Expensive and Increasing Shoe Prices: Are They Worth It?

A few weeks ago, Jens Jakob Andersen of RunRepeat was nice enough to contact me in regards to writing an article about shoe prices, quality and if they matched.  RunRepeat is a large database of shoes and shoe reviews brought in from all over the internet.  Many of my reviews are referenced on there and he brings up a great question.  Shoe prices are increasing.  Some are topping $200 US.  Are they really worth it?

That question has been asked of me during my 6 years working in running retail stores and as I have begun lecturing on footwear to other Physical Therapists.  The answer is an interesting and complicated one.

First let us take a look at what Jens and those at RunRepeat have discovered.

Courtesy of Jen Jakob Andersen and runrepeat.com

The above I can answer pretty easily having worked in the running shoe industry.  The most expensive shoes like the Mizuno Wave Prophecy, Asics Gel Kinesi, Nike Air Max, Adidas Ultra Boost, etc are no more durable or shock absorbing long term than any other shoe.  In fact, shoes that tend to have the best shock absorbing abilities early tend to break down the fastest (Cook, Brunet & Haddad, 1985).  Yep.  I can even cite an article on that back to 1985.  More recently, Clinghan et al. (2009) were also able to show that "low to medium-cost running shoes....provided the same (if not better) cushioning.... as high-cost running shoes".  Additionally,  I did some of my undergraduate research on this (never published from what I know and unfortunately I don't have my name on it).  All the shoes we tested broke down at around 100 miles regardless of the price and after that it was the human body compensating for various individual wear patterns pounded into the shoes.  Some people have better biomechanics than others when it comes to shoe wear.  That's something that is difficult to explain to people, so instead everyone is told to rotate their shoes every 300-500 miles.  I sincerely wish I could get 500 miles out of a pair of shoes but my mechanics are so weird that I burn them out after ~300 miles.  Am I also really careful about how many miles I put on shoes?  Yes.  I hate injuries.  That's why I'm the process of becoming a Doctor of Physical Therapy so I can keep myself and other people healthy (or get them back to being healthy as is 99% of my caseload because preventative medicine is so rarely utilized.  Stepping off soap box now).  
    So yes, a Nike Dart may last as long as a Adidas Ultra Boost (which also happens to have horrible outsole durability).  From my experience, when you buy an extremely expensive shoe, you are paying for the initial comfort that lasts for about 50-75 miles (maybe more if you're lucky).  After that you probably should have gotten something else unless that shoe happens to fit your foot really well.  Would I buy the Mizuno Wave Prophecy, Asics Gel Kinesi, Nike Air Max or Adidas Ultra Boost?  If they were free.  I'm a grad student.  I don't have a ton of money.  On the other side of the equation, I know most of those shoes really aren't meant for running.  I get that running shoe companies designed them, but they are so clunky, heavy and have such poor rides most of the time (The Ultra Boost is better than most) that I was never able to bring myself to suggest them to customers.  Would I suggest the Adidas Springblade to a customer?  Hell no.  No running specialty store with any self respect would carry that shoe.  That's not a running shoe, it's a marketing ploy.  Nothing about that shoe seems to be complimenting human mechanics.  I could write a whole post about how much I hate that shoe.  And yet it averages $180.  For a marketing ploy.  Something that looks cool but rides horribly.  Yes I have tried it on.  It is exactly like the Nike Air Max series.  Not running shoes, just shoes for show.  Don't get those two confused.  Unfortunately the public does not know that.  They head to the Nike and Adidas Outlets and assume this shoe is the best because it promises the most cushioning and comfort.  That's what people think they need.  If you are reading my blog, you are most likely above the average running industry consumer.  You pick your running shoe not based on which has the most comfort or support, but what fits your foot best, how the shoe rides, what the weight is, what the purpose of the shoe is (trail, road, track, etc) and so on.  Most people walking into running stores tell the salesperson they need the maximum cushioning and support.  And they usually have no idea what that means or how it will effect their mechanics.  
    I'm starting to rant.... sorry.  What can you do about this?  Educate yourself.  Find out what these terms actually mean, if you need them and how they will affect you.  The human body is a very complex kinematic system.  Some people can get away with wearing whatever shoes they want.  Other people cannot.  You need to find what works for you.  
    In regards to price, I tend to stray in the middle.  The average good quality running shoe tends to cost $100-$120 these days.  The major brands like Saucony, Brooks, Nike, Adidas, New Balance and others stay in that range.  That's a ton of money for most people and it can be hard to justify how spending that much money on a pair of shoes is justified when they could pick up a pair from Big 5 for $50.  If you are not a serious runner, I think a $50 running shoe is fine.  If you are putting decent mileage in, running more than 10 miles a week, racing, etc, you need a good pair of shoes.  More research and development goes into the $100-120 shoes than the $50.  That's one of the cost differences.  So do I think the $100-120 shoes are worth it?  Yes.  If you find the right one it can help reduce your injury risk.  No single running shoe can prevent injuries, but the right one can help reduce them (remember that phrase.  It's important).  In fact some research even suggests that having multiple pairs of shoes is better for prevention of overuse injuries due to not being exposed to the exact same mechanics every run.  Back to the original question, do I think $150-200 shoes are worth it?  I'd be willing to spend $150, but that is my limit.  I have learned from many years that shoes above that range generally are not worth that price.  Would I be willing to run in a $60 shoe?  If it fit my foot, had a good ride and fit the requirements for whatever I was using it for?  Maybe.  I am biased having worked in the running shoe industry and doing intense/high mileage that I would probably not run in a shoe whose base cost was $60.  Have I trained in shoes that I got for $60?  Yes because I found them on sale.  That is the key.  Know how to find a good deal.  

Courtesy of Jen Jakob Andersen and runrepeat.com

   The second set of graphs are very interesting given that they show that one of the cheaper brands, Skechers, tends to be rated higher.  I am not surprised to see Saucony and Brooks in the top rated categories and am interested that brands like VFF, Vivobarefoot, Merrell, and Newton are also listed there.  The first three have been doing a fantastic job with good quality running shoes, but the remaining 4 have been a bit faddish.  No offense to the companies, but VFF, Vivobarefoot, Merrell and Newton really had their peaks during the minimalist phase when everything was about super minimal footwear or how forefoot striking was supposed to save us from all injuries and set world records (hint: it won't.  If you think you can simplify the amazing kinematic system that is the lower extremity of the human body down to one joint, especially a distal joint, then you are an idiot.   Everything is important).  Why they happen to be up that high is that yes their shoes are comfortable and also yes many of the blogs out there come from those who tend to have minimalist tendencies.  How do you think Runblogger was started?  Minimalistrunningshoes.com?  There were so many minimalist running shoe blogs out there still.  That does put an asterisk onto that rating system as those individuals are giving more opinions than the average runner.  The fanatical ones among us tend to raise their voices a little higher than those around them (why do you think I have a running shoe blog?).  I used to be a super minimalist fanboy until I hit grad school and finally realized that everyone is different.  Thus different shoes will work for different people.  Just like different styles of training will work for different people.  The one size fits all approach does not work as any good medical professional will tell you.  
   I am very interested to see Hoka rate so low given how this is supposed to be the time of the maximalist shoe.  I personally have not had great experiences with Hoka (see my Hoka Huaka Review) but am extremely excited for the Hoka Carbon Rocket, Tracer and Clayton coming in 2016.  My initial thoughts on Hoka were that the midsole was too soft, there wasn't enough flexibility and the fit was off.  I understand that have come a decent way since then and like any new shoe company have a developmental period.  I know that Hoka will continue to make huge leaps in progress as they continue producing decent running shoes.  Regardless, I have heard mostly good things about them, especially with the huge Clifton following.  I did have the chance to run in that shoe briefly and will admit I enjoyed the ride (not the fit) due to the lighter weight.  The Clifton does not represent the majority of their shoes, which tend to have the characteristics that I do not enjoy (just personal preference).  I can understand given the price (over $150 in many cases) how they may not be reviewed as well.  That goes back to what we discussed earlier.  Regardless of the cushion, shoes tend to break down at the same rate.  I can even attest that Adidas Boost shoes break down at a similar rate.  So that might be a factor.  
    As to Skechers being rated the highest, I'm not surprised.  When the performance line was first debuted they were a bit sketchy.  After several years, even I can attest (with a pair of GoRun Strada on the way) that the Skechers Performance Division is producing some fantastic shoes at amazing prices.  Given how large the company is, many of their shoes go on sale very quickly and can be found for very reasonable prices in the $60-90 dollar range.  That makes performance shoes readily available to the public, who again are looking for the cheapest shoes.  It explains why I am seeing so many GoRuns on high school kids in Southern California (I have been doing some minor assistant volunteer coaching with the Glendora HS XC team).   As long as they are still making some kind of profit, that seems to be working for Skechers as they continue to build their customer base.  They have won over the general public, most big-name bloggers and many serious runners with shoes that are both affordable and built well.  Do they still have room for improvement?  Yes.  I continue to hear about durability concerns with the exposed midsole foam but I know they are addressing that.  Are the GoMeb Speed and Strada a bit expensive?  Yes but I've seen them on sale.  The Skechers Performance Division continues to make strides (pun) in their shoe development and I am very excited for their future.  

    So while I could continue on for days on this topic, here is my quick summary.  The extremely expensive running shoes are no better many times than the cheaper and moderately priced ones.  We have seen this before in the research and are seeing it again with the great data pooling from RunRepeat.  Some of the more expensive shoes may offer better initial step-in comfort, but long term will break down as fast as some of the cheaper shoes.  Obviously in my opinion, the middle range shoes are the best because they have more research and development beyond them compared to Big 5 shoes like the Nike Dart, Saucony Cohesion, etc.  Those shoes are still better than nothing and for the price are probably better than spending on $180 on a shoe that will break down quickly.  So again, look at the middle range shoes.  If you want something more affordable, take a look at the GoRun line from Skechers or even last years models (just as good!).  If you happen to have the money to spend on a $180 dollar shoe or find them on sale and they fit your foot really well, then try them.  Just don't expect them to last any longer than any other shoe.  

Thanks for reading and don't forget to Tack On! 

I would like to thank Jen Jakob Andersen for reaching out to me and giving me that opportunity to discuss such an interesting matter.  Jen, thank you for being patient with me as I did this around the last year of DPT school.  

If you would like the full article from which these images and information originated, please visit runrepeat.com or specifically: http://runrepeat.com/expensive-running-shoes-are-not-better-than-more-affordable-running-shoes-study

As always, my views are my own.

-Matt Klein, SPT


Clinghan, R., Arnold, G., Drew, T., Cochrane, L. & Abboud, R.  (2009). Do you get value for money when you buy an expensive pair of running shoes?  Brr. J. Sports Med., 42: 189-193.  doi: 10.1136/bjsm.2007.03884.  

Cook, S., Kester, M., & Haddad, R.  (1985).  Biomechanics of running shoe performance.  Clinics in Sports Medicine, 4(4): 619-626.