Despite the rally cry that we’re “born to run,” for most of us, running well doesn’t come naturally—not after our bodies have logged umpteen hours of body-scrunching, joint-tightening sitting at school and work. What’s more, runners get injured—some say up to 80 percent of ‘em get sidelined every year.
So how does an intrepid runner like you prevent injuries and reconnect your body with its natural stride? Salespeople at your sporting goods store will tell you it comes down to footwear. Their claim: Most folks grab any old running shoe off the rack instead of choosing the right shoe for their foot type and their running style. But how do you know what shoe suits you? “Get a gait analysis,” they’ll say.
What the Heck Is a Gait Analysis?
A gait analysis helps you figure out how to improve your running form. Sometimes it involves a laboratory, infrared cameras, 3D motion analysis, muscle function measurements, and force and pressure measurements, but that’s the super deluxe version. Usually it’s just a salesperson in a shoe store studying you while you run on a treadmill.
The pitch of running shoe companies goes something like this: Understanding your foot arch and how much you pronate is essential if you want to pick the right running shoe. Pronation refers to the degree to which your foot rolls inward as you land: You either land a little on the outside (underpronate), a little on the inside (overpronate), or straight down the middle (neutral pronate).
These days, a lot of running shoes are designed after specific pronation patterns. If you have a normal arch, you’re likely a normal pronator, and a stability shoe that offers moderate pronation control is thought to be ideal for you. Runners with flat feet normally overpronate, so they’re sold a motion-control shoe, which controls pronation. High-arched runners typically underpronate, so they supposedly do best in a neutral-cushioned shoe that encourages a more natural foot motion.
Don’t want to get injured? Get the right shoe. Want the right shoe? Find out how you run. Want to find out how you run? Get a gait analysis. Simple enough, but is it legit?
The Case Against Gait Analysis
“Gait analysis is bullshit.” That’s Kelly Starrett, the New York Timesbestselling coach, physical therapist, and author of Ready to Run: Unlocking Your Potential to Run Naturally. “Every runner definitely needs to take a very close look at their technique. But would I recommend a gait analysis to help you buy a pair of running shoes? Not at all. The idea that there’s a magical shoe that fits your movement dysfunction and minimizes the errors in your movement is… weird.”
He’s got a point; despite the fact that gait analysis is widely used, there are plenty of arguments against it. When performed in a biomechanics lab, or at least by a coach with a reputable certification like USA Track and Field’s, it’s certainly useful for people suffering from pain when they walk or run, as it can reveal the source of muscle, nerve, or skeletal problems—often before they start.
But will it help you pick the right shoe? Not really. Most evidence suggests that the standard three-pronged model of shoe selection outlined above is extremely problematic.
“A flawed gait can be corrected with strength training, mobility drills, and rigorous form, but not by a shoe,” says Jason Fitzgerald, a USATF-certified running coach, author of 101 Simple Ways to Be a Better Runner, and the proud owner of a 2:39 marathon time. “The majority of people can run in a neutral or stability shoe, but the most important factor by far in choosing a shoe is comfort. If you overpronate but you’re more comfortable in a neutral-cushioned shoe than a motion-control shoe, then you’re right and they’re wrong.”
Believe it or not, this “if the shoe fits (and feels good)” philosophy is backed by science. Despite popular belief, there’s just no real evidence that pronation-controlled shoes affect injury risk.
In a small 2011 study, scientists randomly assigned neutral, stability, and motion-control shoes to 81 female runners of varying pronation. During a 13-week marathon training program, more than half of the women with motion-control shoes reported injuries—including every single one of those with highly pronated feet, which are said to benefit from motion-control shoes. Three years later a larger, year-long study of 927 Danish runners also found that running in neutral shoes didn’t affect injury risk with regard to the runners’ pronation.
So what is the biggest predictor of injury? Uncomfortable shoes. The most convincing proof here is a military study from 2001. Two hundred and six soldiers were allowed to choose from a range of shoes that varied widely in hardness, arch shape, and foot shape. The shoes they chose had no apparent connection with the soldiers’ foot “types,” but the number of injuries dropped significantly when they simply chose a shoe based on comfort. Study author Benno Nigg, M.D., concluded, “The only thing we have is comfort.”
So What’s the Best Way to Avoid Injuries?
We do know that comfort is the most important factor in choosing a pair of shoes, and while our two experts differ in their opinions on where to go from here—Fitzgerald thinks most people can run in a neutral stability shoe, while Starrett feels that the best shoe is no shoe at all (a.k.a. barefoot running)—both of them agree on the following tips:
- Spend more time running barefoot. Two to three sessions per week will help to strengthen the feet and protect against plantar fasciitis, Fitzgerald says. Starrett also recommends walking barefoot as much as possible: “If you’re a world-class runner and you can’t handle eight minutes of barefoot running, you’re not truly world-class.”
- Strengthen your toes and your plantar fascia. Fitzgerald recommends standing on a towel and gradually pulling it under your foot with your toes, kind of like a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos. You can then push it back out flat, and eventually you can try this with weights on the edge of the towel. He also recommends spreading marbles on the floor and picking them up with your toes. Starrett takes a slightly more complex approach that focuses on myofascial release. Watch his foot mobility videohere.
- Wear comfortable shoes. They should feel balanced. If it’s over- or under-supported, your lower leg muscles will have to exert more effort, which will make it feel less comfortable. According to Starrett, you should be careful of coddling the arch with too much support; its job is to manage the force of landing, so if you block it, it’ll lose its springiness. Super flat shoes (think a zero- to four-millimeter heel drop) are very popular now, as are minimalist running shoes. But most people will be comfortable with a six- to 10-millimeter heel drop. If you want to go flatter, make sure you work toward a more horizontal shoe over a few months.
You don’t need a gait analysis to buy a shoe. And if you do pursue one as a means of checking your running form, you can go the swanky route in a lab with a biomechanics specialist, hire a running coach for a one-off session, or DIY: Starrett suggests filming yourself running—you can just run past your phone a few times after hitting record—and comparing your form on sites like CrossFit Endurance orThe Pose Method.
Finally, even though you may use running to “zone out,” Starrett emphasizes that it pays to be mindful about running technique. “Like in any sport, we need to make running about skill, not about exercise. If you do that, you’re going to invest energy, time, and brainpower into learning that skill. Then you can use intensity to challenge your skill. That’s how you become a great runner.”