Saturday, February 25, 2012

When The Other Shoe Drops

"Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion" - Jack Kerouac

This rock rolling downhill - called the minimalist shoe movement - just keeps getting more out of control. Years ago, I read an excellent book by Malcolm Gladwell called The Tipping Point. I refer to it often. It's about how fads, movements, crazes, etc. all of a sudden become so popular, while other similar situations fall flat on their faces. Just what is that tipping point that puts something over the edge? Whatever it is, the barefoot...minimalist...natural...running movement is in full swing.

As many of you know by now, I'm not a great promoter of this development, as a runner, as a Physical Therapist, as an old fogey, long-time traditionalist marathoner and ultrarunner. First and foremost, I am a firm believer that whatever works for you, works for you... It's that simple. Hey , let me coin a phrase...if it ain't broke, don't fix it! Some can run barefoot, completely pronated with six toes on one foot and four toes on the other and do just great. Some folks can't get their feet out of their own way, and no amount of shoe technology is going to get them to glide down the road. Some folks can run marathons and others can't run a step! But, I do believe that there are more people who can run because of shoes than can't run because of shoes, which seems to be what some of these "Born to Run" followers want there torch to be.

So, let's look at this logically. The major minimalist argument is that the more minimal "the drop", the more you are forced to run with a gait that lands on the forefoot, or if you're really a clunker, than at least you'll land on your midfoot. The "drop" is the differential between the height of the heel and the forefoot and has become a more important factor in how some runners decide what shoes they want to buy, not necessarily what shoes work for them. In general, minimalist shoes have a 0-6mm of drop to allow for good forefoot articulation, while heel strikers are generally comfortable in 10mm+ drop shoes. Actually, many shoes have a drop of 14-15 mm. Essentially, that's almost like running on a downhill incline all the time. The idea with a higher drop is to encourage a heel strike to allow a rolling into a forefoot push-off. No question a more efficient foot strike will put less stress on the body and make you more efficient, but you can also develop a beautiful gait in the most clunky super corrective footwear just as easily as in Vibram Five Fingers.

Now, here's where the Physical Therapist side of me emerges. In traditional heel-strike running, the calf muscle's ONLY job is concentric work -- meaning contraction while shortening. This occurs as the calf shortens, plantar-flexing the foot and creating propulsion. In the more forefoot-strike style of running, the calf muscle has to do an entirely new job -- deceleration -- which is an eccentric action, meaning contraction while LENGTHENING. When your forefoot hits the ground, your calf has to lower you WHOLE body weight down onto the heel gently and then immediately do it's old 2nd job, which was lift your WHOLE body weight at the heel so you can push off and go forward. Translation: minimalist style running essentially DOUBLES the workload on the calf, and the new work is of a type with which the calf is relatively unfamiliar (eccentric contraction), since this action is not performed in traditional running style. This can cause an excessive load on the Achilles Tendon a thousand times EVERY MILE per foot. I'm not saying it'll happen, but it might be a good idea to Google "Achilles Tendinitis" just to familiarize yourself with the treatment. Most muscle and tendon injuries occur during ECCENTRIC muscle contraction. Why? Because most of us never train our muscles & tendons in this action, therefore our muscles & tendons are unprepared for and unprotected during these events. This is why most first-time Boston Marathoners destroy their quads on the first 16 downhill miles. Next time, they learn to do squats and train to run downhill before lining up in Hopkinton.

So, we come down to this. My contention is that too many runners are doing just fine, then read a book like "Born To Run" and decide "I want to run like my African ancestors". They don't realize that our ancestors probably also had some tribal members that could run down gazelles (elite hunters) and some that couldn't hunt down a one-legged turtle (back-of-the-pack hunters). If things are hunky-dorey, don't change for the sake of change. If you think the minimalist idea sounds like something you'd like to try, then PLEASE enter in to this brave new world carefully and gradually. Talk to a professional shoe-guy about how to transition from one type shoe to another. These guys WANT to sell you shoes, so they don't want you to get hurt and give up running - they want you to come back and buy more shoes. Also, they can set you straight on exactly what each shoe can, and can't do for you.

One last thing...looks can be deceiving too. Minimalist shoes don't necessarily have to have paper-thin soles - the aforementioned drop is the key. My savior shoes - Hokas - are commonly called "Clown Shoes" because of their HUGE soles. I wear them because I'm trying to decrease the pounding on my arthritic ankles, and they seem to be helping along those lines. BUT, in actuality, you can call them a minimalist shoe...their drop is only 4mm!!! How's that for a kicker? Maybe that's why my ankles feel better but my Achilles is sore. Oh well. Gotta go hunting...Where's that one-legged turtle?

Whatever shoes you are wearing, I hope they work for you, and if you have any questions, you know I'll see you on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

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