Less is More
Air soles, gel pads and tubular bounce springs. Celebrity endorsements, iconic slogans and fancy names. Outrageous colors and logo inspired tread patterns. The gimmicks to get consumers buying the latest running shoes are endless.
Often, the glossy ads trumpeting these new fangled technologies will make people feel that their old, once adequate and cutting edge, seem uncompetitive and just plain boring. The trend toward fancy high-technology running shoes can only intensify now that the sport has become trendy.
But tellingly, what most professional distance runners actually use for competitions are minimalist running flats with the thinnest possible soles. No air, no gel pads and no springs. More alarmingly, despite all the fancy high-tech footwear advertised, running injuries remain prevalent.
A study titled "Epidemiology and Etiology of Marathon Running Injuries" (Fredericson M and Misra A) finds “yearly incidence rates for injury reported to be as high as 90 percent in those training for marathons.”
“Expensive athletic shoes are deceptively advertised to safeguard well through ‘cushioning impact,’ yet account for 123 percent greater injury frequency than the cheapest ones,” states a study titled "Hazard of Deceptive Advertising of Athletic Footwear" (Robbins S and Waked E).
According to a study titled "Barefoot Running" (Warburton M), those using modern day high-tech thick-soled shoes were more likely to get injured than those running barefoot or with rudimentary thin-soled footwear. Furthermore, it notes, “Laboratory studies show that the energy cost of running is reduced by about 4 percent when the feet are not shod.”
Having thickly cushioning shoes engenders runners to impact the ground hard with their heels—something they could never get away with on bare feet. Despite shoe cushioning, this heel strike stride makes people prone to injury and wastes their energy. A study titled "Athletic Footwear: Unsafe Due to Perceptual Illusions" (Robbins and Gouw GJ) explains, “A perceptual illusion is created whereby perceived impact is lower than actual impact, which results in inadequate impact-moderating behavior and consequent injury.”
Conversely, running barefoot naturally forces runners to adopt a midsole strike where the weight of the body is distributed evenly on the entire foot. Several sources explain why. “When running barefoot on hard surfaces, the runner compensates for the lack of cushioning underfoot by plantar-flexing the foot at contact, thus giving a softer landing,” notes the study "Kinematically Mediated Effects Of Sports Shoe Design: A Review. Journal Of Sports Sciences" (Frederick). (The plantar fascia is a thick fibrous band of tissue originating on the bottom surface of the heel bone and extending along the sole of the foot towards the five toes.) “Barefoot runners also land mid-foot, increasing the work of the foot’s soft tissue support structures, thereby increasing their strength and possibly reducing the risk of injury,” notes "Explosive Running" (Yessis).
Such a gait closely resembles those of Kenyan runners—the world’s undisputed marathon kings. Besides having a tall lean physique that translates to longer strides and living in a high altitude plateau that promotes more oxygen-carrying red blood cell production, many Kenyans grow up running barefoot and prefer the thinnest running flats for footwear.
“Running-related chronic injuries to bone and connective tissue in the legs are rare in developing countries, where most people are habitually barefooted,” notes a study titled "Running-Related Injury Prevention Through Barefoot Adaptations" (Robbins and Hanna).
Warburton’s studies also show that thick soles desensitize the feet from anticipating and coping with changes in terrain. Thick soles and heels also increase the leverage and magnify the damage that stumbles and twisted ankles wreak upon joints and muscles.
Warburton’s study summarizes: “It is claimed that footwear increases the risk of such sprains, either by decreasing awareness of foot position provided by feedback from plantar cutaneous mechanoreceptors in direct contact with the ground, or by increasing the leverage arm and consequently the twisting torque around the sub-talar joint during a stumble. Running shoes always reduce proprioceptive and tactile sensitivity.”
Heeding the trend toward barefoot running are several innovative products.
Gloves for barefoot runners
Ironically, the scientific scrutiny incurred by high-tech cushioning gimmicks of sports shoe brands has spawned an altogether new fad in the opposite direction—minimalist footwear that allows for a barefoot running experience with maximum flexibility, minimal cushioning and a modicum of protection.
Vibram Five Fingers shoes are the most startling of these designs. They bare little in common with conventional running shoes and resemble gloves for the feet, fully articulating each toe separately. Even their construction and materials—synthetic stretchable Gamuza leather uppers and Velcro straps—borrows from sports gloves. Of course, for soles, they utilize the famous Vibram compound.
Currently, Vibram Five Fingers shoes are not available locally. Filipino runners who do posses them find them comfortable and durable. They are used for training to allow their runners to adopt an energy-efficient and less injury-prone stride.
Newton running shoes, though seemingly more conventional in appearance than the Five Fingers, represents a radical approach to shoe design. Extremely flexible, it is designed to promote a proper mid sole strike. It has patented actuator lugs that favor striking the ground on the foot’s “sweet spot.”
Newton running shoes are available at Runnr store, Bonifacio Highstreet, Taguig Global City. Already, they are on the wish list of many local runners and those who already have them swear by them.
Major sport shoe brands also have models that feature ultra-flexible soles. These include the New Balance MR800 and the Nike Free. Both brands are widely available.
Beyond fad and counter fad
Aspiring barefoot runners must take time to slowly relearn how to run and adapt their stride for unshod running. Barefoot running requires a different gait to avoid injury.
Though many endurance runners now use “barefoot shoes” for training, no professional of prominence has so far competed using these “barefoot shoes.” Instead, they use ultra-lightweight running flats provided by their sponsors.
To the extremists who shun foot ware altogether, beware: The skin on the soles need time to gradually thicken and toughen. And no matter how thick the skin may be on one’s soles, pebbles and pointed items strewn across the terrain can still injure barefoot runners.
Shoes, having been worn since birth, have irrevocably shaped feet, tapering the biggest and smallest toes toward the center and crowding all the digits to fit into narrow yet stylish shape of shoes. (With indigenous peoples who have gone with their feet unshod for all their lives, their toes are splayed out widely and cannot fit in most shoes.)
In an article "Live Science" written by Rachael Rettner, Dr. D. Casey Kerrigan, professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation, cautions, “We’ve evolved to run on compliant surfaces, not on asphalt or concrete. You run on something hard, your body has to work that much harder to help absorb those forces, and that can lead to stresses and strain, wear and tear, really throughout the whole body.”
Instead, Kerrigan suggests, “‘I think people should run in what they feel most comfortable running in . . . and whether that’s in a pair of running shoes or in a minimum kind of running shoe, that’s just fine.”