older shoes the runner brings in, but by body mass as well. Given the different in the durometer of the Asics’ Solyte versus the Brooks Mogo foam, we should expect to put a larger man in a different shoe than a smaller woman.

The problem here is your over arching desire to combine all these different studies, all of which have different parameters and different control groups and different methodologies, and to come up with one cohesive overarching statement. I don’t think that you can do that. The modern running shoe was a decision to back away from the minimal slippers of the early 1970’s, and while we can all agree that there have been plenty of times that the running shoe companies can be accused of piling on, over thinking and just plain overdesigning shoes, there are far more people out running than ever before, and, given the nature of the activity, continuing to run without injury than ever before. Marathon participation numbers are up in staggering amounts, and the median time is now hours slower than it ever used to be, so we can do the math and calculate very easily that there are greater numbers of runners and walkers out on the roads for a greater number of hours than there ever used to be.

Remember, many of the variables that you cite are obvious to you and I: stride frequency for one, greater sensory input leading to better choices in foot plant and body alignment. But these are things that people who are born to run tend to learn, especially if they have any sort of ability and learn to run in a structured environment with coaching. You’re a nationally ranked runner in your day, and I was a NCAA D2 walk-on, but that puts both of us ahead of the 43 year old mother of 2 with 16 lbs of baby fat to work off. No one is there to correct her form, and its likely that she’ll never get to the stage where her stride rate will increase because she senses the subtle muscle tuning. Her stimulus with a minimalist shoe will be overwhelming and its likely that she’ll never adjust to it. Don’t take away her Adrenaline or Structure Triax or 2150 just because you can’t measure why it works.

Look, I’ve been training in minimalist shoes since 1983, and have always been proponent of that, the vast majority of the runners out there would be hurt by that philosophy. Everything that you’re writing in this post makes sense to ME, and to YOU, but there are a lot fewer of us than there are of THEM, the mother of 2 who needs to get out of the house and work out.

The injury prevention in a large group of Army Basic Training participants (Knapik, 2009) that you cite is something that I’m going to look up. It points out that chosing shoes based a criteria as simple as arch height is fairly stupid, since the arch doesn’t work alone anywhere through the gait cycle. Perhaps it means that instead of trying to simplify the subtle aspects of the running gait, our national running publications should be telling us how much more complex it all really is to say healthy and happy and out on the roads. I also believe that the generic terms that we use to classify running shoes for the general public need to be redone. Certainly we can dissect any of the recent catalogs from the major players in the shoe industry and find any number of “fence sitters”, shoes that don’t fall easily into the neutral or stability classifications. I think that the shoe manufacturers are further ahead of the curve than we want to suppose, but making niche shoes requires people to be properly fit within that niche, and that’s a tricky one.

Thanks for taking time to collate all this. Great food for thought. We’ll see how it all pans out in the spring with all the great minimalist product coming out.

Best –

Charles Yoakum

Marin Running Company


  1. Charles,
    First, I'm glad that my blog made you think. That's the most important part.

    To address some of your points. I think your critique centers on objective data vs. subjective data. You frequently cite subjective data (more injuries in the 80's, pronation works..I saw it, etc.). The problem with this is that we really can't quantify it. You recall almost 30yrs ago that more people came in with injuries to your store. Well, if that's true, great. But all that tells us is that in X town at X store, more runners who were injured used to come into your store. Perhaps that's because the demographics of who ran or who came to your store was different back then. Maybe back then more came into your store for advice because you guys were the experts, while now for injury help they go to doctors, internet, etc. The point is, who knows.

    While far from perfect, the scientific data gives us a better picture of the entire running population. Depending on the study, the sampling is better and represents a broader base of the population.

    Secondly, your subjective experiences may run counter to others. I've talked to numerous runners in the 70's-80's who say injuries were less or different. For instance, I remember Arthuir Lydiard and Marty Liquori talking about how achilles and plantar issues were much lower according to their relocections back then.

    The point is, it's subjective and relies on memory and gives us no firm data to compare it to. You can't compare your recollection to the research study precisely for this point.

  2. The same goes with pronation. Did you really see changes in pronation? In science we have objective measures to measure the degree of pronation. We can see exactly how much occured and how quickly in each type of shoe or condition. In a store, most of the time they have you hop on a treadmill and they eyeball it. Quite frankly, our eyes aren't that great at capturing such fast motions and quantifying it. If your one of those stores that has a regular speed camera you might be able to play it back and have a better idea. But again how are you measuring pronation. What's the marker? Eyeballing it? I just heard of a running store that now uses high speed video to measure foot strike (not pronation because they don't believe in it) which is a big step in the right direction.

    And secondly does it even matter? Research and practical experience both points to probably not for most people. Putting people in motion control shoes who "pronate" doesn't do anything in terms of injury prevention according to studies. Excessive pronation may be bad. But what is excessive. The foot is meant to pronate, it's how it functions. Most shoe stores mistake the idea of any pronation with extreme excessive. Which further complicates stuff. It's easy to eyeball pronation, but at what point does it become extreme? That's a hard distinction to make. As you can see video of Haile Geb having a ton of pronation but it doesn't seem to bother him.

    On the cushioning issue. We know that foot strike changes GRF much more than cushioning. The body adjusts the GRF based on numerous factors. We don't give our body as much credit as it deserves, it's an amazing thing.

    As far as your last point. I don't deal with your recreational runner who jogs a couple times per week. Your right that if they don't have the drive to go change their form or become educated and want to run like they do, then yes it makes sense to give them the footwear that allows them to do it.

    My entire point is that cushioning, pronation, etc. don't have the backing to be the basis of shoe selection. So far, it does not prevent injuries. I'm fine with shoes. I'm just not fine with them being based on concepts that aren't sound, which is what the research is showing. The scientists (Nigg) who helped push the motion control paradigm now is apologizing for doing so and acknolwedges it doesn't work.

    Why stick with a broken concept?

    A friend after reading this summed up your argument:

    "if you are not willing to learn to run correctly, you need shoes that may protect you from yourself. Sad, but maybe fair."

    I shoot a little higher than protecting people from themselves. We don't live in an ideal world and recognize that some people will need a Brooks Beast. But for those who read my website, they are the ones searching for a way to get better, stay injury free. So I'm hopeful that they don't go to a running shoe store expecting some magic cure with some new fangled motion control shoe, when in reality is has no basis and will be pure luck if it works. Instead, I want that person to focus on things we know can help reduce impact/injury.

    THanks for pointing me to this on my website. I hope this satisfies as a response.

    The takeaway message is we have a lot to learn.


  3. Steve just curious what shoe do you run in?

  4. I just wanted to thank both of you for your detailed and well-supported arguments. I know responses like this can really eat up a day. It's refreshing to hear two intelligent people discuss such a complicated matter.

  5. Well-formed, differing ideas without cynicism? This is good stuff, guys!

  6. First off, I appreciate Steve taking time to respond to the post. Actually reading and discussing things on the internet? shocking.

    I agree that the shoe catagorization needs to be addressed, as well as the simplistic notion that we can just look at one or two factors with regards to getting footwear that will really help us.

    Look, we're really complex machines. Just as a runner A and runner B, with similar biomechanics but different ages will come to their running with different degrees of response to stimuli, so will two runners of different sexes and similar ages. If I'm looking for a great shoe for a 20 year old 5'2" woman who regularly runs with a 40 year old 5"10 man, chances are that the great shoe for the two of them isn't the same shoe.

    And, as runners, I believe that if we polled any runner who read this blog about that one great shoe in their running lives, we would get an interesting number of answers. Answers as diverse as the readers of the post. So the question is then this: if all those studies show the things in the shoes that don't work, how do we account for the stuff that we've worn that DID work? Was it the one thing that was really well designed, or was it just a shoe, but it was the one that really worked well with us?

  7. Sam- I get that question a lot.

    I think the important thing is that we all our individuals and you need to find what works best for you.

    To answer, I train in a wide diverse range of shoes because at this point, I think that's the best option.

    Most of my distance runs and my long run are in Asics Gel Speedstars. I do 1-2 or so recovery runs a week in Gel Nimbus. All faster paced workouts on the track or on road are in Asics Piranha's or later in the year on the track in some Nike spikes. I also do some cool downs or short distance runs of 5mi or less in Vibrams.

    But of course, I'm running ~100mpw, 12 runs per week, with several hard workouts a week, so I'm not your average client.

  8. As one of those late comers to running who aren't really built for endurance (6'2", 250 lbs, huge legs) what I've learned is that you have to figure out what works for you. Based on reading Runners World I bought the Brooks Beast for its support; I hated the shoe and it made my feet hurt. I tried an Asics stability shoe. It worked better but still made my feet hurt. From experience I've gravitated to neutral cushioned shoes and that is what works best for me. Pronation isn't an issue for me.

    A continuing theme for me is that I regularly try new makes and models of shoes and run in a variety of shoes in my training: Nike Airmax 360, Mizuno Wave Creation, Mizuno Wave Runner, Nike Air Zoom Miler, Asics Speedstar, Saucony Pro Grid Triumph, Vibram Bikila, and unshod.

    However, I find myself running more and more in minimalist shoes and feel it is greatly strengthening my lower legs and improving my form.

  9. All I know is that as soon as I kicked off my marshmallow shoes and started training BF, and doing my long runs minimalist, my pains and injuries totaly went away. My advice: Train barefoot and run long with the most minimal shoe you can tolerate. My life's goal is to run at least 6 miles the day before I die.

  10. @dood - great! Glad to hear that it works for you! My problem is that for everyone that it works for, there is a great number that it DOESN'T work for, and none of the people who have moved to minimalist shoes seem to be able to admit that maybe, just maybe, what works for them WON'T WORK for everyone else. Somehow the "shoe" people have no problem with the minimalist runners, but it doesn't work the other way. Why is that? Why can't we have balance in the discussion? Thats what i want to aim for here.

    And this, again, is written someone who moved to minimalist shoes in 1983. Yes, 27 years ago.