Removing myths about buying shoes.

Christmas, the time of giving (and receiving), has come and gone, and no doubt some / many runners have received money/ vouchers etc for sports shops or shoes.

Even if you were not that lucky, the New Year (tomorrow J ) is seen by many (incorrectly) as the new season and the time to buy shoes… so perhaps this is an excellent time to consider some of the errors, traps, and marketing myths that are used to deprive us of our hard-earned cash simply to put us into shoes that we should not be considering.

It is often said that running is one of the simplest of sports because all you need is a pair of shorts, a vest or T-shirt (particularly the women) socks and a pair of shoes.

Thanks to major marketing, runners have had their minds boggled by the technology, ‘science’ and urban mythology when it comes to buying the correct shoe, but in reality the process is not that hard.

Professor Tim Noakes in his excellent book, Challenging Beliefs, has pointed out how big business frequently manipulates ‘science’ and ‘fact’ to support particular concepts and products. The running shoe industry is no exception and he references a major company introducing the idea of excessive pronation as a cause of running injuries, which some years later he agrees is very unlikely to have a major influence in injury rate. That myth was so strongly propagated by the industry, and Tim’s credibility is so valued, that we still have an unnatural level of sales in control shoes, and retailers, sales assistants and so also runners who continue to believe this myth.

So lets go back to basics.

Importantly there are effectively only two purposes of shoes:
A) to protect your feet from sharp or dangerous objects, (thorns, stones, glass etc) and B) to provide some level of cushion to cater for the hard concrete, tar, tile and other unforgiving surfaces. In most other respects the best ‘tools’ for running are your feet, which were evolved over millions of years, and it is correct we were ‘Designed or Born to Run’.
As with any range of sizes large population about 5-10% of us will be outside the norm with regards to our running motion. Typically this is over-pronation, (excessive rolling in) or Supination (excessive rolling out), which in some circumstances may require a few runners to require additional control in a shoe.
This is a massively different proportion to the 65% plus of control shoes that were being sold in the 1990’s

The vast majority of us should be looking for a flexible light shoe with a nominal difference in height between the heel and midfoot, which normally would not be greater than 10 or 12 millimetres. (This is known as the drop and most people can work in the 8mm-11mm range)

Despite what you may read the natural running style is to land on, or just behind, the ball of the foot, which is that padded area behind the toes. If you doubt this try taking your shoes off and run on grass for 20-30 metres.
This action is, of course, different from walking, which is a heel to toe action. The faster you run the further forward you land, which is why Usain Bolt lands on spikes on the very front of his shoes.

When landing on your mid or forefoot the effect of pronation and supination is significantly reduced.

The problem with many shoes (mistakenly) sold to runners is that they have a greater drop from a high heel and this forces the runner into a heel toe action.

In addition many of these shoes are rigid (do not flex under the arch of the foot), which forces the runner to land flat-footed. Not only does this prevent a natural action it can cause shin splints, knee problems, and takes much more energy to run. The very action of slapping down a rigid plank from heel to toe will throw a vibration up the front of the leg so the only option for the runner is to place the whole plank down in one stepping action. This puts the body’s centre of gravity behind the landing point.

There is a place for such shoes, which force people to “Jog”, which is a low effort propulsion between walking and running made popular in USA in the running boom of the 1980’s.

The American and South African markets are very different in size, weight and running ability. Anyone running faster than 8 minutes per kilometre (the pace required to complete Comrades in 12 hours) is definitely a runner. Only around 50% of American marathon finishers achieve that level, whereas almost 100% of South Africans will match that or equivalent performance at shorter distances.

It is best and important to learn to run correctly from the beginning and with a novice’s / beginners run and walk programme, this is easy to achieve as the run periods are short enough to focus on style. As the programme evolves so too does your length of focus on style.

However many runners reading this will have had years of running in this rigid shoe style. It is essential that any transition to a more natural style is achieved slowly and progressively. The first step is to introduce a more flexible shoe, even if it has a similar heel to midfoot drop. This will give the Achilles, calf, and foot muscles an opportunity to adapt and strengthen. The best is to use this more flexible shoe for the short quality sessions, then gradually extend the length of the runs it is used for.

As the adaptation process takes effect a shoe with a lower drop (12 or 10 mm) can be introduced. Suddenly there will be an improvement in the momentum of your running and times will start dropping.

To re-emphasize the need is for a basic flexible shoe with minimal rigidity and a medium to low drop. Remember that until mid 1980’s the shoes worn by all runners were either canvas gym / tennis taakies, or thin nylon topped shoes.
Despite the move through rigid high-heel shoes over the past 2 decades, there has been a change by almost every manufacturer to a more flexible range of models in what they offer in South Africa.

Over five years ago the great Zola (Budd) Pieterse introduced the Newton shoes, which have raised pods under the ball of the foot to assist runners to re-learn a natural running style.

Be aware of obvious flaws when assistants or others offer analysis of your shoe and running style.
A standing appraisal of your foot gives indications of mechanics, but what happens standing on two feet is frequently very different from what happens when the body is launched from one foot to another single landing. The effect of imbalances right up the body come into play.
Similarly, when runners are asked to run in rigid shoes that force a flat foot style the chances of being branded a pronator / supinator are very high. The results will be different to being allowed to run bare foot or in thin lightweight shoes, which will give a far better indication of the natural imbalances.

In short be aware of all running assessments that do not include bare foot (or near barefoot) running, and actual running analysis, and with specialist running experience.

Any recommendation to get rigid orthotics or anything other than minor wedges should generally be only considered under review, particularly if proposed for use with a rigid or “control” shoe or shoe with a drop greater than 12mm.

Even if you are part of that 5-10% who overly pronate or supinate you are still best advised to find a comfortable flexible lightweight low drop shoe and then to have the podiatrist or bio put minimal wedges into the inner so as to bring excessive movement into the normal range.
Keep in mind that evolution over millions of years has provided us with the correct tools for the job: They are called FEET.
Our feet are miraculous and encompass a phenomenal biomechanical spring in the arch of our foot.

It is undeniable logic that the shoes we wear should allow us to make maximum use of the foot’s natural characteristics, not restrict, nor enforce unnatural movement.

Ironically, the more efficiently you run, the amount of wear is reduced, and that major myth – ‘that shoes need replacing every 800km’ – is seen to be ridiculous.. A shoe can last years until the upper falls apart of the outer sole wears through!

I have shoes from the 1990’s that are still able to be used – but IF I was involved in selling shoes, then perhaps my Scottish heritage would kick in, — perhaps I too would be telling runners to buy new shoes every 800k, or perhaps 500k, or perhaps after every race! – just depending how many I wanted to sell!!!

Do yourself a favour, like Professor Noakes, Challenge the Myths and beliefs and allow yourself to be the runner you were meant to be!