Running and the Evolution of Shoes

Running season is well and truly upon us. As the FEAT Community, we are getting involved with a bunch of different runs in the near future, from Sydney Trail Running Series Manly Dam Run, Ultra-Trail Australia, Sydney Morning Herald Half Marathon and the big one later in the year City2Surf. With the love of running being a consistent theme in our love of the outdoors and our training style, I thought it important to tackle look at some of the mechanics and important markers of running.

I have said it before, but 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, taping 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 bodies 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 marathoners 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 (which is also the title of an awesome book that you should read) 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 peoples 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 (unless you're looking at Kipchoge and the Nike Vaporfly) or plays any role in decreasing injury rates, really it is just cause 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. It is these additives to peoples feet that have changed the way we run forever and in a space of 50 years arguably altered our machines that took millions of years to develop.

Running downhill is technically very different from running on flat or uphill. When you're going downhill 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 fell like we are running downhill all the time, then whenever we run we are applying the break to keep our speed in check.

The most common mistake in peoples 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 that Barton & Rob always wear to training?

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 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 underfoot 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.

*Note - Before taking any action on your footwear, please ask your trainer and we can chat this through. I will also be able to connect you with the Pace crew who are running shoe specialists.

Minimalist Vibram Five Finger Shoes