by Chris McClung
I am hesitant to write this letter to you because of the storied history we have with open letters. The last one we wrote about Brooks and the demise of the Launch garnered more traffic to our blog than any previous post to date, but not all of the traffic was good. Some thought we came off as pompous know-it-alls attacking Brooks unfairly. While I happen to disagree with that assessment, I am also biased and perhaps a bit too results-oriented. After all, the Launch was happily saved this spring, returning from the dead with throwback colors. I would like to believe that our passionate plea for the Launch helped save it, but it doesn’t matter. I bought a pair last week and wore them on an 18-miler straight out of the box, enjoying every glorious step. Now, that’s what matters – finding shoes that disappear when you put them on…that have everything you need and nothing you don’t.
Back to the reason for this letter. To be clear, this isn’t about being pompous know-it-alls. This also isn’t about bashing Runner’s World, which seems to be a popular pastime in certain circles. It’s about education and sharing expertise that will hopefully provide clarity in the midst of confusion and misinformation.
Two weeks ago, a gentleman came into the store with the June issue of Runner’s World, which contains the latest in RW shoe reviews and awards. As he entered, he opened the earmarked magazine to show me a fold out diagram labeled “RW Shoe Finder” and asked: “Can you help me figure this out?”
At first glance, the RW Shoe Finder resembles a bowl of spaghetti with meatballs (see the picture), and I think that is describing it politely. The diagram is confusing at best and completely wrong at worst. After reviewing it briefly, I told the man in front of me, in the nicest words I could muster, that the first step was simply to toss it aside. And, you should do the same. Now, I’m not talking about the whole magazine or even all of information in the reviews, as some of it is good and helpful. The Shoe Finder, however, is definite material for the recycle bin.
So what’s wrong with it? Where to start?
1. Runner’s World CANNOT provide objective reviews. Period. Full Stop. There is too much at stake for them. They collect millions in advertising dollars annually from the top shoe brands. Being overly critical or failing to select a certain shoe for a certain “award” could put those millions at stake. This is like listening to Fox News talk about politics and expecting an unbiased opinion. Not going to happen. Case in point: what’s on the back of the RW Shoe Finder? A 3-page fold-out Saucony ad for the new Kinvara 4. A shoe that happens to have been selected as this year’s “Best Update.” I don’t think I need to explain further (and for the record, we love the Kinvara). I personally believe that the reviews and even the shoes “selected” to be reviewed are more influenced by dollar signs than they are by any shoe expertise. Perhaps that is just the cynic in me, but until the editorial team at RW provides more transparency to their process, I will remain skeptical.
2. 15 shoe models are not enough. We carry over 100 models in our store, and there are still many more out there. The Shoe Finder says: “To find the best pair for you, answer the questions in this flowchart.” And, what if the best shoe for you, isn’t among the 15 they have “selected” to review? Then I guess you are out of luck. Now, I know what you might say. How could Runner’s World possibly review every shoe out there? They can’t, and that’s fine, but they shouldn’t pretend to have the ultimate shoe selector with 15 models in its database. And really, it’s 14 models, because you can’t count anything from Under Armour.
3. Nearly every question in this alleged Shoe Finder is wrong or misleading. This is the crux of the issue. The methodology embedded within this Finder is based on a shoe fitting approach that was developed 20 years ago, and that has gradually proven dated, especially in the last five years. It is the same philosophy that the shoe companies would generally like you to believe because it sells shoes with more technology… more stuff to fix your supposed problems at higher prices. What we know from fitting thousands of people a year in shoes (and then coaching them in our training programs) is that more shoe is generally not better. More is less and less is more.
A few examples:
The RW Shoe Finder asks: “Is your BMI 27 or greater?” The answer takes you down distinct paths on the Shoe Finder, suggesting the bulky, higher-cushioned shoes for those of us who might exceed this “magical” 27 BMI threshold (that’s 200 pounds for a 6 foot male like myself or 168 for a 5’6” female). In fact, if your answer to this question is yes, you only have 2 options to choose from. The Finder says: “Generally, the higher your BMI, the more shoe you need.”
NO, NO, NO. In our experience, the weight of the runner is COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT when it comes to shoe selection. Ignoring issues with the BMI metric itself, what matters is the biomechanics of each individual regardless of weight and what level of cushioning he or she needs to achieve his or her most efficient gait. Most of the time, a heavy, high-cushioned shoe causes you to land “heavier” on your feet and therefore put more impact into your joints than a lighter shoe with less cushioning, regardless of how much you weigh. To those who might be carrying extra pounds, don’t fret… you have as many shoe options as anyone else when you walk in our doors!
The Shoe Finder also asks: “What is your arch type? High, Normal, or Flat?” According to the Finder, anyone with flat arches is assumed to over-pronate severely enough to need shoes with more support or stability. Here we find one of the central fallacies of most shoe fitting philosophies: a flat (or low) arch = needs stability.
In our experience, the height of the arch is irrelevant; what matters is how your foot and arch move from the point of contact with the ground through to the toe-off. I have seen plenty of runners with low to flat arches who have no issues whatsoever with over-pronation. In fact, the vast majority have very normal interactions with the ground. Unfortunately, most have been misdiagnosed and are running in posted stability shoes that inhibit their movement and efficiency, like running with a concrete block under your arch.
We fit 85% of runners in neutral shoes, while the running specialty industry average is 30-35%. And, last I checked, we don’t have a line of runners queued up asking for their stability shoes back. This isn’t to say that we are definitively right and RW is wrong; it just tells me that there might be an alternative approach that works and merits exploration and discussion.
A recent study talks about the link between pronation, type of shoe, and injury. There are two very interesting points made within the study. First, the breakdown of pronated feet within the random sample – only 7.5% of the total – is a very low percentage, much lower than the shoe industry would lead us to believe. Secondly, the study found that pronated runners actually had lower injury risk when running in neutral shoes than even neutral runners. Certainly, we can debate the merits of any study, but our real-world experience says that it’s amazing what happens when you take the shoe out of the way and let the body do the work.
4. The awards are suspect at best. I already mentioned the bias issue above, but there is also the issue of how these “awards” are chosen. What makes a shoe the “Editor’s Choice?” And, more specifically, why have Asics shoes been chosen in 5 of the past 8 years in this category? Is it that Asics makes the best shoes? Or does it relate to Asics’ advertising dollars? Or, perhaps the fact that RW hosts an awards party every year in conjunction with the New York Marathon of which Asics is the shoe sponsor? RW always has plausible deniability because it tends to choose a core, popular, franchise model from one of the major brands (usually Asics). This time, however, they jumped the shark by selecting the Asics Gel-Cumulus 15.
If this shoe is worthy of an Editor’s Choice award, then I need to eat my shorts. To be fair, it isn’t a terrible shoe by itself. Lots of runners will buy it and probably be perfectly happy with it. Most of those runners will be repeat Cumulus customers who haven’t changed shoe models since Clinton was President. The problem is that the entire shoe industry has completely changed, while the Cumulus has not. It’s a dinosaur in its category of moderately cushioned, neutral shoes. It weighs in at an absurd 11.6 ounces for men or 9.5 ounces for women, while most of its peers in the category (like the Mizuno Wave Rider or Saucony Ride) are now at least 1 to 1.5 ounces lighter (without sacrificing a discernible amount of cushioning). If an Editor’s Choice is to be made from this category, then the Wave Rider 16 would be the choice (check out this review if you want to know why). Even Asics’ own Gel-Excel33 would be a better choice!
Modern technologies now allow the shoe companies to drop significant weight from your feet without changing any of the functionality, cushioning or support. I would challenge Cumulus wearers to come in for an alternative. I guarantee that they can find a lighter, leaner shoe with equivalent cushioning, and that their feet will happily demand that they never go back.
Again, my point is not to pick on Runner’s World. My primary beef is with the RW Shoe Finder, as the reviews themselves are generally very informative, and in recent years, have become increasingly balanced on discussing the pros/cons of the shoes reviewed. I simply believe that it’s important to question what you read, and to view it with the appropriate counter-perspective in mind. If nothing else, I hope that this letter sparks debate about shoes and fittings and reviews because we all learn in the midst of good discussion.
Happy running… to the recycle bin and beyond!
Chris McClung heads up all things retail at Rogue Running, and currently coaches half marathoners and those taking on the Austin Distance Challenge.