Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Do Running Shoes Do More Harm Than Good? by Dave Elger

There is no question that the running shoes today are far superior to anything we used back in the early 1970s. In those days there wasn’t much difference between brands in terms of shock absorption, stability, or motion control. Nike was one of the first to revolutionize the running shoe industry when it came out with an innovation called the “waffle” outersole developed by Oregon coach Bill Bowerman.

Today, shoes are designed with specialized features to meet your individual needs as a runner. Whether you have a flat arch, overpronate, or weigh 200 pounds, there is a shoe out there somewhere designed to meet your needs.

I don’t know for sure if these advances in shoe technology have reduced the incidence of running injuries, but there is no question that some of the features can benefit a runner with an existing problem. For example, an overpronator prone to plantar fascitis or shin pain will find that a stability shoe helps.

At least one authority, however, thinks that expensive running shoes are overrated and in fact may ultimately cause running injuries in people with normally functioning feet. Michael Yessis, Ph.D. in his book, Explosive Running, explains that running shoes with their extra heel cushioning allow runners to strike the ground with their heel first rather than at the midfoot, increasing the force of impact and pronation. He also believes that the foot’s supporting structures (bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles) eventually weaken as the shoes do their job of protecting the foot.

Dr. Yessis claims that barefoot running may be the answer. Without shoes, runners are forced to land closer to the arch on the mid-foot rather than the heel, dramatically reducing impact. Without the support that a running shoe provides, barefoot running also strengthens the foot by allowing it to function the way it’s supposed to.

Common sense tells you not to start leaving your shoes at home every time you head out for a run. Barefoot running must be introduced gradually. Start by finding a smooth stretch of grass to jog on, maybe 4 or 5 minutes twice a week. Jogging without shoes, you’ll notice immediately what Dr. Yessis is talking about when he says you will not want to land heel first. Keep the pace very slow and relaxing. Over time I recommend adding a couple of minutes a week as your feet become stronger. Focus on how your feet land while running barefoot, then practice carrying that technique over to the roads with shoes on. Before long you’ll notice your foot plant changing as you get away from striking heel first.

Barefoot running is not recommended as a cure for heel or other foot pain- you’re likely to make the problem worse. However, a couple of 20 minute barefoot jogs a week may be a good preventive measure for a healthy runner looking for a different way to improve.

In each and every year in recent memory the tiny nation of Kenya produces more sub 2hr 20 minute marathoners than any other nation. According to IAAF, in 2005 an amazing 63 Kenyans broke 2 hr 12!

Besides their intense training schedules, a not so obvious difference is that Kenyans typically spend their entire childhood running barefoot. Their feet are strong and they learn to run the correct way at a very young age. Coincidence?

C) 2007 Dave Elger all rights reserved

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