I own a number of pairs of running shoes. Like 20 pairs maybe at last count? And it’s not even like I’m a hoarder. I’ve thrown em away if they’ve gone dead and given em away if they haven’t fit me properly (you know that thing when you’re in the shop and the sales guy is like ‘hey man take em for a ride, we got a treadmill or you can run outside…’ and you’re like ‘naaa I’ll just take em’). I think I’ve maybe purchased 50 pairs of running shoes in the last 4 years. I read about running shoes a lot. An awful lot. I look at data cos I’m a nerd. I’m genuinely interested in minimalism vs maximalism when it comes to shoe construction and stack height. I want to know what the heel-toe drop is in shoes I think I am going to buy, dang even shoes I ain’t gonna buy. I once went on nike.com and had a 45 minute discussion with Carlos on the online chat. Wow. But I am starting to have an epiphany. What if it doesn’t matter what shoe you wear? So long as they fit (as in you can stick your foot in them and they don’t fall off or cut off the circulation after 10 miles) then does it make any difference what’s on your feet? Like, really? I mean some people enjoy running barefoot. Some people strap on HOKA’s shoes and they look like blocks of polystyrene. Is there really a best case scenario when it comes to footwear? Or are there more important factors at play when it comes to running, efficiency and injury prevention?
Let me just quickly elaborate on this point by taking a cross section of the worlds best runners. The Tarahumara people of Northern Mexico, made famous by Chris McDougall’s book ‘Born to Run,’ are renowned for their ability to run long distances. They are currently sporting make shift sandals made out of rawhide or car tires. Aspiring marathon runners in Kenya, training with the elite of road and track, often do not have enough money to purchase the next pair of ‘top of the line’ running shoes whilst also trying to feed a family. As a result, they often train in hand me downs or charity donated shoes. Lastly, pro Ultra marathon runners competing around the world in distances of 50k and more. Some of these leading lights are running in said maximally cushioned HOKA shoes – take for example Sage Canaday, I mean he is Getting. It. Done!
What do all of these athletes have in common when it comes to footwear? Nothing. So what other discerning characteristics do they possess other than they all are naturally or nurturally (i made that word up I think) super talented? Well, since we are taking shoes out of the equation, there are pretty much three physiological factors that are important when it comes to performance – VO2 max, lactate threshold and running economy or efficiency. The first two of these factors are to do with aerobic / biological capability and can be sustained or increased through effort (albeit there is an argument that you either have it or you don’t, i.e. ‘the genes’). However when it comes to economy this is very much something which has to be learnt, altered, engineered, tweaked. We are talking about the mechanics of movement, efficiency of form and hence effort exerted and energy used. Our Tarahumara, Kenyan and Ultra running friends all undeniably run with supreme efficiency and therefore economy; ergo are able to run faster, for longer and often avoiding injury resulting from poor biomechanics.
But how do you run with biomechanical economy and what is good form? Efficient running comes not just from how you use your legs but rather your whole body to achieve control, stability, equilibrium. If we look at elite athletes they move gracefully, each step mimicking the last, seamlessly harnessing speed and effort without strain. An education in balance, pose and drive. Importantly, the whole body achieves this forward motion. Hips, core, arms, abdominals, obliques, deltoids. They achieve leg drive whilst keeping the chest high, the head up, the upper body relaxed tall and upright, hips level, a slight lean forward without hunching over. Think of it like this, the legs (muscles, joints, ligaments etc) support the body’s weight. If the body becomes tired and/or imbalanced, the stress on the legs becomes greater due to the need to ‘right’ these imbalances to allow us to continue moving forward. This inevitably will lead to injury. Imbalanced hips, too much lean, rolling shoulders, over striding are often the root cause of mobility injuries in the lower body – ITB (thigh), PFPS (knees), MTSS (shins). Our legs, feet, joints are designed to support forward motion indefinitely but only when the rest of the body is strong enough to follow.
The advice I often give to friends and family new to running is to run from your middle, your core. Think of yourself as a puppet, held up with strings attached not just to the legs but to the head, shoulders, hips. Keep upright, look ahead, lean slightly and all of a sudden you are running with gravity and natural propulsion, not relying on your legs to carry you forward. This is proper form. To maintain this it is important to stay strong through your core, through your hips. This has to be trained. Below is an example of a workout that my buddy Mikey sent me (just click the image to go to the video). It’s only 15 minutes long, so easily incorporated into your day, but the benefits will be long lasting. When I first got hold of this video I found the exercises pretty hard going. Similarly the number of experienced runners I’ve sent this to and received back the response ‘it’s a killer!’ or ‘intense!’ sort of surprised me. This work out focusses on all of the muscle groups that I have highlighted as imperative to maintaining form and thus running economy. So either the work out is too strenuous or rather runners (me included) too often neglect the work that needs to be put in to maintain core strength and good posture.
Of course there are a number of factors which contribute to staying healthy when running. But to all runners, new and experienced, I can’t begin to stress enough the importance of form and training the body (the WHOLE body) before you start thinking about lacing up for a marathon. I’m becoming increasingly unsure as to whether gait, heel stack, structure is really all that important. What is imperative is knowing whether your body is strong enough to support itself. Do you slouch, can you drive with your arms, can you stay upright for a long period of time? Most importantly can you maintain good posture during a sustained period of effort? Because if you can’t it doesn’t matter what you are shod in, your hips, knees and ankles are going to have to start doing the extra support work when you start leaning, toppling, reaching, bending incorrectly. My new view? Let’s start teaching FORM first then FIT. A shoe is never going to change your form or enable you to run efficiently. It will just lessen the damage of running incorrectly. It takes hard work not good shoe advice to achieve performance! Go preach!
N.b. I am neither scientist nor physiologist. Just a runner with experience and a view which I wanted to share. I hope it helps! All comments, questions and (of course) compliments, as always, warmly welcomed!