Every now and then a very thought-provoking article comes along and shakes up conventional thinking in a lively way.
The New York Times Magazine ran such an article last November about the rapid rise in injuries suffered by runners over the last few decades despite significant advances in running show technology.
It was called “The Once and Future Way to Run” by Christopher McDougall and offered up the radical notion that running barefoot is healthier for the feet, legs, and body than running with the latest and greatest “running shoes”.
McDougall is a persuasive writer:
I’d gone into Mexico’s Copper Canyon to learn from the Tarahumara Indians, who tackle 100-mile races well into their geriatric years. I was a broken-down, middle-aged, ex-runner when I arrived. Nine months later, I was transformed. After getting rid of my cushioned shoes and adopting the Tarahumaras’ whisper-soft stride, I was able to join them for a 50-mile race through the canyons. I haven’t lost a day of running to injury since.
The technique he apparently re-discovered can be boiled down to not landing each foot on its heel. This is not easy to do, but its advocates, such as Mark Cucuzella (“a physician, a professor at West Virginia University’s Department of Family Medicine and an Air Force Reserve flight surgeon”) are true believers:
If he continued to run, his surgeon warned, the arthritis and pain would return. Cucuzzella was despondent, until he began to wonder if there was some kind of furtive, Ninja way to run, as if you were sneaking up on someone. Cucuzzella threw himself into research and came across the work of, among others, Nicholas Romanov, a sports scientist in the former Soviet Union who developed a running technique he called the Pose Method. Romanov essentially had three rules: no cushioned shoes, no pushing off from the toes and, most of all, no landing on the heel.
Once Cucuzzella got used to this new style, it felt suspiciously easy, more like playful bouncing than serious running. As a test, he entered the Marine Corps Marathon. Six months after being told he should never run again, he finished in 2:28, just four minutes off his personal best.
The thing I love about this story is that it sets up a potentially explosive battle with Nike Corp., the running shoe colossus that has built a fortune selling ever-more advanced running gear. Can you imagine what would happen to Nike if avid runners switched en masse to barefoot style running?
Naturally, Nike has no choice but to retaliate against this movement. But it reminds me of the corporate villain in the movie Michael Clayton (a masterpiece, by the way), where the company in question has a choice of either defending itself vigorously against a lawsuit claiming it poisoned countless people or facing the truth (in the story, the corporation knows it is guilty of environmental atrocities) and slitting their own throats in court.
If you were an executive at Nike and discovered that your shoes actually led people to have more, not fewer, injuries, what would you do? But does the article go as far as to implicate Nike directly? Almost…
The belief in the need for cushioning and pronation control, he told me, was, in retrospect, “completely wrong thinking.” His stance was seconded in June 2010, when The British Journal of Sports Medicine reported that a study of 105 women enrolled in a 13-week half-marathon training program found that every single runner who was given motion-control shoes to control excess foot pronation was injured.
This is fairly damning, isn’t it? But they must rebut…
At a Runner’s World forum I attended before the Boston Marathon in April 2010, [Cucuzella] told the story of how he bounced back from a lifetime of injuries by learning to run barefoot and relying on his legs’ natural shock absorption. Martyn Shorten, the former director of the Nike Sports Research Lab who now conducts tests on shoes up for review in Runner’s World, followed him to the microphone. “A physician talking about biomechanics — I guess I should talk about how to perform an appendectomy,” Shorten said. He then challenged Cucuzzella’s belief that cushioned shoes do more harm than good.