I just finished an exhilarating book entitled Born to Run. The author makes the extraordinary claim that running shoes are actually harming us, and we should all be running barefoot. And he actually convinced me.
The book tells the true story of an American who, due to a nagging running injuries, travels deep into Mexico to discover the secrets of a hidden tribe of super-runners called the Tarahumara. This tribe runs for hundreds of miles at a time without getting injured in nothing but sandals. So how is it that we, with all our modern technology, are always getting injured while running?
The book is part true-life adventure story, part anthropology, and part running biography. For those of you that have read the excellent Into Thin Air by Krakauer, it has the same gripping narrative style. As the story opens the author, Christopher McDougall, tracks down Caballo Blanco a shadowy American who has relocated to Mexico and spends his days running through the desert hills with the Tarahumara.
Caballo Blanco introduces McDougall to the shy Tarahumara and the author begins to unravel their secrets. He arrives at the following “painful truths” of running.
Painful Truth #1: The Best Shoes And the Worst
Buying more expensive shoes will protect you from running injuries. Right? Wrong. McDougall reveals the following shocking statistic:
Runners wearing top-of-the-line trainers are 123 per cent more likely to get injured than runners in cheap ones. This was discovered as far back as 1989, according to a study led by Dr Bernard Marti, the leading preventative-medicine specialist at Switzerland’s University of Bern.
He goes on to describe how there are more running injuries now than there ever were. Back in the day, runners used cheap canvas shoes, and had many less injuries. In fact, injuries started to skyrocket when Nike introduced and promoted the first running shoes.
Some elite coaches have already figured this out and have begun rejecting the fancy shoes.
Stanford coach Vin Lananna had already spotted the same phenomenon.’I once ordered highend shoes for the team and within two weeks we had more plantar fasciitis and Achilles problems than I’d ever seen.
So I sent them back. Ever since then, I’ve always ordered low-end shoes. It’s not because I’m cheap. It’s because I’m in the business of making athletes run fast and stay healthy.’
So if that’s what works for the elites, why not for us? Don’t we need padded running shoes to protect our feet?
Painful Truth #2: Feet Like a Good Beating
The book goes on to describe how all of that extra padding has done nothing to protect our feet from the impact and instead often makes it worse by overcorrecting.
McDougall cites the following study:
Dr Steven Robbins and Dr Edward Waked of McGill University, Montreal, performed a series of lengthy tests on gymnasts. They found that the thicker the landing mat, the harder the gymnasts landed. Instinctively, the gymnasts were searching for stability. When they sensed a soft surface underfoot, they slapped down hard to ensure balance. Runners do the same thing. When you run in cushioned shoes, your feet are pushing through the soles in search of a hard, stable platform.
‘Currently available sports shoes are too soft and thick, and should be redesigned if they are to protect humans performing sports,’ the researchers concluded.
So if less padding is better, what about no padding?
Painful Truth #3: Human Beings are Designed to Run Without Shoes
Man has run for thousands of years with little or no shoes. In fact, many tribes today (including the Tarahumara) run hundreds of miles with only thin sandals. The human foot was made to run on its own:
Your foot’s centerpiece is the arch, the greatest weight-bearing design ever created. The beauty of any arch is the way it gets stronger under stress; the harder you push down, the tighter its parts mesh. Push up from underneath and you weaken the whole structure.
In other words, adding support under an arch actually weakens it. In the same way, adding undue support via thickly padded shoes weakens your feet. Nike actually admitted as much when they created their Nike Free line of shoes that had little padding and were created to “strengthen the foot muscles.”
As cited in the book:
When shoes are doing the work, tendons stiffen and muscles shrivel. Work them out and they’ll arc up. ‘I’ve worked with the best Kenyan runners,’ says Hartmann, ‘and they all have marvelous elasticity in their feet. That comes from never running in shoes until you’re 17.’
At this point, you may be convinced as I was that there is something to this barefoot running, but how in the world can we try it out with sharp rocks and broken glass all over our neighborhood sidewalk? Enter Vibram Five Fingers:
They may look a little strange, but they simulate barefoot running while still giving your foot the protection it needs to run in our modern world. They received the Time Best Invention of 2007 and are widely promoted by hardcore barefoot runners including the famed Barefoot Ted who’s worn them in ultramarathons.
Not only is a great read, but this book challenges everything we’ve been taught about running.
It ends with a magical race through the Copper Canyons of Mexico pitting the best of the Tarahumara against the best ultramarathon runners in the US. After you finish it, you’ll want to rip off your shoes and run for hours into the setting sun. Highly recommended!
The human foot is a work of art and a masterpiece of engineering.
—Leonardo Da Vinci