Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Run & Race

I just picked up this month's Run & Race mainly for the narcissistic reason that they have included a photo of me from the training camp I went on in Morocco recently:

There were a couple of genuinely interesting articles on running shoes. Now, when people ask me for recommendations for running shoes, I often start off by saying that there are basically two paths that you can take. The easy one is to have your gait analyzed and be recommended shoes and possibly even orthotics based on whether you are a pronator or supinator. The harder path, and the one that very few people I know have chosen, is to retrain your gait and go for minimalist or "barefoot" running shoes, relying on your own natural cushioning from the arch of your foot, the pronation of the foot and the elasticity of the Achilles tendon. These two paths are pretty much orthogonal to each other so you can't really try one of them out before deciding which to follow. If you choose "minimal" then you have to make a big commitment to reconditioning your muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones to a completely different set of stresses and strains. This means building running up again from scratch, something that few people are prepared to do and that others do not have the patience to stick to. And there is nothing wrong with that. You can perfectly well go down the path of orthotics and motion control shoes with lots of cushioning but you should be aware that you are creating a dependency, rather like someone who needs to take sleeping pills to sleep at night.

 I mention all this because there were two articles back-to-back that appeared to be saying completely the opposite of each other. On closer reading, they both made a lot of sense only that one was for those traveling along the path of motion control shoes and the other was for those traveling along the path of minimalist shoes.

"The truth about running shoes"
The first article was actually written by the guy who recommended I should run with orthotics and who had some custom ones made for me to run in. With these orthotics I could then choose "neutral" running shoes because the orthotics would correct my tendency to overpronate. With hindsight I can see that this was just a patch to correct the fact that I was running with poor technique, with shoes that encouraged me to heel strike (and therefore overpronate) and with weakness in the supporting muscles of my feet and lower legs. On the other hand, just like taking a pill, it worked. The pain I was getting in my ITB (isquiotibial band) immediately subsided and it was only months later that knee pain forced me to choose the other path. Apart from the ostentatious title "The truth about running shoes", I can appreciate that what he says applies to the majority of runners who are not prepared to go down the same path as I did.

"Minimalist shoes - are we ready?"
I was excited to see an article in a running magazine about minimalist shoes that was not an attempt to pass off lightweight racing flats from major brands off as such (unlike the review sections in Runner's World, for example). It's a shame that it has taken two years since I first came across them for it to appear - one would expect the running magazines to be ahead of the curve - but it doesn't take to much imagination to understand why this might be. I wasn't too surprised to see that the author of the article was actually Jonathan, my trainer. In the first paragraph he mentions the impact that the book "Born to Run" (only recently translated into Spanish) has had. In fact, I was the one that gave him that book a couple of years ago! As I would expect from Jonathan, it's a very well balanced article that avoids the evangelical side typical of those of us who have chosen the path of minimalist shoes and instead emphasizes the point that the adaptation to the different style of running that this entails can take a long time. I remember him saying to me in Berlin where he was running the Marathon and I was not (due to my foot being in an airboot for precisely not allowing time for adaptation) something that he also closed the article with, that "perhaps 37 years of wearing shoes can undo millions of years of evolution". In other words, it may be that our feet are amazing works of engineering that have evolved to allow us to run for hundreds of kilometers unshod but that doesn't mean that we can ignore the adaptations our bodies have made in the short space of our lifetime to wearing shoes.

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