Tuesday, November 17, 2015


Today's runners have encountered the entire gamete of footwear choices (and all of the cumbersome baggage) not available to runners 50+ years ago.  When I examine what has happened over the past half-century, it becomes a story of corporate strategies, marketing, and mass myth more than an evidence-based conversation.

The first mass-produced running shoes were made by Adidas, Asics, and Puma in the 1940's and 1950's.  They were little more than a rubber sole and leather upper.  They had minimal cushioning and a minimal heel stack height if any.  These were the days when most runners were athletes competing in races for prizes and records, the running boom had not yet hit America and so there wasn't a ton of recreational jogging.  The running boom developed in the 1970's as a way for many people to become more fit, lose weight, or to enjoy running for social reasons.  The problem is that running is actually a skill and if done poorly (or if the person is not prepared) can quickly lead to injury.

Typical 1940's runner

Early Adidas - many of these shoes were hand-made for olympians.

So along came the running shoe industry to the rescue, or so many thought.  The conventional running shoe as we know it began to take shape to "prevent harmful shock" and "improve pronation mechanics" and "cushion your joints."  The premise of this is actually quite literally ridiculous.  The underlying message here that no one in the running shoe store will say is that running in today's world is inherently harmful and you must protect yourself with the technology of a shoe.  If this were true, you shouldn't be running at all.  You shouldn't be using a shoe to do something that is inherently unnatural.  But it's not really true anyway, it's not supported by any science.  So why are so many still convinced they need a certain kind of shoe to fix their problem?  It is still to this day all too easy to find a medical person who agrees with that sort of logic. 
The Nike Cortez - adding some heel height

And what about the other "logic" that says, "ok maybe there are some runners who do not need the support and cushion because they are biomechanically perfect, but I do because I weight a lot (or I'm not efficient, or I'm not a real runner, or whatever else people say).

Let's take that same premise for a moment to the sport of swimming.  If you were to throw a small child into a pool and watch him/her unsuccessfully flounder around, you wouldn't say the child is hopeless, that he or she can never learn to swim and must always wear floaties because they are not "biomechanically gifted."  You would teach the child a proper stroke.  The child would learn to swim because they learned to move properly.  The same goes for learning to roll, climb, lift, squat, jump, land, throw, catch...these are motor skills that can be learned and improved with practice.

If you need these floaties to swim you aren't swimming right.

The premise that you would need a special protective device in order to be safe during running makes the assumption that the problem is the activity itself and NOT your technique and skill-level.  It's clear that this is not the case.  In the 1970's achilles injuries began to explode due to many people who did not have proper movement undertaking a new exercise program.  The industry responded with a higher and more cushioned heel.  This did not address the real problem but unfortunately created a new one.  The more cushion you place in a shoe, the stiffer you make it, and the higher the heel, the more you promote over-striding.  Wearing such a shoe takes away all of your foot-sense and now you are no longer fully aware of how awful your form has become.

What happens when our brain is missing information?  A lot of bad things...
Imagine yourself piloting an aircraft in poor visibility conditions and you are relying on an air traffic control tower to get you steadied for landing.  The information they give you is obviously critical in your ability to land properly...if they are degrees off or do not understand your location or speed of travel or if their instructions are muffled by a bad radio connection, you will not have a very happy landing.  And yet this is exactly what we do with too much shoe, we muffle our connection, we change the information.

If you need this shoe to run you aren't running right.

Imagine you want to send a message to a friend via email using a keyboard.  Wearing thickly cushioned shoes is like trying to type a message wearing a thick set of gloves.  I have practiced typing enough that I can close my eyes and type well with few mistakes.  But if I close my eyes wearing thick gloves and try to type it will be a disaster.  Whatever message I wanted to send will be completely distorted and useless to the intended recipient.  Thickly cushioned shoes are a lot like playing the "telephone game" with your sensory input.  What gets to the brain isn't exactly the real message, it's distorted.  Your brain will do its best to understand the input, but with bad information it will not be able to make a good decision.  Your brain cannot adequately protect your body from pain, inefficient movement, excessive stress, etc with inaccurate information.

This cycle occurs with every kind of sensory input in the body (sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch).  Affecting the sensory input affects your processing (brain) and will change the output.  Maybe the muscles you recruit or the speed of recruitment changes, maybe you under or over-correct.  This can change something as basic as reflexes.

The incidence and severity of running-related injuries will remain the same until culturally we are ready to acknowledge that it isn't the shoe we should have corrected in the 1970's, it's the skill of running for the average person.  What many do not realize is that the current support for maximalist cushioned shoes is faith-based; it's a belief that if we just add more protection we won't jar our joints and we will save ourselves from injury and wear-and-tear.  Most running shoe stores will embrace cushioning or stability components of shoes as a way to protect the body and keep people running.  There again lies the assumption that running isn't safe in the modern world and you must buy this product to protect you from such a dangerous activity.  Meanwhile there is no support for this assumption in scientific literature...

Will we transition back to minimalism soon?  Unlikely.  Many running shoe companies dumped their promotion and inventory of their minimalist shoes a few years ago due to the high number of injuries being reported.  Of course we know it was not the fault of the shoe but rather poor technique and implementation of a major change in training.  But that doesn't make it any more appealing to running shoe companies to change tune.  They need to sell shoes to stay in business so most will do what is popular versus what is scientifically supported.  Let's also remember that the majority of runners are still wearing the middle of the road supportive shoes that were popular in the late 90's, so they never changed to minimalism or maximalism in the first place.

I don't see this issue much differently than I see the issue of obesity (at the individual level). It takes great responsibility for a person to take matters into their own hands and find a solution.  In running, this means relying on learning the right motor patterns and giving the body time to adapt, not simply saying a shoe (or a specific diet) is the answer.  It's a lifestyle, it's a new belief system, and it's a new way of doing things.

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