Thoughts on Running Shoes and Form

Dec 23 2011

For the last half of this year, I’ve been on a quest to improve my running form. Yes, it was sparked by reading “Born to Run”. And yes, I went out and bought a pair of Vibrams. Actually ran in the things 3-4 times, but didn’t get too caught up in the hype.

I’ve never been totally able to buy into the barefoot running trend. I think there’s a lot of positive things about it, but a bit too much pseudoscience and blind devotion to the practice by a lot of its followers for my taste. I compare it to the human eye. I believe as much as we were born to run, we were born to see. Like the foot, the eye is an amazing organ, seemingly engineered to perfection for its given task. But that doesn’t mean that anyone who wears glasses should throw them away. Nor does it imply that years of eyeglass wearing is responsible for people having poor eyesight. Or that learning how to look at things “correctly” is going to magically restore everyone’s eyesight to 20/20. On the other hand, though, it doesn’t mean that because a lot of people do need to wear glasses, everyone should go around wearing high powered prescription bifocals 24/7 either.

Getting back to running, I think it’s obvious that barefoot, ultra-minimal running is not for everyone. But in the race to win and keep market share by releasing new and improved models every year, I do think that shoe makers have piled on the padding and cushioning and space age materials far beyond what most people really need, invoking every bit as much of pseudoscience in the opposite direction.

Somewhere in between the barefoot fanatics and the over-the-top marketing of shoe manufacturers, I believe there is a decent middle ground. Which brings us to …

Form

Read about barefoot/minimal running for more than a page and you’re guaranteed to hear about heel/midfoot/forefoot striking. The idea is that many people overextend our leading leg when running, crashing down on our heels. We can only get away with this because of our over-cushioned shoes absorbing the impact. Or at least absorbing enough to that it doesn’t instantly cause our heels to explode in pain. But that impact still jolts upward through the ankles, shins, knees, and hips, causing more long term problems.

This makes sense to me. And in my few runs in my Vibrams it was obvious that I was adjusting my stride to avoid slamming down directly on my heels. Having only run on my own, never having a coach or any kind of instruction on how to run, I had no doubt that my running form could most certainly use improvement. And this “natural” running form seemed like the direction in which to go.

This summer, I read two books:

Natural Running, by Danny Abshire

and

Chi Running, by Danny Dreyer

I recommend reading them both. In terms of the basic form guidelines, both boil down to very similar principles, including a forefoot/midfoot strike, slight forward lean, landing under your center of gravity, and increased cadence. Natural Running seems to use up a few too many chapters going over case studies and running biology, trying to convince you that the technique is solid. Chi Running comes across on the far end of new-age/spiritual, to the point where I had to force myself to read on a couple of times. But if that doesn’t bother you too much, or you can mentally gloss over it, you’ll find a ton of down to earth, practical advice on how to improve your running form, probably more so than in Natural Running.

I didn’t realize when I got the book, that Danny Abshire is one of the founders of Newton Running, makers of Newton running shoes. Thus the book is to some degree a sales pitch for the shoes, but not as bad as you might expect. At any rate, as a sales pitch, it worked for me. So this past July, I went out and bought a pair of Newtons. Newton shoes have a low heel and these four lugs across the mid foot. This makes it all but impossible for you to really heel strike.

Newtons

Throughout the summer, I wore the Newtons and put into practice what I’d been reading about natural running form. By the end of August, my heel striking ways were in my past. My arches were also pretty damn sore.

The thing about changing your form is you start using different muscles in different ways, and putting stress on different parts that aren’t used to such stress. The solution is to take it slow, but even so you run the risk of overdoing some specific part. For me it was the arches, particularly in the right foot.

And Not Newtons

At the end of August, I switched back to my Asics GT-2160’s. I was happy to see that even without the Newtons, I was no longer heel striking. After a few weeks, my form still seemed pretty good, and the arch pain had subsided. Around the same time, I bought a pair of New Balance Minimus. These are a very minimal shoe. Very light, little cushioning, only a 4 mm drop from heel to toe. I started running a couple of short runs a week with them. My plan was to slowly transition over to something more minimal like that.

In October, I ran my second half marathon, in 1:49, my dream time. The next day, my arches flared up again. Though I continued to run only in the Asics, the arch pain continued for several weeks, but is finally subsiding again.

Googling this led me to believe that it was either plantar fasciitis (inflammation of the tissue on the bottom of the foot that connects the heel to the toes) or just pain due to my flat feet. PF usually winds up in heel pain though, which I was not getting, so I’m thinking it is just overstressing my weak arches with the new form.

New Shoes

This week, my latest Asics built up towards the 350 mile mark. Time for a new pair. Since I’ve been running, almost all of my shoes have been in the Asics GT line – a few each of GT-2140, 2150, and 2160s. I was looking into the 2170s, but really felt I should be trying something else. In addition to flat feet, I have large, wide feet. Probably related conditions. I’ve been most comfortable in 12.5 in width 4E. Try to find that in stock in any store (you won’t). So I’d order the Asics on line, knowing that they worked pretty well for me. But I don’t want to just get Asics for the rest of my life. So somehow had to bite the bullet and try something new.

I went to the Brooks Running site and tried their shoe finder. There are two routes you can go with it. One, to put in what you are currently wearing, and they’ll suggest something similar. This route suggested the Brooks Adrenaline GTS 12. OK. The other route asks for your height, weight, how much you run, how fast, various foot mechanics, etc. This wound up suggesting the same shoe. Brilliant! For all I know, it always suggests that same shoe for everyone no matter what they put in, but it all seemed to make sense to me. Went out the the store today and tried on a pair. Did something new and went up a half size to 13, and down a width to 2E. They felt great. I bought them. Got home and took them for a four mile run. They felt amazing. Fastest run I’ve done since my half marathon. I’m happy with them.

Future

I would still like to move into a more minimal shoe like the Minimus. I did take them on a 4 miler earlier this week and they felt good. I’m going to work them slowly back into my routine with a short run once a week. If I could get to the point in the next year or so where I was wearing something like that full time, I’d be happy. But we’ll take it one week at a time.

Results

Oh, and it’s always nice to see concrete proof of your efforts. When I’m running now, it definitely feels like I have a nice fore/mid foot strike going on. I don’t feel any heel impact. But maybe I’m just fooling myself, right? so today I picked up my outgoing Asics and looked at the bottoms. With all my past shoes, the heels were destroyed. Like someone had gone nuts on them with a sanding belt. This time, none of that. The most wear is right there in the mid foot, just where I thought it should be. The heels are almost like new. Bingo!

2 responses so far

  • Artur says:

    shopping around to find a new pair of runners right now, google directed me to your website, odd I found so many commonalities. 2160, chirunning, flat and wide foot, large size, pf, assume you are moderate overpronator :) I’m thinking about adrenaline too. Has you experience changed for last two months our you are still happy with Brooks?

    • keith says:

      Happy with the Brooks so far. Having read more and more, I’m not sure how much I buy into the whole “overpronation” thing. So much pseudo-science on both ends of the spectrum. I think it makes sense though to get by on the least shoe you need. I’ve been working towards minimal for many months but still can’t do very much in my NB Minimus. I hope to work on that more this spring and early summer as I don’t have any serious training going on.

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