by Jim Hixson
–When you’ve spent enough time working in running shoe stores like I have (15 years), there are a number of common words and phrases that you’ve heard that are used to a fault by both sales people and customers. The main offenders are: “stability”, “structure”, “motion-control,” “cushioning”, and “anti-pronation.” Shoes that have these characteristics often have unintended negative consequences on natural running biomechanics.
Here’s an abbreviated summary of what customers have told me over the years (and in terms of frequency, let’s just say thousands of times):
“I (over)pronate and need a stability shoe.”
“I have a high arch and need a supportive shoe”
“I’m a beginning runner so I need a lot of cushioning.”
“I have a flat foot and need a supportive shoe”
“I need a structured shoe with a removable insole because my feet are weak and I need to use an orthotic”
“My doctor told me to buy a stiffer shoe because I have plantar fasciitis”
“I’m a bigger runner and need the most cushioned shoe you have.”
Almost all runners do not need more “stability” and “structure” in their shoes so that their feet will be strengthened and protected. In fact, the very opposite is true. Most of us would prefer to deal with a stable personality and be protected by a safe structure. When applied to running shoes, however, shoes that are stable and structured have unintended consequences. In fact, when combined with a third characteristic, “cushioning,” the traditional, over-supported shoe immobilizes, destabilizes, and desensitizes the foot, making it weaker, less responsive and less capable of doing the work that it required to do.
Shoes that that are minimally restrictive allow the foot and lower leg to act as a system of springs and levers, letting the body respond effectively; quickly, efficiently, and safely, to the initial shock of landing while storing energy to be used later in the gait cycle.
Most traditional running shoes are relatively stiff and heavily padded, whether the shoe is advertised as a “neutral” shoe, like the Brooks Glycerin, or a “stability” shoe, such as the ASICS’ Kayano.
When a customer shows a preference for a “protective” traditional shoe over a minimal shoe, I ask that person to think of the effect a splint has on a part of the body that is recovering from a broken bone. For example, a splint keeps a broken bone in the arm set so that it heels properly, but after the splint is removed it is immediately evident that the arm is weaker and has a reduced range of motion.
Unfortunately a supportive stable shoe has the same effect on the foot, resulting in a foot that is both muscularly weak and imbalanced. Since the foot is the both the original point of contact with the ground and the base for running, the wearing of traditional running shoes adversely affects the movements of the entire chain, leading to greater impact upon landing, increased rates of injury, and less efficient performance.
When considering the third characteristic common in traditional shoes I often asked the customer why shoes have so much cushioning, especially in the heel. Sometimes they venture a guess, but usually they recognize the rhetorical nature of the question, and so I’d give them the answer: “Heels are more cushioned than the rest of the shoe because a runner is not supposed to hit heel first.”
More often than not the customer shakes his head knowingly and says, “Yes, that makes sense.”
“Wait! It makes no sense at all.” I’d often respond with a sly expression.
At this point I sometimes would tell the story of “How the running shoe got its heel”. I began the in the manner of the Mouse in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Adventures in Wonderland, who begins with these famous and ominous words: “Mine is a long and a sad tale!” I will, however, try to make it a relatively short tale for Natural Running Center’s readers.
The tale starts with the naked foot, moves to the sandals and moccasin-type footwear, and then jumps millennia ahead to a new type of running shoe created by Bill Bowerman, one of the co-founders of Nike. In addition to inventing the waffle sole. Bowerman also came up with the popular shoe called the “Cortez”, apparently named in honor of the Spanish conquistador leader who helped destroy the Aztec empire and open the Americas for the subjugation of the continent’s other native peoples, through both war and disease. But that’s another story for another time.
The first running shoes were flat, flexible, and light, designed to allow a runner to have the same form as when running barefoot, the midfoot making contact with the ground first and the heel touching the ground at midstance after the lower leg has stored elastic energy in the calf and Achilles tendon. In contrast the Nike Cortez was designed with a thicker than normal heel to allow the runner to lengthen a normal stride by landing on the heel instead of the midfoot. Bowerman actually believed that this type of shoe enabled him to improve human biomechanics.
Over the years the power of Nike marketing grew exponentially and its influence encouraged or forced the other major companies, even the original leaders Adidas and Onitsuka Tiger (ASICS), to change the design of their shoes. It wasn’t too long, within five years, before the only running shoes available with lower heels were racing flats, and even these models had heels higher than their counterparts from a few years before the Cortez arrived in the new world.
Later “improvements” in running shoes, for example anti-pronation features and extra cushioning, were attempts to solve problems that stemmed from this originally flawed design. Imagine inventing a bicycle with square wheels and attempting to improve the quality of the rubber for the tires or add a lighter kickstand.
So when running shoe companies encouraged customers to buy shoes that are stable, structured, and cushioned, the subtext of their message is that runners are incapable of running without significant assistance. But this is nonsense.
I don’t advocate running primarily barefoot, unless you have the good fortune to live near a golf course in an area of the world with consistently moderate weather, but shoes for all activities should be minimal, protecting the foot from excessive friction, sharp objects, and bad weather, but allowing freedom of movement and the ability to receive information quickly and accurately from the environment. Any time part of the body is supported (weakened), stabilized (partially immobilized), and cushioned (desensitized) the results are always negative, usually in the short term, always in the long term.
Now, back to those words I mentioned at the beginning of this column: “stability”, “structure”, “motion-control,” “cushioning”, and “pronation.” To gain clarity here, allow us to turn to another book by Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, and a character who was one of the most eloquent thinkers of the Victorian Age:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master that’s all.”
Humpty Dumpty did not have the best body for running, but he could have written advertising copy for many running shoe companies. By allowing manufacturers to “protect” our feet and bodies when we run we accept them as the masters of our bodies. But you should be the only real master of your running!