The Nielsen ratings since 1972 of the running-shoe industry have been the Runner's World Annual Shoe Survey, and, in the past six years, the Running Times' survey. Thousands of pairs of shoes have been compacted, flexed and deformed by laboratory machines to come up with ratings on flexibility, impact, penetration, heel-counter stiffness and rearfoot staility.

For manufacturers, consumers and retailers, the surveys have been a blessing and a nightmare. Proponents have claimed they stimulated competition and needed research; critics have charged conflicts of interest between running-shoe magazines and manufacturers, resulting in less-than-scientific findings.

In response to that kind of criticism, the surveys this year are stepping out of the lab.

"The feedback we were getting," says Bob Anderson, publisher of Runner's World, "indicated that we were 'too scientific,' that there were differences that were too minute to discern on the road. We felt that we needed to get out of the lab and onto the road."

The October Runner's World reflects what 3,000 subscribers -- who spent about 1 1/2 hours per questionnaire -- say about their running shoes. The top 25 shoes for men and the tip 10 for women are rated, according to Anderson, "by the people who really count."

Running Times also is out of the lab, counting on inhouse staff and feedback from readers to rate 13 shoes as "state of the art." N also is out of the lab, counting on inhouse staff and feedback from readers to rate 13 shoes as "state of the art."