Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Some interesting thoughts on running form

I just wanted to point to a couple of interesting things I'd come across today on running form.  It is weird how what was once a strange underground phenomenon in the darker recesses of the internet has become almost mainstream.  There are now loads of minimal / zero drop / barefoot shoes on the market, as the shoe manufacturers spotted a new market to exploit.

A colleague at work was out for a walk at lunchtime today and - remember it is the depths of a cold snowy winter - when he came back he said that he'd seen a guy out running on the street barefoot.  Then when I was on my own way home tonight, I saw a couple running towards me both with Vibram 5 fingers on.

All this minimal / barefoot stuff has hit the mainstream and those of us that were highlighting it years ago have been proved right.....or have we?

Nothing is ever as simple as that.  There is undoubtedly a marketing opportunity in minmal shoes - if that is where the demand is then supply will pop up to meet it....just as i did when people were being sold motion control shoes.  But there is more...with Born to Run and the research of Daniel Lieberman we thought that the biomechanical argument and the anthropological argument was over.

Now however up pops more research (Variation in Foot Strike Patterns during Running among Habitually Barefoot Populations) that muddies the waters.

These results indicate that not all habitually barefoot people prefer running with a forefoot strike, and suggest that other factors such as running speed, training level, substrate mechanical properties, running distance, and running frequency, influence the selection of foot strike patterns.

It is not as black and white as we always like to make it.  We get so dogmatic about everything!  It is not necessarily being barefoot that leads to a forefoot strike....but speed, cadence, distance etc.

The NY Times piece on the research makes a good conclusion:

“Mostly what we’ve learned” with the new study, he said, “is how much still needs to be learned.” 

I am sure that Socrates said something similar...

Anyway, all this ties in with a podcast I was listening to today on the way to work.  It includes an ultrarunner who regularly does the 95mile West Highland Way Race in Scotland and other 100+ miles events.  He talks about foot care, both shoes and how to prevent blisters.  He talk on shoes is really interesting as it brings together some of these ideas:

  • shoe choice and depend on terrain
  • shoe choice can depend on distance
  • foot strike is more about cadence - shorter strides make a forefoot strike more natural
  • some shoes prevent a fore foot strike and some styles of gait can make a fore foot strike harder to achieve
The podcast can be downloaded from West Highland Way Race Podcasts   and you want  no 30 which features Andy Cole on Foot Care.  



Stuart Gilbert said...

You are so right about the shoe companies rushing to meet even the slightest sniff of a demand in the market, it's almost insidious, but that's business I suppose.
The most galling thing about it is that the minimalist shoes are supposed to be about removal of the technology, and a simplifying of the shoe. Yet the price of them matches anything that went before. it's the same way that old running shoe designs are now on the shelves, but marketed as fashion trainers, selling for more than they did when they first appeared. I can see how the industry is awakening the cynics in people like ourselves.

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Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Your right Stuart - it's crazy that shoes designed to reflect barefoot running can be so expensive.

Although businesses do a good job in raising awareness of barefoot or minimal running, it's a little amusing that we would be making these discoveries ourselves if we keep experimenting with moving barefoot on different terrains and at varying speeds etc. I think the forefoot/ midfoot landing is probably a great starting point but not the be all and end all of BF running.

Stuart Gilbert said...

I also get to feeling that in the traditional use of barefoot running, by various tribes people, it was never designed for maximum performance. Maybe over that short sprint distance when chasing or being chased, but certainly not over longer distances. When moving at various speeds, over various terrains the forefoot / midfoot was probably used as a feeler to test the ground, a bit like a dog or cat gingerly paws strange new surfaces. With a heel strike it would be impossible to re adjust if the surface was not ideal, because bodyweight and line of force would have fully committed the runner to the step. I know the Olympic marathon has been won barefoot.....( Tokyo '64 if my memory serves me well ).....but I read somewhere that it is unlikely that there will be a whole raft of "barefoot" runners winning races. I'm fine with this anyway ( as should most people be ) because even in my competitive running days, I was never a contender...and now I don't "run" competitively anymore ( it's more like a slow trot...unless I do some sprints..which I love..reminds me of being a kid always surprises me that adults feel like it is almost too childish to sprint, the adult thing is to just plod along, and get slower )..I just run for health ( so not too far or too often ) and fun and peace of mind / relaxation.

Doug McGuff, MD said...


It amuses me how you are amused that shoe companies rush to "meet even the slightest sniff of a demand in the market", as if this is a problem. It is not a problem, it is almost a miracle.

Pricing is what allows this miracle to happen. It is marxist doctrine that pricing should be predicated on the amount and cost of material and the labor. These are minor factors that must be covered in price, but the real determinant of price is demand relative to supply. As demand rises (insert paleo geek internet meme) price will go up. As price goes up, other producers will enter the market and increase supply so that prices will fall. My first scientific calculator cost $250 dollars (1980 dollars).

If you find this as a reason to be cynical, perhaps you should just go barefoot all the time....which is where you would be if it were not for capitalists "exploiting" new markets.

Stuart Gilbert said...

Having read a lot of what you have written, I'm honoured that you have taken the time to respond to my post...even if it is to offer a You have made a fair point, and I am aware of the supply and demand principle. The trouble is, the shoe companies waited for the demand to be there, to be discovered by others, before responding to it. Places like Nike have multi million dollar research labs. Could they have not come up with these "discoveries" first? Probably not. Because it would have taken away from the motion control stuff they were peddling.
I don't doubt that in a capitalist society that the law of supply and demand is king. But as we say in my neck of the woods...these companies are never backwards and coming forwards at any chance to exploit a market and overcharge the customers.
Just want to say again, thanks for the response. I really like the stuff that you have written.

Stuart Gilbert said...

The other thing that struck me Doug, was how much does the public fuel the law of supply and demand, and how much is driven by business and industry. I'm pretty sure that increasing running shoe developments haven't been purely driven by public awareness. Some past innovations did not even register in the public's consciousness I'm sure till thought of by the shoe companies. Nike Air and Reebok Hexalite spring to mind here.
Let's take fashion, both sport and general as an example, or cars for that matter. If industries weren't drivers, as opposed to the public's awareness , wants and needs then there would be no need for New York and Milan fashion week, and the various motor shows with their concept cars....

Stuart Gilbert said...

...and here is further evidence to support the charge against shoe manufacturers trying to fleece the public via the minimalist issue. They used bogus science to persuade us to wear motion control shoes, now the same thing is being done with the new minimalist trend......
Recent studies demonstrating mechanical differences between barefoot and shod running have led to unsubstantiated claims regarding the benefits of barefoot running for running-related injury prevention. Whilst the majority of competitive runners continue to wear shoes, manufacturers have taken the initiative in designing a ‘minimalist’ shoe in order to replicate such favourable dynamics. The purpose of the current study was to determine if running in a minimalist shoe imitates the mechanics of barefoot running.

Ground reaction forces and kinematic data were collected from 22 highly trained runners whilst running barefoot and in three shod conditions (minimalist shoe, racing flat, and the athlete’s regular shoe). Significant differences were observed for kinematic and kinetic outcomes at the ankle and knee between barefoot and shod conditions, with no differences between shod conditions. Specifically, barefoot conditions resulted in less knee flexion during midstance, along with less dorsiflexion at initial contact.

Such findings suggest that ‘minimalist’ shoes do not replicate the dynamics of barefoot running, and are conversely similar to that of conventional running shoes. Therefore, prescription of minimalist shoes as a mechanism to change running mechanics may not be justified > Bonacci et al.; Br J Sports Med. (2013) article in press. All rights reserved to BJSM.