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can your shoes help you run faster?

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time to ditch your adidas microbounce plus trainers for neutral to underpronating runners, with lightweight heel-to-toe bounce technology, etc etc - it's all just a load of expensive shite unless you're deeply into the status doo-doo

time to ditch your adidas microbounce plus trainers for neutral to underpronating runners, with lightweight heel-to-toe bounce technology, etc etc – it’s all just a load of expensive shite unless you’re deeply into the status doo-doo

Some years ago, when I was a bit more financially solvent than I am these days, I went to a gym for a while, and even employed a personal trainer. I learned from that experience, thanks to some simple exercises the trainer put me through, and my own quick development through these exercises, that, once I’d gotten this kick start, I didn’t need the expense of a gym, or a personal trainer for that matter, which is just as well, as I soon went broke and abandoned both.

Since then I’ve been using a combo of my trainer’s tips and some CSIRO-recommended exercises to stay moderately in shape at home, happily far from the sight of buffed-up men hefting obscene weights, not to mention bubble-butted women with sweat sparkling from their flawless sun-tinted flesh..

Anyway, one of the things that sometimes worried me when I turned up for gym was my footwear. I noticed that most of the inhabitants wore all the ‘right’ gear including what looked like the latest state-of-the-art top-brand ‘gym shoes’ or running shoes or whatever. I wore a pair of $10 canvas slip-ons, and I always expected the trainer to query them, though I’d also heard or read somewhere that all these expensive ‘scientifically tested’ exercise shoes were a load of malarkey, and you’re possibly better off with good old-fashioned plimsolls, or even nothing at all…

So it was with some interest that I listened to a little segment on a recent science show podcast, dealing precisely with this subject. An English researcher, Mick Wilkinson, who’s also a keen amateur runner, has been looking at running barefoot v running shod, and he ran a half-marathon barefoot in 2011 just to test things out. He came out of it more or less unscathed in spite of some less than barefoot-friendly surfaces.

As to the evidence, much of it was a summary of what a Professor Lieberman of Harvard has found, findings published in Nature and a recent issue of New Scientist. Basically, Lieberman has found that we are born – that’s to say, evolutionarily adapted – to run, considering our skeleton and muscles, and issues of endurance and heat loss (the latter being an obvious consideration in going barefoot). An analysis of ‘peak impact forces and the rate at which those forces are absorbed by the body’ indicates that barefoot running, because it favours a ‘forefoot landing’, a type of foot strike pattern that’s associated with ‘a lower loading rate’ (presumably meaning less overall pressure), is less jarring than its alternative.

Looking at joint movements and rotational forces around the ankles and the knees, the evidence is that, with barefoot running, forces around the ankles are increased, forces around the knees are decreased. This is very interesting to me, as I stopped jogging years ago because one of my knees would stiffen up every time I did it. I was running in fairly basic running shoes, but more importantly to my mind I was running on a hard gravel track. Years later when I did a bit of jogging on grass I didn’t have a problem. Generally though I hate jogging and much prefer cycling, with a nice café at the end.

But what about the effect on the ankles? According to Lieberman the evolution of structures on the rear of the leg, the Achilles, the calf and the soleus (a powerful muscle in the lower calf) have generally evolved to cope with these stresses on the ankle region. More research needs to be done, but there are some pretty serious difficulties, as Wilkinson points out:

So we’ve got biomechanical aspects linking forces, we know that forces are theoretically linked to some kinds of injuries, but that’s where it stops. What is missing is the next piece of the puzzle which would be the randomised control prospective studies examining injury rates in people who are learning to run barefoot, people who are learning to run in shoes. But the design of the study would be so complex, it would be prohibitive. I mean, you’d have to get people who were matched for training history, matched for age, matched for injury status. In fact it would probably be better to start off with people who had never run at all and just say, right, randomly allocate you into a group who are going to learn to run in shoes, you’re going to learn to run barefoot, and then track them over a very long period of time to find out what injury rates are per so many thousand miles. But again, it’s so difficult to operationalise a study like that, probably why one hasn’t been done.

In any case these studies wouldn’t so much answer the question of whether you run faster in shoes, as whether you run better – that’s to say, with less general impact on the body. It, not quite the same thing, though they are connected. And obviously there are hazards in running barefoot in modern urban environments. But there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to support all the advertising claptrap trying to get you to buy ultra-expensive running shoes. In fact, there’s been little noticeable difference in times for running marathons – the real test for shoes v bare feet – in spite of, not only high-tech footwear but all the other-high tech analysis in terms of diet, running technique and so forth. Wilkinson tells us that the American distance runner Steve Prefontaine still holds the American marathon record from the early seventies (Prefontaine was killed in a car crash in 1975, aged 24), and he always wore a standard pair of plimsolls.

So it looks like another case of advertising, and dare I say pseudo-science, winning out over the evidence..

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Written by stewart henderson

October 1, 2013 at 12:01 pm

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