A tale of Running Shoe Confusion
I can remember a time, not that long ago, when the obvious reasons for knee pain and a host of other injuries a runner complained about could easily be identified as simply, an overuse injury. The prescriptive cure was “take a week off” and all would be good again.
There was never a question of heel to toe angle or terms like “minimalist” or “zero-drop” when it came to purchasing a shoe. All running shoes were built pretty much the same way. A heavy soled heel with a mesh upper in a variety of color schemes. Sure, there were the air bags, gel sacks, cantilevers etc., but all running shoes were made based on the premise that we are meant to run on or heels. Then of course, we were not made to run, so, we needed our shoes constructed with specific applications. More rigid materials under the arch, less flex, more cushion all so that the shoe salesmen had a story to tell that was compelling enough to insure the sale.
No one ever questioned this logic until a guy named Chris McDougal, the running shoe whistle blower, wrote a passionate book about a forgotten tribe of Mexican Indians. The Tarahumara’s who happily exist on next to nothing in the canyons of the Sierra Madre. As the story goes, these canyon dwellers are renowned for their ability to run great distances through hill and dale either completely unshod or scantly protected, with some make shift sandal constructed from old tires and such. The book was aptly titled, “Born to Run”, which in one fell swoop called foul to the injustice the running shoe industry had perpetrated on civilized runners.
We were born to run; we don’t need all of this fancy protection beneath our feet. Our natural gift is a wonderful set of locomotion tools known as feet, in essence, was the argument posed. Of course, we do not live in the Copper Canyons of the Sierra Madre and if we were to move there, we had best bring some type of shoes to protect our pink, dainty feet which are a product of our societal evolution.
Sure, there are many anecdotes of species of men and women, who through environmental lifelong exposure, have developed an innate ability to motor over dirt trail, gravel and the like, without a care. Primarily because they are either too poor to own a pair of shoes or they simply had never had a chance to put a pair on. I would venture to risk the opinion that, given an opportunity to wear a pair of shoes, any shoes, for a week may cause them to want them. However, this is totally off point.
My chief rant here relates to the confusion that we as consumers tend to be exposed to, all for the benefit of a sale. The running shoe industry, at least those who I have been exposed to, who portray themselves as caring and solution seekers, flat don’t give a crap about us as consumers. Their entire focus is to develop a trend setting niche in construction of a shoe, one that allows them to spin a compelling yarn about the pitfalls that exists when, if you dare to wear any other shoe than their own. And in so doing, they gain a nice strangle-hold on the running shoe market.
I myself was duped for a time. I was absolutely drinking the Kool-aide when a shoe company (to remain nameless) led me down their well-constructed path to running righteousness. These evangelists spoke of the wrong that we have been exposed to for some 30 years and how it was their job to single handedly make things right. I thought, how cool is this! I was quick to set up my own metaphorical Kool-aide stand and got on my own little soap box and recited the songs taught me. Then one day, after all the other marketing thieves got on their own soap boxes and redesigned their own “righteous shoes” and the market was diluted once again, the evil appeared.
When the first company to realize that the “natural running concept” was losing steam, they made a command decision to make an abrupt turn and went hyper-cushy, the polar opposite of minimal and began to spin a new story for us to choke on. No, we don’t think you should run on a heavy soled heel, yes, you should be running in a neutral heel to toe configuration, BUT, the earth is unkind, you need a lot of cushion to buffer your landing to save your knees, hips, back… yada, yada, yada.
Which finally bring me to this: consumers are confused and the running shoe industry is responsible. Any idiot realizes that to shift from what you are accustomed to something that is completely opposite is asking for trouble. Runners who wear the traditional running shoe were prone to specific injuries. I like to refer to this circumstance as “The Devil they know”. Those who had consumed large doses of the Kool-aide, shifting to a minimal shoe, with little protection and little if any change in running style, resulted in a whole new assortment of injuries. I like to refer to these as “The Devil they don’t know”.
As the saying goes: “Better to do business with the devil you know than the devil you don’t”. Because these new injuries (The Devil we don’t know) are uncharted territory, we are rightfully fearful. “I Have never experience pain here before, how long will it last, can I recover, will I need serious medical intervention”? Some of us braved the new discomfort and were prudent in understanding this change required some timely adaptation, surfaced on the other side of these learning pains to the Promised Land, many did not.
The old prescription of “Take a week off” is no longer effective. Yet there is a silver lining. All of this confusion caused us to question what’s right, wrong and cause and effect. Speaking for myself, I learned much about running and shoe design. My quest for knowledge on the subject of running mechanics seems unquenchable. Now things are far clearer to me and hopefully, I can share my lesson with those I meet. My abridged overview is this: stability, mobility and impact absorption remain the responsibility of the amazingly intuitive bodies we possess. To think that we can create applications that are smarter and more efficient than the guidance provided us by our central nervous systems and intricately efficient limbs is just idiotic. Our bodies are highly adaptive yet they wield a double edge sword. If we do not keep our swords sharp they will fail us. However, our bodies are forgiving at most any age, under the right circumstances we rebound. Running well requires education, in many cases, re-education. Good shoe construction is really pretty simple. They should be light but not so light that they do not offer ample protecting from un-natural surfaces, i.e., shards of broken glass, metal objects, concrete, pavement and the like. The sole should not be so thick that it takes you too far from the ground or dampens afferent feedback (the signals that support proprioception). At the same time, they should not be so sparse that an untrained runner is forced to contend with more of the environment than he or she is trained for. What a running shoe should not do is try and cause your feet to react to imposed structures such as heel counters, arch supports and restrictive materials designed to correct foot movement.
“I have never seen a person run poorly barefoot over a grassy field. Given the opportunity, our bodies find the correct solutions for the terrain presented.”
Some may think; I have flat feet, I pronate or supinate so I need a stability or motion control shoe. Where these circumstances may exist, there are no case studies that report correction as a result of applying these applications. I have found that in many scenarios, with some retraining, (exercise, drill and gait correction) natural functions return. None of which will occur overnight. If you have taken a life time to grow weak, it is only reasonable that it will take some time to grow strong. No, it won’t take a lifetime.
I believe there is a right and a wrong way to run. There are specific postures and ground contact points that are in keeping with the laws of physics and kinematics that are simply irrefutable. There are opportunities that exist when our working muscles and tendons are applied to task, in these appropriate planes, that make the act of running easy on the joints, economical and efficient. Invest in this knowledge and you should run healthy for many years to come.
Written by: Richard Diaz, founder of diaz human performance and The Natural Running Network