The latest debate in the running/training community over the past year or so has been about footwear. Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run, has caused quite a stir challenging the past few decades of shoe companies marketing their “specialty shoes” for all types of feet and runners. McDougall argues that the “modern running shoes let people run with their foot in front of their hips, picking up two feet of stride. You can’t do that with the naked foot- it hurts.” He says that people are told they that they’re supposed go to a specialty store, have them tell you if you’re doing something wrong, and then tell you that you need to buy something to fix it.

It’s hard to argue with his reasoning. Many of us would rather go buy a nice pair of shoes or some sort of fancy equipment that will fix something for us, rather than putting in the hard work of fixing the actual root or cause of the problem. It’s the biggest flaw in the fitness industry as a whole today. Everyone is looking for, and advertising, the one workout or workout item that will “change your life,” and give you the “body you’ve always dreamed of” without putting in all of the time-consuming hard work it takes to get there. We are a quick-fix, instant results society. We’ve become spoiled!

But when you think about it, how many of us are actually satisfied with any of these quick fixes? How many of us have six-packs now after buying the “ab rocker,” or have cut strokes off of their score after buying the perfect golf club, or are now completely pain free and running faster than ever after placing a “custom orthotic” in their shoe or buying the $180 pair of running shoes because “they’re the best.” Our quick fixes are just that- temporary quick solutions that help, but don’t get to the root of the problem. And sadly, over and over again, we settle for that as “good enough.”

The modern running shoe, with up to one inch of foam padding, dampens the impact of the heel strike, allowing us to run faster and with bigger strides than our body actually has the stability to do. A recent study published by Daniel Lieberman et. al. of Harvard compares the ground forces at impact with running in running shoes vs. barefoot or minimal footwear: http://www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu/2FootStrikes&RunningShoes.html It shoes that there is actually greater dispersement of forces with running barefoot or in minimal shoes than in the fancy, highly supportive running shoes.
Many orthotics being placed in people’s shoes, even the “custom orthotics” are supportive orthotics and not corrective. What’s the difference? A supportive orthotic is one in which your foot is either scanned by a fancy machine, or you stand on some squishy foam and leave an imprint. The orthotic is then shaped to fit your foot as it already is while you are weight bearing- standing. In other words, it supports your weak foot or poor allignment, and tries not to let it get any worse. A corrective orthotic is one in which the imprint or casting is taken while you are non-weight bearing, and your foot is placed in a proper, neutral position. These orthotics will actually put your feet into the right allignment while you are standing on them, instead of just supporting them where they are. Corrective orthotics, while much more beneficial, may not be necessary for most of the population. Usually developing overall foot strength corrects most incidences of “flat feet” and “over-pronation.”

All of this is to say that maybe we’ve had it wrong for all of these years, or at least not quite right. In my years of training, I’m finding more and more how important the contact of the foot with the ground truly is. It’s the initial “receptor site” for where your body is in space. Where force or body weight is placed on your foot is the triggering point for how muscles fire to support and move your body, starting from the foot all the way to the head. Try this simple experiment. Stand up, and slowly shift your weight backwards onto your heels, and feel what happens. You should almost immediately feel your calves, then glutes, then abdominals, all the way up to your neck muscles tighten up. Shift back over your arches, and you’ll immediately feel muscles relax, and your posture will be more tall and upright.

Now, think about how important that quick response would be if you are running (a series of repeated single leg jumps, thousands at a time), or if you are trying to lift a heavy bar off the ground to perform a deadlift. If we place an inch of foam padding (our nice, comfy shoes) and another thin layer of orthotic between our foot and the ground, wouldn’t one think that that would slow that response down? Aren’t we looking for the fastest, most efficient possible response from our musculo-skeletal system?

The jury is still out, as their still isn’t quite enough research to totally support running barefoot vs. “shod,” but it’s definitely something to consider. I have a feeling if we all started running barefoot, we’d be running a lot slower and with shorter strides than we would be with our nice cushiony shoes- a hard pill to swallow. None of us want to run slower- we all want to get faster, right? But who knows, maybe in the long run it could be better, allow us to be healthier, and reduce the wear and tear on our body. One thing is for certain, the invention of running shoes hasn’t decreased the number of running related injuries. In the meantime, what would it hurt to do your other workouts with minimal foot wear? Your foot strength will increase, and muscle response time should improve as well, allowing for even better results from all of your hard work.

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