Running shoes ruined running

My entire childhood I hated running with every fiber of my being (unless I was chasing a ball).

Looking back now, I realize that most of this hatred stemmed from never being taught to run, which might sound like a very profound thing. It’s running, it’s like breathing- there can’t be a wrong way to do it, right?

For thousands of years and billions of miles, people ran without what are recognized today as ‘running shoes’.

Then in the late 1970s shoe companies entered a kind of arms race with each other, adding more and more gimmicks and ‘corrective technology’ to try and separate their product from the competition’s. The public eventually became convinced that running was an activity that required some sort of safety equipment, and soon the modern running shoe became a staple for runners and athletes of all kinds to own.

While there is no arguing that around this time footwear corporations began to make a monumental impact on everything from pop culture to sports marketing, big impacts were also felt elsewhere: in runners’ knees and shins.

Although one could argue that running wasn’t as big of a recreational activity back then as it is now, the number of injuries since the dawn of these ‘innovations’ has unquestionably risen.

In his fantastic book Born to Run, Christopher McDougall documents a Native American tribe called the Tarahumara (“those who run fast” in their native tongue).

Living amongst cliffs and gorges in Northern Mexico, the Tarahumara gained notoriety in the athletic world by regularly running across this rugged terrain in distances exceeding 100+ miles without stopping. They do this barefoot or in sandals, and without injury.

Nike founder Phil Knight would lead you to believe that this would be an impossible feat without shock columns for responsive cushioning and a carbon rubber heel. How can this be?

Try this little experiment sometime:

Put on your favorite running shoes or cross-trainers with the big cushiony heel and go for a quick jog. Doesn’t have to be far at all, even just a block is fine.

Notice what part of your foot makes contact with the ground first. It is likely your heel, followed by a roll forward onto the ball of your foot.

Now, take off your shoes, and go run the same distance. Where is your foot striking this time? Probably not at your heel, and if it is you are probably on your way to the emergency room. Likely you are now landing on your forefoot, in between your arch and your toes. Your stride has probably also shortened, as to soften the impact of your feet hitting the ground.

While landing on your heel absorbs this impact in your knees and shins, landing on your fore or mid-foot captures this energy in your tendons and calves. This not only strengthens your muscles and allows them to work like a kind of natural spring, but it allows a runner to go further with less effort and injury. Endurance expert Brian McKenzie explains further:

 

Humans were designed to run barefoot. While running barefoot or in minimal shoes (which shoe companies thankfully seem to be trending towards) may seem like it would be risking injury to the sensitive undersides of your feet, be cognizant again that without the inch of foam below your heel, your body automatically switches to a much more conservative running style. The cushioned heel is just a mask, a band-aid on the problem of running with reckless form and shin-split, hairline-fracture-causing heel impact.


For me, running had become fun again, and it just felt right. So right, that when I first discovered these concepts in college I would sometimes deliberately choose to run home from a friend’s house (about a 20 minute walk) simply because it was a more efficient means of travel, and it no longer felt painful or like a chore. Running became useful.

I bought my first pair of minimal shoes a few months later. Everything ever written about minimal/barefoot running suggests to start out going 1/10th of the distance you normally would.

I, being stubborn and an idiot, did not heed this advice as I was so amazed at how easy running had suddenly become, and on my first run I cranked out around three miles (a distance I had done maybe once before in my life).

The last half mile of that run, my calves turned to cement, a state they remained in for about four days.

But once my body got used to this new method of running, I began destroying running records that I had only previously obtained due to forced conditioning for a sport or summer gym class in high school. I had run a 5k distance once in my life, and now I was running more than double amount with zero discomfort.

Running had switched from being a question of physical will to a mental one- for many runs, the only thing that stops me is the want to go do something else. Finally, running was more than just a source of dread and punishment.

All because of a one-inch piece of foam.

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