In Episode Two: Out of the Dark, I commented that I didn't even know the brand of shoes that I wore and that it honestly didn't really matter. That comment garnered a little bit of controversy and I thought it prudent to outline my view, which I 100% stand behind.
One of the things I like about running is that, in comparison to swimming & biking, it is by far the easiest activity to undertake. All you need is shoes, shorts and a shirt. No gym memberships, no special equipment (although it certainly does exist), just lace up and get outside!
I don't really care about what the latest technology in my shoe is, a view that has been strengthened of late and that will be outlined at length below. I buy my shoes based on comfort. Period.
That being said, running is the culprit for A LOT of injuries for athletes and non-athletes alike. In fact, the number of injured runners a year is estimated to be about 80%, a number that has been consistently high since 1970. INSANE! Buuuutttttttt......I'm willing to bet we've all been there.
I've got running pain, now what?
Let's quickly walk through what likely happens when we start to feel some foot pain, maybe in our heels, arches or even working up into our calves, shins or knees.
The first thing we will likely do is try stretch it out. Stretching and strengthening never works as quickly as one wants it to, so we look for a quicker fix. Or maybe it starts to feel better and we rush back to running, only to have the nagging issues come back quicker then they left.
Since the only thing we NEED to run is our shoes, we naturally gravitate towards them being the issue. Maybe they are old, maybe a little worn out, could they be the cause? Enter google! We start what will turn out to be a dark, seedy hole of HUGE promises (although cleverly crafted with "may" help with, "may" reduce X issues) from every shoe company. We search "running shoes for sore feet" and this is what we find?
- 10 Best Running Shoes for Guys with Problem Feet | Men's Fitness
- Feet | Runner's World
- The Best Running Sneakers for Every Foot Type | Fitness Magazine
- 16 Best Running Shoes For Plantar Fasciitis - Men, Women - Plantar ...
- The Best Running Shoes for Heel Pain | LIVESTRONG.COM
YES! The answer is obviously my shoes. The Google is never wrong!
We click on all the top links and are bombarded with a litany of different shoes that will help our issue. What's the common theme? The more expensive, the more heal support, the more cushioning, the better the shoe will be, the happier your foot will be and the more you'll be able to pound out mile after mile. Here is one of many examples of what you might find:
- Maximum Arch Support to protect you from strenuous activity
- Better Shock Absorption to disperse some of the force of heel striking
- A Top Brand Running Shoe Manufacturer, since they will have invested lots of money into shoes that fit the first two criteria
Packed with this new knowledge we head to the local shoe store. Armed with our new talking points so we can sound intelligent to the junior high kid likely to be selling us our shoes. We come out feeling happy, our wallets down $150-$200 but it will be worth it because we can go log our miles again with no issues!!!!!!
We start running on our new shoes, they feel so great. Life is good again.
Until it isn't. Sure the issue is masked for a little while, maybe even a season. But what we don't realize is that the "band-aid" that we have just applied will fall apart and there is a greater and greater likelihood our issues are going to be worse than before.
Sound familiar? Well don't worry you're not alone - apparently 1/3 of runners are willing to ditch their old trainers for for fancier footwear they feel is safer and will improve their performance.
This exact process happened to me and i'm willing to bet you can relate to some parts of it, if not all of them. I have not been immune to the injury bug from running either. Last year I had nagging issues that plagued me and this was the first thing I did.
It makes sense, we are all busy - work, life, kids, family, friends, training - we don't have time to vigorously research every gosh darn thing. So we look for the short cut. We look for the easy answer and we buy the specific, targeted and effective marketing of these companies.
We ignore our ability to question things like - do investment dollars into R&D mean the shoe will be any better for me? what happens to my body mechanics when my heel is raised and given so much cushion? maybe there is something wrong with my run form? can a "smart shoe" actually help me? Are any of these claims backed by science or peer-reviewed research?
It's time to stop.
It's time to take these injuries more seriously.
It's time to stop "powering" through the pain.
It's time to think about our feet more carefully, how they operate and how our shoes interfere or assist.
So what changed my thinking?? It's really quite easy ......
No matter the shoe. My injuries never went away!
It sounds so basic. So simple. No matter my shoe, the issues remained. It had to be something else. So I went looking for the underlying issue, because the band-aid wasn't helping.
Can traditional running shoes help prevent injuries?
The obvious question that sent me down this path was: with millions and millions of dollars spent into shoe technology, why are injuries in runners not decreasing? Even qualitatively I didn't see this happening with me. It just doesn't make sense, unless ..... maybe all those promises from shoe companies are unproven and indefensible. There is some proof that may be the case:
- Vibram, ‘Barefoot Running Shoe’ Company, Settles Multi-Million Dollar Lawsuit: Virbam was sued, and lost, for making claims about their shoes that were not supported by science. What were those claims: “strengthened foot and leg muscles”, “reduced risk of injury” and improved “balance and agility” and “spinal posture” from wearing the shoes.
- Reebok to Pay $25 Million in Customer Refunds To Settle FTC Charges of Deceptive Advertising of EasyTone and RunTone Shoes: Reebok was banned from making unsubstantiated health and fitness claims relating to its “toning” footwear. Check out this awesome advertisement!
There have also been numerous studies published challenging the injury prevention benefits of high-tech, "smart shoes" versus say flat-bottomed or minimalist shoes.
- Injury Risk and Performance among Soldiers Wearing Minimalist Running Shoes Compared to Traditional Running Shoes: Study identified that there was no difference in injury risk between the soldiers wearing the traditional shoes and those wearing minimalist footwear.
- Is your prescription of distance running shoes evidence-based?: This 2009 study sought to determine whether the current practice of prescribing distance running shoes featuring elevated cushioned heels and pronation control systems tailored to the individual’s foot type is evidence-based. The outcome measures included either running injury rates, distance running performance, osteoarthritis risk, physical activity levels, or overall health and well-being. Conclusion: The prescription of this shoe type to distance runners is not evidence-based
- Foot pronation is not associated with increased injury risk in novice runners wearing a neutral shoe: a 1-year prospective cohort study: This year-long study of 927 Danish runners found that running in neutral shoes didn’t affect injury risk with regard to the runners’ pronation.
- Relationship between footwear comfort of shoe inserts and anthropometric and sensory factors: This study concluded that shoe inserts of different shape and material that are comfortable are able to decrease injury frequency. The results of this study showed that subject specific characteristics influence comfort perception of shoe inserts
The more one digs into it, the more it appears that these fancy, expensive, high-tech shoes don't actually help reduce or prevent injuries at all. In fact, they may actually be hurting you more than helping you.
Are your running shoes killing your performance?
I'm a huge fan of Kelly Starrett, as you may be aware. I'm currently going through his book, Ready to Run: Unlocking Your Potential to Run Naturally. I recommend this book for everyone who runs on a regular basis. It's brilliant. This is what he has to say on your average running shoe:
I'm going to add one more just for good measure to really get the point across
It is really quite simple when one thinks about it. Traditional running shoes elevate your heels and weaken your heal cords. They trick you into believing that your heel is being protected by that huge comfy piece of foam underneath your shoe. According to Starrett, "the high-tech running shoe intervention acts like a cast, rendering lifeless the incredible facilities of your feet. They erode, atrophy, and weaken. The steel springs that your feet were meant to be, with all the remarkable elasticity that is critical to running fast, running long, and enjoying a lifetime of running, rusts away." (from Ready to Run)
The impact of this results in a heel strike when you run, which some believe is not the natural way we run. The jury is out on that one I think. I'm sure there are barefoot runners that heel strike and I'm sure there are people wearing traditional running shoes that forefoot strike. There is ample evidence however that the majority of runners appear to heel strike - in 2013 a study published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance demonstrated that of almost 2000 runners, 93% of runners were heal strikers, with more elite runners being forefoot strikers.
How could 93% of people be wrong? Well, maybe 93% of people are just wearing shoes that lead them to heel-striking and people like Kelly Starrett are on to something......
Heel Striking versus Fore-Foot Strike
For an excellent overview of the difference between a heel strike and a fore-foo strike please check out: Heel Strike vs Forefoot Strike – How They Differ Mechanically. The basic conclusion is this: by landing on your forefoot the entire leg is allowed to act as one big spring which decreases the impact to all of the joints, lower back and internal organs (see picture below)
The easiest way to tell if you heel strike or forefoot strike is to take some video of yourself running on a treadmill. It will become pretty obvious in a very short amount of filming what you're doing specifically. Here is an example of what it looks like:
So how bad is heel striking?
There is ample evidence demonstrating the harmful impacts of heel striking on your body, including this 2012 study that found that while competitive cross-country runners on a college team incur high injury rates, runners who habitually rearfoot strike have significantly higher rates of repetitive stress injury than those who mostly forefoot strike.
Here is a list of common ailments linked to heel striking with links in case you'd like to do some more reading:
- Metatarsal Stress Bone Fracture – Landing heel to toe when running was found to alter plantar pressure distribution in a way that puts too much stress on the metatarsal heads.
- Common Knee Problems – The peak impact and compressive forces produced at heel strike attacks the knee cartilage and may cause knee osteoarthritis.
- Broken Hip Femur -That’s no typo: runners who heel strike, especially over long distances, have too much impact force travelling through their leg, which may increase the risk of a femur fracture!
- Achilles Injury – Heel strike runners use their foot too aggressively with the ground, leading to increased pronation and high stress and strain on the Achilles tendon.
- Lower Leg Pain – Runners who heel strike tend to complain about leg cramps, this is because heel strike running increases lower leg intramuscular pressures.
- Heel Pain – Because the heel pad is strong enough for walking, but not running, heel strike running reduces blood flow in the heel pad, leading to heel pad deformations.
- Ankle Inversion Injury – Because landing on the heel triggers the foot to move around abnormally during stance, this intensifies stress on the ankle.
- Low Back Pain – The high impact of heel striking doesn’t just affect the leg, it comes up through the hip and into the back as well.
- Degenerative Joint Disorders – Because your joints are overloaded with impact when heel strike running, this greatly imposes repetitive trauma on the joints.
- ITBS – In heel strike running, the foot spends more time on the ground, especially more time spent in the impingement range of knee flexion angles, placing high strain on the IT band.
What can you do?
I'm not here to solve the heel strike versus forefoot striking debate. However, there is ample evidence to suggest that it is something worth exploring if you're one of the 80% of runners facing injuries this year or one of the 93% of runners who heel-strike. What is a little more clear is that more and more evidence also suggests that traditional, heavily marketed, "smart" shoes do not reduce injuries in runners and may in fact be doing significantly more harm than good by positioning us into becoming heel strikers.
It's time to take any nagging running issues seriously. While your shoes may not be able to make you go faster by themselves, they can certainly hold back your potential and maybe even keep you from reaching those elusive personal best times by prolonging injuries and tricking you from addressing the underlying issues in your run game. If you're still not convinced check out this great overview of the health benefits of barefoot running, including some tips for beginners making the transition to barefoot running.
I'm not suggesting to ditch the running shoes right now and go out and start running barefoot, not in the slightest. In fact, that might even be more harmful than doing what you're doing now. I would strongly suggest you explore the concept espoused by Christopher McDougall (author of Born to Run), "we don't need smarter shoes. we need smarter feet".
Take a look at the research, have your particular situation investigated by a professional - physiotherapist for example - and keep in mind that SHOES, INSOLES, ETC ARE A BAND-AID. There is undoubtedly an underlying issue if you're in constant pain or constantly being injured and there is a good chance it is likely related to reduced mobility, your biomechanics being out of wack, running form, muscle weakness or something else completely - which could be being masked by your fancy shoes.
Address the underlying issue. Don't buy a band-aid.
Steps (see what I did there?? Did you??) I'm Taking This Year
I hope this long winded post has given you something to consider and perked your interest to investigate your own running habits. It certainly has me thinking. I consistently have had poor running performances due to injuries and soreness and I want that to stop. Buying fancier shoes has not helped. It is time to find the underlying issues.
With that being said, here are some things that I'm exploring to help me address my foot issues and nagging injuries from running:
- Running Shoes - I'm slowly transitioning to barefoot running. Am I going all in? I've currently worked my way up to about 60% of my miles in a minimalist shoe, with great results. I'm now looking at my running shoes in this manner: protection from the ground so my feet don't get beat up. I'm looking for flat-bottomed shoe to provide some protection from the elements of the ground, nothing more. Zero heel-to-toe drop, no huge heel protection. I'm focusing on comfort period.
- Other shoes - I'm also transitioning my work shoes and personal shoes to flat bottom. Everyday shoes: Chucks and Clarks. Still working on the work shoes which is proving more challenging.
- Walking around - I'm walking around without shoes on more often. This includes in my office, where I rarely keep my shoes on.
- Sitting Less - Sitting is killer. I do it a lot and am working on limiting my sitting time. I've been using my standing desk more and more often which has helped a lot. I'm also getting training myself to take 10-15 min walks for every hour I have at sit at work. No more long periods of constant sitting.
- Dedicating myself to following Kelly Starrett's 12 Standards, as outlined in his book Ready To Run.
- What are the 12 standards? 1) Neutral Feet 2) Flat Shoes 3) A Supple Thoracic Spine 4) Efficient Squatting Technique 5) Hip Flexion 6) Hip Extension 7) Ankle Range of Motion 8) Warming Up/Cooling Down 9) Compression Socks 10) No Hotspots 11) Hydration 12) Jumping/Landing
- Buy this book. Take his challenge.
There is no one size fits all solution. Your issues are individual, your solutions are individual. All I hoped to do was get you thinking about your potential issues in a different way. We all want to continually push ourselves to become more efficient, fast and healthy runners. It is time to stop thinking that smart, expensive and fancy shoes will do the work for us and fix all our problems. Your PR is within reach, get out there and find it!!!!!!
Happy Training Everyone!!
- Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, Christopher McDougall
- Ready to Run: Unlocking Your Potential to Run Naturally, Kelly Starrett