Everything is better with science! How nice would it be to get running shoe choice down to a universal and infallible equation where, to choose a shoe, all we would need to do is plug in a few variables to diagnose how each of us runs and then solve for X. Bam. Done. For years, running shoe companies and running stores have worked to do just that using a diagnosis technique called gait analysis to determine how each runner runs and then categorizing shoes to fit each type of gait.
What kind of gait do you have? Are you an overpronator? A supinator? A neutral foot? This is what your local running store sales associates are looking for when they conduct a gait analysis on you. They might ask to see your old stinky running shoes, then stare knowingly at the treads or perhaps they’ll have you jog barefoot on the treadmill and nod and hmmmmm as they play the footage back in slow motion while pointing vaguely at your Achilles. Deciding whether you overpronate, underpronate or perfectly pronate is how they determine what kind of running shoe to prescribe you.
But what exactly is pronation? Does your gait really determine what type of shoes you need to avoid injury and perform your best? Is there a better way to find the right shoe for you?
What is Pronation?
Very generally put, pronation is a rotation of the bones around the arch of the foot and is not a terrible thing. In fact, pronation is a normal part of the gait cycle. When your foot strikes the ground as you run, you will experience a minor collapse of the arch, causing your ankle to roll slightly inward when bearing weight. All of our bodies are unique, so the amount and character of foot pronation is different for each of us.
Historically, we’ve all been grouped into one of three categories according to how much or how little we pronate when we run. Below is an explanation of each type of pronator and what the hallmarks are for determining that type:
1) Neutral Pronation:
This is the label for people with a “natural” or “ideal” amount of pronation. Conventionally, it was thought that people with a neutral gait will have fewer injuries and, as such, do not require corrective orthotics or additional support or stability in their footwear.
Arch Type: Normal
Outsole Wear Pattern: Progresses from outside of heel to the center of the ball of the foot
Gait Analysis: Achilles is in line with the heel and calf
This is the label for people who pronate “too much.” Their arches seem to collapse when weighted, leading to a dramatic inward motion of the ankle and a perceptible inward sway of the Achilles. Conventionally it was thought that overpronators are more likely to have injuries as their muscles, joints, and tendons are tweaked at “unnatural” angles to counterbalance the overpronating. For this reason, most suggest overpronators select shoes with posting to prevent the overpronating. These are the stability (moderate posting) or motion control (heavy posting) categories of shoes that keep your arch from collapsing too much.
Arch Type: Low
Outsole Wear Pattern: Progresses from heel to big toe/inside of foot
Gait Analysis: Achilles bends inward significantly
3) Underpronation (or Supination):
This is the label for people who pronate too little. Instead of the center of the foot and the big toe area relaxing and pronating to account for variety in terrain, the weight stays on the outside of the foot through the whole gait cycle. This can lead to ankle sprains and IT band issues, among others.
Arch Type: High
Outsole Wear Pattern: Progresses from outside of heel to outside of foot (little toe side)
Gait Analysis: Achilles bends slightly outward
Conventional Shoe Prescription
Once the shoe store sales associate labels your gait, she’ll choose a shoe type to fit that gait; usually either neutral shoes or support shoes. If you have a neutral gait, obviously you’ll be prescribed neutral shoes. If you overpronate, you’ll be prescribed support shoes. Usually supinators are prescribed neutral shoes too. By doing this, she’ll also rule out at least half of the shoes on the wall for you to choose from. From this point, she will likely bring you a few fairly similar shoes from different brands which you can try on to determine the pair that feels the best. The variables you choose from at this point are mainly the type and amount of cushioning you prefer, the shoe shape, brand-specific technology, and color.
The Problem with Gait Analysis
So, what’s wrong with this system? It seems perfectly logical, right? However, just because something sounds good or seems objectively based on science does not mean it actually is good. In fact, when this method of prescribing shoes based on gait analysis is put to the test, it doesn’t hold up. While it’s true that different people have different propensities for pronation, it does not follow that prescribing stability shoes to people with greater amounts of pronation reduces their rates of injury. In fact, according to recent research, choosing the right running shoe for you might be a lot less complicated than we’ve been led to believe.
Much of the research available shows that the best shoes for a given runner are in fact, most likely the shoes that feel the most comfortable to that person.
That’s right! The way to know which shoe is right for you is to go with the one that feels the most comfortable on your foot.
So, presumably, someone who knows nothing about running or running shoes could go into a running specialty store, skip the gait analysis, try a few different options, then pick the pair that is most comfortable and be perfectly okay. She might even be better off than if she had gone through the whole gait analysis process!
On a personal note, I am an overpronator who runs almost exclusively in neutral shoes. They feel the best to me and haven’t led to more frequent injury, in fact I have been injured less since making the switch. So maybe next time you’re looking for new shoes, take a pass on the gait analysis and branch out to find the shoes that feel amazing, be they neutral shoes or stability shoes!
How do you choose your shoes? Do you run in shoes that were prescribed for you based on a gait analysis?