The human body was made to move and is capable of amazing physical feats. If we could just free ourselves from our perceived limitations and tap into our eternal fire, the possibilities are endless. Our bodies are incredibly adaptable machines that jump when you tell them to jump. When our mind says yes, the body obeys, through all sorts of past and present injuries that we may be carrying. This idea is 100% true, until that one day where everything comes to a smoking halt. For everything we do there is a payoff and in that payoff is a cost. When you want to enjoy using your body for many years, tapping into the complete physical potential that your amazing machine has to offer, it is vital that you are supporting your body. What I mean by supporting your body is constantly working towards instilling better movement patterns and maintaining your body’s function by listening and understanding what it is asking for.
According to one of the most prominent evolutionary theories, the Running Man theory, humans have evolved as the greatest land marathoner on the planet. It was our ability to sweat and use persistent hunting techniques that helped us get extra protein in our diet, ultimately making our brains grow. This is said to have all happened around 1.4 million years before the first hunting tool was created. I’m sure you’re now wondering what I am getting at. Simply; We were born to run and for millions of years before any running shoe was ever invented, we were doing all of this running barefoot.
So if our amazing machine has evolved to run barefoot why do we wear running shoes?
The rise of modern running shoes really began with the idea that comfort is the most important thing for people. So shoe companies started to fuse nice soft EVA foam under people’s feet, really because it felt nice. Yes, I am saying that there is no research to show that this support and cushioning under your foot has any performance benefits or plays any role in decreasing injury rates, really it is just because it feels nice. To add to this, they realised that running downhill requires much less effort, so they created a ‘Drop’ or ‘Offset’ in your running shoe, generally around 8-12mm. This is the elevation from your heel to your toe and is designed to make your foot feel like you are running downhill all the time. This is quite a large change for the body considering our feet are incredibly sensitive and it is the nerves in the feet that give our body all it’s feedback on where we are in time and space. It is these additives to people’s feet that have changed the way we run forever and in a space of 40 years arguably altered our machines that took millions of years to develop.
Running downhill is technically very different to running on flat or uphill. When your going down hill your body wants to maintain control and keep your speed in check. To do so it applies the perfectly designed human running break – the heel. If our running shoes are making our feet feel like we are running downhill all the time, then whenever we run we are applying the brake to keep our speed in check. The most common mistake in people’s running technique is that they are landing with their heel hitting the ground first, ‘Heel Striking’, as they run. This is not only incredibly inefficient, but by Heel Striking we are putting 10x our body weight in force through our ankles, knees, hips and lower back with every step. We are also unable to engage our natural shock absorption system – the Achilles Tendon. In my years of technical running coaching, I often worked with people who complained they couldn’t run because it would hurt one of these major joints, and when I would then watch them run, I could see that it looked very painful, with lots of load going through these areas.
What does this mean – do I have to throw away my running shoes and wear those sexy 5 finger shoes?
NO! Although it is one option, that is not what it means at all. Firstly and most importantly you want to go to work on your running technique. You want to make sure you’re unlocking the full range in your hip flexors and getting a good runners forward lean so that your strike lands under you hip to avoid Heel Striking. At the same time you’re correcting your running form, you should be working to strengthen your feet. The best ways to do this are walking on grass/sand barefoot or investing in a pair of ‘minimalist shoes’ which are shoes that have minimal cushioning under foot and are what we call Zero Drop (no elevation from heel to toe). There is a clear process to retraining your mechanics to allow you to run more efficiently and in doing this, will benefit your whole body rather than loading it with poor movement patterns. The same way squatting has very specific techniques to avoid injury, running has very similar principles (considering running is a lot of half repetition single leg squats).
What if I am not interested in Running?
These principles are consistent for all of our bodies movements. Any weight lifter will tell you it’s better to squat barefoot or with flat shoes as it allows you to connect with the ground, optimising power output. Training outdoors, it is essential that we are wearing some form of footwear. But it is very important we know what the differences are in the types of shoes we wear and how that will affect our movement.