So you’ve been recommended a pair of the shiniest, most expensive shoes with the promise that they will fix your running ‘problems’. Perhaps not. The stats are not in your favour. Because, despite the shiny colours and additions of gels, foams, air pockets, and arch supports, the injury rate virtually identical to that of 30 years ago.
It’s difficult to judge the supposed failure of modern shoe technology to reduce injury rate without first considering that the characteristics of the “average” runner has changed greatly since the introduction of the modern running shoe. In the past 30 years running has changed from something done by trained runners who competed for sport, to an activity that is enjoyed by the masses.
But can we really blame injuries on the shoes runners are wearing? Blaming your running shoes for injuries seems somewhat akin to faulting golf clubs for a bogey. The notion that running shoes can prevent injury is fallacy. To blame it all on shoes, you ignore other, more likely contributors to running’s high injury rate, namely training errors, poor technique and poor muscle activation.
But it doesn’t take a sports scientist (although we are at Fit Clinic) to realise that the case for running as a high-risk activity lies with the repetitive impact of every stride. Every joint, bone, muscle, and tendon from the feet to the lower back experiences impact of up to five times the person’s body weight. The manner in which the body’s muscles and nervous system respond to this impact is a critical determinant of stress to the body. After all, the running stride is a wonderfully individualistic and intricate coordination of foot, ankle, knee, hip, and upper body motion. Trying to control injury risk must always contend both with the complexity of the running stride and its inherent individuality in a runner.
A major problem is “The shoe industry as a whole does a really horrible job of matching footwear to feet. All the methods used to fit feet to shoes don’t really hold up as valid ways to classify runners and to match shoes.”
The barefoot movement was partly fuelled by research that based the theoretical benefit of barefoot running on the observation that native barefoot runners run differently than those of us that grow up running in shoes. The observation that those runners preferentially land on the front part of the foot with each stride was presented as evidence of how we were evolutionary designed to run and that running in this manner would greatly reduce impact and therefore injury. Minimalist shoes are meant to closely mimic the low to the ground feel of barefoot running, theoretically encouraging a change in running style.
But the barefoot running shoe’s inability to make a dent in injury statistics lies not with faulty science or untruths but rather the inescapable conclusion that changing the way we run is challenging for most.
Even so, many in the running community would agree that barefoot running shoes injected change into an industry that plodded along for three decades, churning out shoes that didn’t necessarily reflect evolving sports medicine research.
We may all be born to run, but we may not be born to run well.
In a similar fashion to learning the sport of basketball or tennis, the skills that make a runner more efficient and potentially injury-resistant take more practice than commonly perceived. Few though, bother with acquiring these skills before tackling a 5k or marathon.
A change in footwear can affect the amount of impact the body absorbs during running, but it doesn’t change the fundamental stress of the activity. If you put all your faith in the idea that either barefoot running or running with highly cushioned shoes will enable you to run long distances without injuries, you’ll likely be disillusioned. In fact, Dr. Daniel Lieberman, the Harvard professor whose research partly fuelled the barefoot movement, himself states,
“How one runs probably is more important than what is on one’s feet, but what is on one’s feet may affect how one runs.”
So, we aren’t all born to run well? And how one runs is more important than the shoes?
Running well is a learned strategy, just like any other sport, focusing on specific technique improvements, cueing strategies to assist the learning process and using specific exercises to correct weakness, can go some way to making you feel like you were ‘born to run.’
Exercise Physiologist / Scientist