Lifestyle and exercise

Don’t waste your money on expensive trainers

Expensive running shoes offer no benefit in terms of cushioning impact and overall comfort compared with 'cheap' trainers, reported The Times and other newspapers on October 11 2007. The researchers found that “no amount of built-in air bubbles, shock absorbers or other cushioning makes a difference to the overall pressure on the foot.” 

The stories are based on a study that compared the performance of low-, medium-, and high-priced running shoes in men while they were walking, and in a smaller group who ran. The interpretation by the newspapers that this study has shown that expensive trainers do not protect runners’ feet is not quite accurate as the “running” part of the experiment was small and the researchers themselves state that “it was not possible to reliably detect differences between pressure in shoes from different brands and across cost ranges”.

Importantly, the participants in the study were normal runners. They didn’t have any gait abnormalities such as over or under pronation (where the foot has some rotation when it moves) and as such, were unlikely to require expensive, specialist shoes.

Where did the story come from?

Drs Richard Clinghan, Rami Abboud and colleagues from Ninewells Hospital and Medical School in Dundee, Scotland conducted this research. The study was funded personally by Dr Abboud. The study was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

What kind of scientific study was this?

The study was an experiment in 43 men (either size 8 or size 10 shoe) who were assessed while wearing one of 10 pairs of running shoes. There were a low, medium and high-priced pair from each of three brands and a control shoe from a “leisure” brand, which was also assessed. All of the shoes were “neutral” running shoes – for people not requiring specific support under certain parts of the foot. Before putting the shoes on, the men were asked how comfortable they thought they might be. They were then asked the same question after they had put them on.

For each pair of shoes, the pressure at various places under the foot was assessed while the men were walking (over approximately 15 steps on a 20m (22yd) walkway). After walking, the men were asked again how comfortable they had found the shoes. In a second part to the study, nine men “with previous running and treadmill experience” assessed each pair of shoes in a similar way (i.e. for comfort and pressure) while they were running on a treadmill.

What were the results of the study?

The researchers provide a breakdown of the cushioning across many different regions under the foot depending on the brand and price of the shoes. They found that in some regions of the foot, the higher priced shoes performed better. They report that when all the results were analysed together (regardless of the area being cushioned), the cushioning properties of the trainers were not dependent on the price of the shoe or the brand of the shoe. This means that overall, lower priced shoes performed as well as higher priced shoes and that the brands (although brand names are never mentioned) performed as well as each other. Comfort did not differ across brands or price ranges.

What interpretations did the researchers draw from these results?

The researchers say that the low and medium cost shoes provided the same overall cushioning as the high cost shoes when people were walking. They acknowledge that the measurement of comfort is highly subjective and is based on individual preference not related to the cushioning offered or the cost.

What does the NHS Knowledge Service make of this study?

There are several important points to be considered when interpreting the findings of this study:

  • The main part of this study assessed men while they were walking and as such cannot tell us much about the effects of cushioning while running. It is known that the impact on the foot when running is much greater than when walking and the cushioning properties of a shoe therefore become more important. Only nine men were assessed while they were running and as the researchers themselves say “it was not possible to reliably detect differences between pressure in shoes from different brands and cost ranges”. The newspapers interpretation of this study may lead you to believe that the study has shown no cushioning or comfort differences between low and high priced trainers used while running; however, this is not true. 
  • Comfort was also assessed after only very short-term use of the trainers and is as the researchers acknowledge, very subjective.
  • The study did not assess the durability of shoes of different prices. How long a person’s trainers last is an important factor to consider when buying shoes. Further researcher is needed to compare this aspect of trainers in relation to their cost. 
  • The men included in this study were all “neutral” runners. Specialised trainers that offer support at various positions on the foot have been designed for people who over- or under-pronate. The requirements of these runners are quite different and this study offers no information about them. Running shoes for those who over- or under-pronate may, by virtue of their specialised design, may be more expensive.
  • The trainers at the “cheap” end of the researchers’ spectrum cost £40–£45; this price may not be cheap to all purchasers.

Overall, this study does not offer much evidence that cheap trainers still protect a runner’s feet (while running).

Sir Muir Gray adds...

You can’t take shoes back after wearing them, so you have to decide what’s best for you in the shop. I have never bought a pair of shoes on scientific promises, but go for the best balance of comfort, looks and price. My main exercise is walking and I do that in ordinary shoes, not special shoes.

NHS Attribution