Monday, February 11, 2013

"Covering your feet with cushioned shoes is like turning off your smoke alarms."

As I kid I spent a lot of time barefoot, so when talk came out about barefoot running, my ears perked up.  I really like to run but I could never understand why running shoes were so expensive.  My doctor would always nag me about how running was bad for my knees.  But I didn't seem to have much trouble.  I don't run all that much.  Maybe 3.5 mile runs. My goal is three or four times a week, but it's easy to let cold weather or icy trails be excuses to slow down starting in November.  Shoveling snow, cross country skiing are also aerobic exercise.  But when I visit my mom in LA, I run more often. Because shoes are so expensive I tend to keep running in the old shoes even when it's clear the cushion effect is gone.  I like being able to feel my feet again. 

When the barefoot shoes came out, I checked up on them.  The blue shoes with the toes were just too weird for me but I did ask people wearing them how they felt.  I did read about barefoot running and like people who love the idea that chocolate and red wine are good for you, I was enjoying the reports on barefoot shoes.  I looked at videos like this one and realized that my natural running form is the barefoot way - landing on my forefoot and not on my heal. 

So in January, when we got to LA and we were walking around the Santa Monica mall on the way to a movie, I found a pair of minimalist shoes at the Sketchers store.  They still look like running shoes, but they have very thin soles by running shoe standards and there's lots of room for my toes to spread out. And they weigh almost nothing.

Here they are on my first day of running in them.  They felt great.  I can really feel the ground with these.  It's like running barefoot except all the little rocks are softened a bit when you step on them.

And then, I got the email that my book club was going to read Born to Run:  A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen  by Christopher McDougall.  The book mixes McDougall's personal story of running and having all sorts of typical running injuries and going to Mexico to find the super runners for a magazine story he's writing.  It wasn't until about page 150 that he actually starts talking about the research findings on running shoes and barefoot running.  He mixes a bunch of stories about different ultrarunners and barefoot runners and races, and the people who participate in with the info on the shoes.  The kind of thing I've been known to do here on the blog. 

The basic idea is that people have been running for thousands of years.  For many this was how they caught food.  They'd just keep running down an animal until it got exhausted.   So, this argument is that running is natural to humans, that we run to get food and that running keeps us healthy

The problem with running shoes is that instead of letting the foot feel the ground and react to those messages it gets back, the cushioned feet get lulled and stop doing what they need to do to naturally cushion the the body.

Quoting Stanford's NCAA Cross Country Coach of the Year, Vin Lananna:
"I think you try to do all these corrective things with shoes and you overcompensate.  You fix things that don't need fixing.  If you strengthen the foot by going barefoot, I think you reduce the risk of Achilles and knee and plantar fascia problems." (p.a69-70)

Or this from a study by Dr. Craig Richards, an Australian researcher:
"Runners wearing top-of-the-line shoes are 123 percent more likely to get injured than runners in cheap shoes."  (p. 171)
 Runners in shoes that cost more than $95 were more than twice as likely to get hurt as runners in shoes that cost less than $40. 
 And here's one that I loved hearing:
"As running shoes got worn down and their cushioning hardened the Oregon researchers revealed in a 1988 study for the Journal of Orthopedic & Sports Physical Therapy, runners ' feet stabilized and become less wobbly.'"

Now this is stuff I want to believe.  It also fits with my personal experiences.  But I did start carefully with the minimalist shoes. So far, running in the new shoes feels great.

But I am looking at other research on this.  

Here, for example, is a Harvard explanation with photos of ways the foot hits the ground.

It's also a warning, like so many others, that consumers should be careful of the claims of companies that make lots of money telling you their product - which fills a need people didn't know they had -  is good for you. In this case, it seems to be a need we didn't have and caused lots of people a lot of pain and suffering.  There is a section of the book that talks about the Oregon coach who first created fancy running shoes and the company Nike and how even Nike got around to pushing the benefits of running barefoot, but with their minimalist shoe on your foot.

1 comment:

  1. When I worked in the athletic department in college, we had a high percentage of athletes some to our trainer who had sudden problems with knees or elbows. They usually stemmed from expensive running shoes or super lightweight rackets. A heavier racket helped absorb the weight of the tennis ball instead of the wrist to elbow taking the energy. Same thing as you mentioned with shoes.


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