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Pricey Running Shoes Not Worth It: Study

Expensive or not, sneakers performed equally in high-tech tests

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 10 (HealthDay News) -- When it comes to picking footwear, runners should follow Prince Charming's lead and consider a shoe's fit, not its price tag, new research suggests.

Using high-tech methods, a team of Scottish scientists found no differences in either comfort or shock absorption between $80 pairs of running shoes and pairs made by the same companies costing more than $150.

"My advice to runners is to make sure that, first, the footwear fits your feet, and that if you are paying more, that doesn't mean that you're getting something better," said lead researcher Rami Abboud, director of the Institute of Motion Analysis and Research at the University of Dundee.

His team published its findings Oct. 10 in the online edition of the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Over the past few decades, the lowly sneaker has been transformed from a humble canvas-topped loafer to something that, according to advertisers, uses space-age technology to protect and enhance the human foot. Those lofty claims often come with lofty prices, however.

"What we wanted to check was, are you really getting value for money?" Abboud said. "Or are you just paying for advertisement?"

In their study, the Scottish researchers had 43 men, averaging about 29 years of age, try on nine pairs of running shoes -- three models each from three of the world's leading manufacturers. The men were sizes ranging from 8 to 10 (considered average male foot sizes) and had no foot or gait abnormalities.

The retail price of each of the three shoes within each brand spanned in price from $80-$90, $120-$130, and $140-$150, respectively. The men had no way of knowing the brand or cost of the shoes they were testing.

Participants were asked to test out the footwear and give the researchers a subjective assessment of each shoe's comfort. They also ran in the shoes while wearing high-tech sensors that gauged pressures at various points on the foot, including plantar pressure, the force generated by the impact of the sole hitting the ground.

"I believe that sports manufacturers are using similar, if not the same, equipment for measuring pressure inside the shoes," Abboud said.

Tabulating the results, the researchers reported no significant differences in comfort between the shoes, regardless of their price.

When it came to shock absorption, some shoes performed better than others on different areas of the foot, but no clear pattern emerged. In fact, plantar pressure was actually lower for the cheap-to-moderately priced footwear compared to more high-end gear, although this difference did not reach statistical significance, the researchers said.

"The perception is that if you pay more, you might end up having something more protective within the shoes, but that's something that we just couldn't find," Abboud said. "From what we found, [the difference] seems to be pure advertisement."

Efforts by HealthDay to reach shoe manufacturers Nike and Adidas for comment were unsuccessful.

Podiatrists and footwear experts have their own views on the findings.

"I don't think there's anything shocking in this article -- to find out that maybe some of the high-end running shoes really aren't necessary for the average person that's running," said Dr. James Christina, a podiatrist and director of scientific affairs at the American Podiatric Medical Association. Big-name companies "come out with a new model [of running shoe] every year," he said. "How much of an improvement has really been made?"

But he also pointed out that people who buy sneakers are paying for a shoe's longevity, not just its comfort and protection.

The Scottish study is just a "snapshot of the cushioning ability of that shoe in time," Christina noted. "It would have been interesting to have the subjects run a certain length of time, a certain schedule of months or a year, and then compare how the cushioning held up."

Another expert agreed, and added that fit -- not price tag -- should remain the most important consideration when selecting shoes.

The study's methodology "didn't tell me if the shoes are appropriate for a particular runner," said Dr. Gerard Varlotta, director of sports rehabilitation at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine, part of New York University Medical Center.

"You have to not look at the price but look at the sneaker itself," he said. "Is someone who runs 300 miles a week the same as someone who runs 3 miles a week?"

Bruce Wilk is a physical therapist, a former board member of the American Medical Athletic Association and owner of the Runner's High, a Miami store catering to avid runners. He said too many runners just try on a few sneakers in a store without giving them a "test run."

They "often spend money on something that just doesn't fit," he said. "New shoes always feel 'comfortable' -- if it doesn't dig in or squeeze my foot, then, hey, it's comfortable. But when they have a real good run in it, and you teach them what to look for, that's a whole other thing."

To that end, Wilk has customers run in a variety of sneakers on a treadmill before they pick the shoe they think is right for them.

As for cost, Wilk agreed that "at $80 versus $200, there really may not be a big advantage at all. It's just how the shoe feels to the beholder."

Varlotta agreed. "You don't have to go to the most expensive [shoe] to get something that's adequate for your needs," he said, "just like you don't need a Bentley to get a nice smooth ride."

More information

There's more on selecting the right running shoe at the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine.

SOURCES: Rami Abboud, Ph.D., director, Institute of Motion Analysis and Research, University of Dundee, Scotland; Gerard Varlotta, M.D., director, sports rehabilitation, Rusk Institute of Rehabilitative Medicine, New York University Medical Center, New York City; James Christina, DPM, director, scientific affairs, American Podiatric Medical Association, Bethesda, Md.; Bruce Wilk, physical therapist, Miami; Oct. 10, 2007, British Journal of Sports Medicine, online

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