Running is a natural therapeutic sport every human body was designed to do.
Our anatomy was built to go the long distance. Whether you be a sprinter or an endurance runner, the day of no longer being able to race is a scary one.
Whether out of preparation or pure panic, cautious runners invest in the latest and greatest sneakers to support their form and protect their joints. Despite doing at least three 5Ks per week and replacing my soles every two years, I’m still running incorrectly.
Gazing down at the profile of my foot, I’m pretty sure ballet masters wouldn’t cast me in Swan Lake any time soon. Fallen arches like mine are considered a cosmetic defect as it causes the foot to overpronate. “Flat-footed” even means clumsy in ballet slang as dancers with sagging arches have a harder time straightening their legs.
Overpronators absorb more shock than relief during what we think is a good run, but that burning sensation is actually inflammation in the lower limbs. Pain isn’t necessary gain here. The figure below illustrates how this works doesn’t work.
If I had wanted to fight in World War II, the military would have refused to recruit me because of this inconspicuous deformity. (New York Times, 1990). To compensate for greater odds of injury, I regularly invest in padded soles as suggested again and again by running buddies. But after trailblazing in my last investment for only a few months, I continue to get spotted for overpronating while wearing them. (Le sigh…)
No design of inherent support has actually proven itself to reduce instances of injury. So why do I continue to pay for what’s failing to correct what’s wrong? It was only until now I came across a report that states a pair of sneakers can exert stress on the joints more than a pair of high-heeled shoes. Although traditional running shoes like mine typically have denser midsoles and built-in material to prevent excess motion at the ankle, these safeguards can weaken the foot over time. Have I been abusing my own legs for all these years?
Human evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman of Harvard University is probably looking down on me in shame. Unlike many other anthropologists who study human movement, Lieberman is an avid barefoot runner who advocates minimalistic running through his scientific research.
He conducted case studies observing more than 200 shod (with shoes) and unshod runners (without shoes). Individuals were from the United States and Kenya, an ethnic minority making up only 0.06% of the world’s population yet dominates most international long-distance races (The Atlantic, 2012).
Lieberman’s research differs from other studies as his variables were tested in a natural environment rather than on a treadmill in a lab. It is for this detail I appreciate what and how he broke down his control groups below:
His research team observed foot-strike pattern and running gait (landing on either the heel, mid-foot, or forefoot). Kinematic and kinetic variables like impact force, loading rate, and joint angles were also measured. Lieberman concluded runners who hit the ground on their forefoot landed with less force and far greater efficiency than their heel-striking counterparts.
While modern running shoes afford greater comfort for a rear-foot strike, it does very little to mitigate the greater impact of this strike.
This is nothing new. A lot of pre-existing literature explains the biomechanics in great depth, but often getting lost in anatomical diagrams and lengthy paragraphs understood by any sports scientist but not every running enthusiast. My illustraton above might show what’s happening, but then how does the problem get resolved?
When visiting a sports shop, a salesman often observes a customer’s run before prescribing a pair of sneakers. But this interaction between the bottom of the foot and ground is a just small percentage of one’s gait cycle. Before splurging on the next new soles, make sure someone takes a closer look at your knees and ankles during your consultation. These two joints control people’s center of gravity and happen to be where hyperextension often occurs, causing a majority of injuries of the 36 million people who run every year.
With hyperextension, runners often have a higher center of gravity that coverts little impact into forward or ‘rotational energy’. Instead, a runner wastes that energy by shooting it upward through the body. By flexing their ankle in the right orientation, runners control their loading rate and peak impact force. Barefoot Kenyans have a plantarflexed ankle before the foot comes in contact with the ground, creating a low-impact push-off. The toes are pointed away and slightly downward to optimize velocity. Shod runners often have dorsiflexed ankles, pulling the toes too far back that promotes a heel-strike landing.
Between cushion traditionalists and midfoot-strikers, barefoot runners were reborn out of several diagnoses that continue to be debated amongst scientists and athletes. Be no fool that performance will differ in everyone. After speaking with my brother who wears his FiveFinger shoes when we go out for dinner, strengthening one’s foundation and flexibility is absolutely critical when trying anything new.
It would be stupid to start training without understanding, scheduling, and expecting a slow transition.
From abundant sweat glands to Achilles tendons, the human body is tuned as a beautiful running machine. Maybe I’ll never outlast a horse on a long-distance track but aiming to race until the end of my time is a good goal to have. Let that be a dream of this flat-footed girl.