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Running Mechanics and Shoe Selection: Implications for Performance and Injuries

– Derek M. Hansen –

A few months ago, a friend of mine sent me a link to an article about running shoe technology. The article appeared in the UK’s Daily Mail and is entitled, “The Painful Truth About Trainers: Are Running Shoes a Waste of Money?” Written by Christopher McDougall, the article described how injury rates continue to be on the rise despite many technological advances in running shoe design. The central theme of the article was, “Why pay lots of money for shoes when it won’t make a difference in terms of preventing injury or enhancing performance?” In essence, $50 shoes aren’t any worse than $250 shoes based on their respective track records.

The article went even further to put forth the idea that perhaps no shoes were better than any shoes. References to Oregon University training groups and African runners seemed to infer that running in bare feet not only strengthened the feet, but also resulted in fewer injuries through improved running mechanics. It went on to propose that modern shoes encourage heel-striking on touch-down, while bare feet resulted in forefoot landings that absorb ground forces much more efficiently, with less wear-and-tear on the body.

I found that this article provided an important message to athletes – competitive and recreational – by identifying common flaws in the way running technique has evolved throughout the “civilized” world. Working with athletes on a daily basis, I find that I am constantly correcting technique. Athletes are over-striding, under-striding, running too tall, or running too low. Foot strike is a common problem with heel strikers outnumbering those landing on their forefoot – even when sprinting. It would be irresponsible of me to attempt to direct them to a pair of shoes that would solve their problems, rather than teaching them proper running technique.

An additional issue is that proper running technique allows the body to appropriately prepare itself for harder surfaces, thereby mitigating impact forces. The concept of “muscle tuning” has been studied over the last two decades, primarily by University of Calgary researcher Benno Nigg. His research has shown that a runner’s musculature can compensate for harder surfaces and stiffer shoes by dampening the impact on ground contact. The proprioceptive abilities of the human foot allow the muscles and tendons to prepare for ground impact based on the information gathered from the previous step. It is well known that the musculature of the lower leg is pre-activated as the foot approaches the ground. The human body constantly searches and activates for the optimal level of stiffness to minimize stress and injury, while improving performance.

As such, I have found that there are many “truths” in the world of running technique, athlete training and shoe development that every serious running athlete – both competitive and recreational – should be aware of:

 

– Running shoe companies rely on athlete endorsements and “technological” advances to secure their share of the market.

It has become painfully clear to me that running shoe companies are more interested in producing a running shoe that gives the appearance of addressing performance and injury issues rather than “actually” making you faster and reducing injuries. Unlike the computer industry, where advances in technology every cycle lead to actual improvements in speed and performance, the shoe industry suffers from a case of technological impotence. No one (including shoe developers) really knows if so-called “improvements” in a shoe will yield better performance. Concepts like Air, Gel, Torsion, Shox, Hydro-Flow and Motion-Control are marketing bait for consumers. In most cases, these names resonate as common-sense improvements to the average person. “Yeah, sure I’d like to run on a cushion of air,” you think to yourself. Other times, oxymoron-like phrases such as “cushioned-support” strangely sound like they might just work. One shoe company’s website included specification sheets in PDF format that looked no different that ones you would find for a motor vehicle or plasma screen TV, with dimensions, weight, technological advances and proprietary components. Yet, despite all these sexy features, runners still seem to get sore injured.

While cushioning and shock-absorption by a running shoe appears to be the biggest priority for shoe developers, use of an overly cushioned shoe can interrupt the process whereby the body is optimally “tuning” itself for ground impact. A running shoe that is too soft can overly-stiffen the muscle-tendon complex and create problems for an individual. I often hear of complaints from athletes that they cannot “feel” the ground and their joints – particularly knees and hips – feel stiff when wearing well-cushioned shoes. Problems can also be found with shoes that are overly stiff or supportive. Again, the foot and musculature cannot properly adapt to the surface upon which it is traveling, leading to higher impact forces and more problems with injury.

Since the early days of Adidas and Puma, using athletes to serve as spokespersons for running shoes was a no-brainer. If Frank Shorter or Steve Prefontaine wore these shoes, obviously you too will benefit from buying a pair. I am pretty sure that kids buying a new pair of Puma’s do not actually believe they will run under 9.70 seconds in the 100m like Usain Bolt, but wearing a new pair of shoes with Bolt’s name on them will surely get you some great compliments at the local track meet. In one ironic story, I heard that an elite triathlete was sponsored by one shoe company, but didn’t like the way the shoes fit. She proceeded to take her sponsor’s shoes to a cobbler, and had him take off the uppers and put them on the soles of a different brand shoe that she felt were more comfortable. In another case, a track and field athlete went directly to his sponsor with another brand of shoe and said, “Make me one like this and then put your logo on the side – then I’ll wear it.” So much for sincere and genuine athlete endorsements.

 

– Running technique is abysmal for most recreational runners.

On many occasions while I am driving down the street, I see a recreational jogger or fitness ‘enthusiast’ slogging it out on the pavement. My first impulse is to jam on the brakes, jump out and provide some tips on how to minimize the hatchet job I am witnessing. It is the same visceral response you would get if you saw someone trying to mug a senior citizen at the side of the road. Most of the injuries that are experienced by recreational runners are the result of a combination of poor running mechanics over too long a distance. Poor running technique typically involves greater degrees of flexion at the knees, hips and ankles, thereby increasing wear and tear of the joints over long distances. This is exacerbated by running on hard surfaces and $500 worth of high-end running shoes and orthotics will not significantly mitigate the impacts.

Education (or lack thereof) is the main issue at hand here. Like with many other necessary skill-sets that should be paid more attention (i.e. eating, communication skills, financial management, etc.), our formal education system does not appropriately prepare individuals for future application of these skills. While math, geography and biology are all important subjects, the physical education system does not properly prepare students to move efficiently. Running is considered a general conditioning method, as well as a punishment for various transgressions. Fatigue and a sore body are considered simply symptoms of a “good” workout. Run someone around the school yard with poor mechanics and, presto, you can be rest assured they will be tired and sore.

Teaching our youth to land on the forefoot with good posture results in better performance and less wear and tear. Their muscle tuning abilities are enhanced and they are better able to cope with higher volumes of running shoe they decide to pursue a recreational or competitive career in a running sport.

 

– Volume of training is not being properly managed by recreational and competitive athletes.

If you jog down the block with bad technique, the effects on the body will not be felt. However, if you run for 50 miles throughout the week, chances are you will notice some tender knees, hips and/or feet. The accumulation of poor technique will bite you in the butt. Even those with good running technique and expensive running shoes will not last long if they are constantly over-reaching in their training.

When volume is excessive, injuries to the feet and lower legs are common, including stress fractures and soft-tissue problems. Under fatigued conditions, the ability of the lower leg musculature to properly “tune” itself for foot contacts is greatly diminished. This results in harder impacts and a higher probability of injury.

 

– Many recreational runners are not integrating appropriate supportive strength and conditioning protocols.

The landing forces during running can be as much as three times the body weight of an individual. While the act of running can condition the body to manage these forces, appropriate strength and conditioning protocols can help to further mitigate impact forces. Vertical loading of the body through weight training can help to strengthen posture and improve lower body strength. A simple exercise such as squatting – either with body weight or an external load – can help to load the glutes, hamstrings, quads and calves. The connective tissue in the hip, knee and ankle joints will also undergo an adaptive response that strengthens the kinetic chain in both propulsive (concentric) and shock-absorbing (eccentric) movements. In addition, specific drills and plyometric exercises can help to not only develop good running mechanics, but also strengthen the legs and feet to behave in a more elastic fashion.

Runners that are looking to improve performance and injury resistance should first look to strengthening protocols before relying on a new pair of shoes to cure what ails them. Unfortunately, running is often promoted as an easy way to get in shape. Many times people are told that all they have to do to prepare for running is “buy a new pair of running shoes.” The truth is that preparation for running should include instruction on running technique, progressive strength training and a gradual increase in the volume and intensity of work when undertaking a training regime. While buying a new pair of running shoes may be required, it is probably one of the least important steps that will be taken in this process.

 

– Awareness of exposure to hard running surfaces must be improved among recreational runners.

The phrase “hitting the pavement” has been used irresponsibly in the running community. Paving stones and pavement were initially used to provide a stable and resilient surface for vehicles – not marathoners. Since we cannot provide Mondo track surfaces all around our communities, runners will have to suffer through longer distance runs on concrete and asphalt. However, we can mix up our running surfaces during training. Many runners think that if they will be competing on a paved surface, all their training must take place on the pavement. Not true. Boxers expect to be punched throughout their fights – some more than others. However, they are not continuously punched throughout their training sessions. Avoiding punishment in training is common sense – for both boxers and runners. Running on softer surfaces – like grass, turf, wood chips or rubberized track surfaces – for a good portion of your training will save your body from excess punishment. Additionally, some of the softer surfaces, like grass and wood chip trails, can help to strengthen your feet and ankles.

Expensive running shoes will not ensure that you are fully protected on paved surfaces, particularly as you accumulate significant mileage under your belt. Thus, you must be proactive in selecting alternative running surfaces to alleviate the stress of training for long distance events. You will find that when you return to pavement, you will have more spring in your step – without the hit to your wallet.

 

– Going barefoot for all your training is not the answer.

Many barefoot running advocates state that running shoes take us out of our natural running mechanics. Modern running shoes encourage heel-striking and result in greater impact forces on the body. While I agree with this assertion, I do not believe that everyone should throw out their running shoes and start training in bare feet. I am an advocate of teaching individuals how to run properly – even in their regular running shoes. Believe it or not, you can land on your forefoot when you run while wearing conventional running shoes. The shoes not only protect your feet from sharp rocks, broken glass and dog poop, they provide the necessary cushioning and support should you mis-step or fatigue and begin to land on your heels. If you do fatigue and lose your technique, the obvious course of action is to stop running and discontinue your training.

If you choose to go barefoot, I would suggest that you do it for sessions where you can be assured that your running surface is relatively safe (i.e. no glass, thumb-tacks, pot-holes or gopher holes). Well managed grass playing fields or modern turf fields are a good place to start. You many not choose to run your longer distances in these environments, but you can definitely carry out interval or speed workouts in relative comfort. You can also practice various running drills (i.e. marching, skipping and running high-knee drills) to reinforce good technique and build foot and ankle strength. Additionally, you can integrate low height plyometrics in bare feet in the form of multiple hops, skips or bounds to further enhance foot strength and elasticity. This barefoot work could be performed one to two times per week, with your longer running workouts taking place on other surfaces with your running shoes.

Other alternatives for barefoot running can include use of light-weight, form-fitting shoes such as the Vibram Five-Fingers product. These shoes fit like gloves for your feet, with your toes sliding into their own individual pockets. On their web site, Vibram states the following:

“FiveFingers footwear connects you to the earth and your surroundings in a way that is simply not possible in conventional shoes. It puts you in touch with the earth beneath your feet and liberates you to move in a more natural, healthy way. FiveFingers stimulate the muscles in your feet and lower legs to build strength and improve range of motion. Our customers report an increased sense of balance, greater agility, and visibly improved posture.”

 

While I have not tried the Vibram product, I feel that there is some validity to athletes using this type of footwear for a portion of their training. I would, however, be concerned that some individuals would over-use this product initially, creating stress issues for the feet and lower-legs. As with any significant change in footwear or technique, the initial stages of trials should be handled with caution, allowing for a “breaking-in” or adaptation period.

 

Concluding Remarks

As a result of Christopher McDougall’s article and my review of the recent research in muscle tuning, I have been paying closer attention to athlete behavior around their footwear choices and my selection of running surfaces for training. For softer surfaces, like grass and modern turf, I often opt for lower profile shoes with less cushioning so that the athletes can feel the ground and strengthen their feet. We will also do some running in bare feet, along with various drills and plyometrics, on grass and turf surfaces. The overall volume of such work is carefully managed to ensure that we do not create any overuse problems. I will always check with the athletes the day following our training session to determine if any foot soreness resulted.

I also make a point of telling athletes not to blow their bank accounts on footwear. Many of the athletes that I work with fall in the 18 to 25 year age range that is easily swayed by athlete endorsements and fancy marketing claims. I would rather they buy a number of pairs of shoes (for various uses – running, field work, weight training) for under $80 each rather than spend $200 on one pair. I spend many hours per week teaching athletes how to run properly so that they don’t have to rely on the shoes for injury prevention and performance. This concept is best described by the Chinese proverb: “Give a man a fish and he will eat for the day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” The irony is that most of the running shoes we buy are now made in China.

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