Monday, 5 September 2011

Running Shoes are Bad for You?!?

I had the opportunity to go to Ontario Basketball’s coaching clinic this summer called Coach School 2011.  A speaker by the name of Sylvester Walters was showing us some really interesting exercises to prevent injuries with our young athletes.  At the beginning of his talk he spoke about how developing strong feet is one of the most important elements to training athletes.  He mentioned that feet are the foundation and building strong feet builds strong athletes.  The flatter the shoes the better your feet can adjust on their own to their environment.  Sylvester suggested reading a book called “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. 

 "Born to Run" is a book about an isolated and reclusive group of people called Tarahumara that live in Mexico's Copper Canyons.  They can run hundreds of miles without rest and chase down deer as easily as Olympic marathoners.  They have the ability to compete in ultra marathons which are the distance of a few marathons strung together.  They wear thin sandals and have a contagious joy of running.  The book really took a very interesting turn when I read this:

“A lot of foot and knee injuries that are currently plaguing us are actually caused by people running with shoes that actually make our feet weak, cause us to over-pronate, give us knee problems.  Until 1972, when the modern athletic shoe was invented by Nike, people ran in very thin-soled shoes, had strong feet, and had a much lower incidence of knee injuries.”  Dr. Daniel Lieberman, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University. 

Initially I thought that is a really big thing to lay at the feet of Nike.  Surely, shoes have benefits like keeping our feet clean, free of diseases, cuts and infections.  It is also important to note that they help me look flashy and stylish too!  Could they really be doing that much damage?  Kenyans have some of the most amazing elasticity in their feet which comes from running barefoot until they are 17.  According to this book there is no evidence that running shoes are any help to preventing injury.  There is no peer reviewed data to back up that shoes will decrease the risk of musculoskeletal running injuries or improve distance running performance.     

The book went on to talk about how every year between 65 to 80% of all runners suffer an injury.  Broken down further the claim was that nearly every runner is at risk.  The cost of these injuries can be high because if people aren’t being active to stay healthy than other health conditions can come into play like weight gain, heart conditions, diabetes, blocked arteries and so on once the populations begins to age. 

Painful Truth #1 – The Best Shoes are the Worst

The American Journal of Sports Medicine in 1989 suggested that the most common variable in injuries wasn’t training surface, running speed, weekly mileage, competitive motivation, body weight, or history of previous injuries.  It was the price of the shoe!  Twice as many runners wearing shoes that cost more than $95 get hurt than runners who wear shoes that cost less than $40.  What?!? How is that possible?  Doesn’t the cost indicate the value of the shoe? This statement really made me stop to think. 

Painful Truth #2 – Feet Like a Good Beating

The more cushioned the shoe, the less protection it provides.  Cushion provides nothing to reduce impact. When running the body is produces 12 times the impact.    A thin layer of plastic isn’t going to do much to change the blow.  I have heard many times that running shoes should be replaced every 3 months but a study was done by Barry Bates at the University of Oregon suggesting beat up shoes are better because when the cushioning is worn the runner has more foot control.  Are shoe companies suggesting that we get new shoes simply because it means more profits for them? 

In a way it seems like wearing running shoes is like putting pillows on your feet and in a way it is blinding them. Apparently in gymnastics, the thicker the landing mat the harder the gymnast has to stick their landing.  The same is true for more cushion in shoes as the foot comes down hard to ensure balance.  Think about when you lose your footing on ice and your feet react to find stability.  Essentially, that is what the foot is doing when you run because it isn’t aware of what is under foot.   The thicker the heels of the shoe the more people start to run on the heels of their feet and that isn’t how the foot was designed through evolution.  People who run in bare feet have lighter impact forces than those who run in shoes and run on the correct areas more efficiently.  When you are walking in bare feet you are receiving a continuous stream of information about the ground and the foot’s relationship to it. A covered foot is simply sleeping in an unchanging environment. 

Final Painful Truth – Humans Are Designed to Run Without Shoes

Dr. Gerard Hartmann has been a strong believer in barefoot running for years:

The deconditioned musculature of the foot is the greatest issue leading to injury and we’ve allowed our feet to become badly deconditioned over the past 25 years. Pronation has become a very bad word, but it’s just a natural movement of the foot.  The foot is supposed to pronate. Once you block a natural movement you adversely affect the others.  We’ve done studies, and only 2 to 3% of the population has biomechanical problems.  So who is getting all these orthotics? Every time we put someone in a corrective device, we’re creating new problems by treating ones that don’t exist. Just look at the architecture.  Blue print your feet, and you’ll find a marvel that engineers have been trying to match for centuries.  Your foot’s centrepiece is the arch; push up from underneath, and you weaken the whole structure.  Buttressing the foot’s arch from all sides is a high-tensile web of twenty-six bones, thirty-three joints, twelve rubbery tendons, and eighteen muscles, all stretching and flexing like an earthquake-resistant suspension bridge.  Putting your feet in shoes is similar to putting them in a plaster cast.  If I put your leg in plaster , we’ll find forty to sixty percent atrophy of the musculature within six weeks.  Something similar happens to feet when they’re encased in shoes. ”   

My critical thinking comes into play a bit here too though.  Are we paying more attention to injuries now than we did before?  Are there more injuries to ankles, knees, and achilles simply because we are documenting them or are their more injuries because shoes are really that bad?  In the relative scheme of things running shoes have only been around for a short time in evolution but they are such a huge part modern of life. Personally I have many pairs of shoes for many types of sports so where do I go from here. 

This book has caused more questions than answers for me and I am only half way through it.  Am I about to go running down Lakeshore Boulevard or High Park with no shoes on tomorrow?  Definitely not!  But it has opened my eyes to a new concept that I am interested in researching further.  Maybe it is a transition to move away from orthotics and research ways to strengthen my feet and the feet of the athletes I coach.  Do I think that athletic shoes have played a role in my shin, knee and back injuries?  It could definitely be the case but I am not convinced completely.  I am not sure that playing basketball with no shoes on is a choice either.  I am interested in sharing the information I found and challenge you to think of your opinion on this matter.  Of course it is your choice to make the decision you would like to make but I never shy away from gaining more knowledge.  The only thing left to say is if this is what my sneaks are doing to me then I don’t even want to think about the high heels I wear to work are doing...  Yikes!