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All Running Research is a Damned Lie!

Posted by on Nov 9, 2012 | 7 Comments

Okay, not really. But it may be close.

I’ve been fascinated by running gait for a number of years, mostly stemming from my attempts to explain why barefoot running could be better and the desire to improve my teaching methods. The more I dig, the deeper the mystery becomes.

The problem: There are A LOT of people that claim to know precisely how we run… and they have fundamental disagreements with others that claim the same.

A good example is my foray into the Podiatry Arena forums. When discussing barefoot running, there’s a good deal of citation occurring to support various opinions, then accusations of cherry picking research to support one side or another.

The very fact that there’s enough variability in the published literature should be a huge red flag for all parties involved. Specifically, the results of the entire body of research may not be as valid as we’d like to believe.

In other words, if there’s research that supports both sides of an argument and no consensus that one side is “right”, we should question the research itself.

When it comes to running, it shouldn’t be a surprise that research is often conflicted. Based on very basic observation and anecdotal evidence, we know there’s INCREDIBLE variability in how people run. A runner that overstrides and lands heavily on their heel is going to have a different muscle activation pattern than a runner that runs with a ‘natural” running gait. There will be different stresses on different areas of the body.

Furthermore, we know there are a lot of factors that affect how we run. For example, shoes and orthotics affect how various body parts work. Even more profound- the same shoes may affect different individuals in different ways.

Based on these assumptions, it is difficult to use any research conducted over the last 30-40 years as a generalization of how we’re supposed to run. If the shoes worn by participants adversely affected the gait of the subjects and the researchers did not account for that as a confounding variable, the results can only be generalized to those subjects in the study wearing those particular shoes.

Of course, those that have a strong opinion will argue the research that supports their particular opinions is somehow better. They will fall for a typical confirmation bias and filter the data that refutes their point of view. Sadly, I’ve found very few professionals that acknowledge this. This is a major reason why I recommend “Tread Lightly” so often; Pete Larson and Bill Katovsky, while proponents of “natural running”, provide the most objective analysis to date.

Can This Problem be Solved?

I see two solutions to this problem:

First, everyone that has an interest in running gait would have to acknowledge there’s more than one way for people to run, and running gait is affected by factors like shoes. All research then has to be classified based on factors like the gait used by the runners, whether they’re running on a treadmill or solid ground, or what they have on their feet.

Second, if we insist on coming to the conclusion that there IS a right way to run, we have to abandon all previous research that failed to account for how the subjects ran. We would then have to test a multitude of variables across multiple dimensions with a huge pool of subjects. Only then could be confidently say there is a right way to run.

I see some people working on the first option, which is great. Unfortunately I doubt the second will happen; too many people have already intellectually committed to previous research without acknowledging the obvious limitations.

What do you think? Leave your comments below.


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  1. Heel Motion Inside A Running Shoe | Somastruct
    November 12, 2012

    […] based on the results of those studies. Jason Robillard recently wrote about this problem on his blog as it pertains to correct running […]

  2. Bare Lee
    November 10, 2012

    Is there such a wide variety of opinion among elite-level runners and coaches? From my naive, recreational runner perspective, it seemed like the runners at the recent Olympics were all running more or less the same way, especially the sprinters.

  3. klanger
    November 10, 2012

    1. Scientists are no gods, so why would you expect from science to get an ultimate answer on everything from the best diet, to perfect running/walking gait etc.

    2. Usually scientific experiments are based on scientific grants – which are funded by governments or other institutions. To get money for your research you have to show the need for your expected results. The only 2 institutions that I think will be willing to spend their money on “the ultimate gait for human beings” project is the army and/or the shoe industry.
    For the army the human factor is not that important to give away millions of $ for seeking for perfection. That leaves us with the shoe industry…
    Now, when your sponsor isn’t interested in true knowledge, but in business it shouldn’t be a surprise that science behind running isn’t a true science.

    3. Books are no scientific source! There are 4973 scientific publications only at Scopus (a scientific publications search web site) for the keywords: gait+running. For real scientists that is the source of knowledge as a scientific base for their future experiments, and not the books.
    Any debate should be based on scientific publications (as they are the most- up-to-date scientific source), ideally with a high IF (impact factor).

  4. John Y.
    November 9, 2012

    I feel that each particular brand of shoe has some kind of study (anecdotal or empirical) attached Post-It style (not Gangnam Style) to its box/literature/website to push the advantages this shoe has over any other. The fact remains that we are all different from one another with small to gaping chasms of variability in how we perceive ourselves in space and how that perception differs from stationary perception to motive perception. If we were to quantify and qualify said perception(s) with only our bare naked bodies as a study medium then we can, I believe, come to the conclusion that any layer of protection/covering will alter that perception to some degree and will in turn alter our ability to feel/see/hear/smell/run. Not everyone can run (or likes to run) in Vibrams, not everyone wants Hoka OneOne (unless they want to increase their height from 4’11” to 6’5″). What needs to be done is to teach people to have fun with it, try it a bit at a time, and if it hurts, STOP (although I am guilty of stopping at times…)

  5. Ken S.
    November 9, 2012

    I forgot to add here are my reasons for not quoting scientific studies very often, and why I think everyone should be very careful using scientific studies to “prove” anything.

  6. Ken S.
    November 9, 2012

    I agree completely. The science is all over the place. There are also a lot of poorly done studies out there, and it not alway obvious to non-scientist what the relative merit of a study is, or what exactly the study actually demonstrated.

    I’m also tired of people, especially the folks on Podiatry Arena, quoting scientific studies incorrectly and out of context, deluding themselves into thinking that they are all about the science.

    One point I would make is that there are obviously many ways to run. Watch any group of runners for very long, and it is obvious that they are not all running the same way. I think the real question is whether or not there is more than one way to run optimally? The next question would be what exactly constitutes a variation in technique? Furthermore, is it possible to strip down running to an absolute minimum of necessary movement, and what would that look like?

  7. Brian G
    November 9, 2012

    The issue with obtaining a huge pool of subjects and testing under controlled conditions is the cost. That’s a lot of money and for what exactly? This isn’t about saving lives like cancer research.

    I suppose only a very large institution with a vested interested in keeping their employees healthy and in a running condition would be able to conduct such a study. The one example I can think of, at least for the United States, is the US Army or Department of Defense.

    Until then, it’s just a bunch of blind folks describing different parts of a elephant, all talking past each other.