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Chapter 25
BAREFOOT TED was right, of course.

Lost in all the fireworks between Ted and Caballo was an important point: running shoes may bethe most destructive force to ever hit the human foot. Barefoot Ted, in his own weird way, wasbecoming the Neil Armstrong of twenty-first-century distance running, an ace test pilot whosesmall steps could have tremendous benefit for the rest of mankind. If that seems like excessivestature to load on Barefoot Ted’s shoulders, consider these words by Dr. Daniel Lieberman, aprofessor of biological anthropology at Harvard University:

“A lot of foot and knee injuries that are currently plaguing us are actually caused by peoplerunning with shoes that actually make our feet weak, cause us to overpronate, give us kneeproblems. Until 1972, when the modern athletic shoe was invented by Nike, people ran in verythin-soled shoes, had strong feet, and had much lower incidence of knee injuries.”

And the cost of those injuries? Fatal disease in epidemic proportions. “Humans really areobligatorily required to do aerobic exercise in order to stay healthy, and I think that has deep rootsin our evolutionary history,” Dr. Lieberman said. “If there’s any magic bullet to make humanbeings healthy, it’s to run.”

Magic bullet? The last time a scientist with Dr. Lieberman’s credentials used that term, he’d justcreated penicillin. Dr. Lieberman knew it, and meant it. If running shoes never existed, he wassaying, more people would be running. If more people ran, fewer would be dying of degenerativeheart disease, sudden cardiac arrest, hypertension, blocked arteries, diabetes, and most other deadlyailments of the Western world.

That’s a staggering amount of guilt to lay at Nike’s feet. But the most remarkable part? Nikealready knew it.

In April 2001, two Nike reps were watching the Stanford University track team practice. Part of aNike rep’s job is getting feedback from its sponsored runners about which shoes they prefer, butthat was proving difficult at the moment because the Stanford runners all seemed to prefer …nothing.

“Vin, what’s up with the barefooting?” they called to Stanford head coach Vin Lananna. “Didn’twe send you enough shoes?”

Coach Lananna walked over to explain. “I can’t prove this,” he explained, “but I believe when myrunners train barefoot, they run faster and suffer fewer injuries.”

Faster and fewer injuries? Coming from anyone else, the Nike guys would have politely uh-huhedand ignored it, but this was one coach whose ideas they took seriously. Like Joe Vigil, Lanannawas rarely mentioned without the word “visionary” or “innovator” popping up. In just ten years atStanford, Lananna’s track and cross-country teams had won five NCAA team championships andtwenty-two individual titles, and Lananna himself had been named NCAA Cross Country Coach ofthe Year. Lananna had already sent three runners to the Olympics and was busy grooming morewith his Nike-sponsored “Farm Team,” a post-college club for the best of the very best. Needlessto say, the Nike reps were a little chagrined to hear that Lananna felt the best shoes Nike had tooffer were worse than no shoes at all.

“We’ve shielded our feet from their natural position by providing more and more support,”

Lananna insisted. That’s why he made sure his runners always did part of their workouts in barefeet on the track’s infield. “I know as a shoe company, it’s not the greatest thing to have asponsored team not use your product, but people went thousands of years without shoes. I thinkyou try to do all these corrective things with shoes and you overcompensate. You fix things thatdon’t need fixing. If you strengthen the foot by going barefoot, I think you reduce the risk ofAchilles and knee and plantar fascia problems.”

“Risk” isn’t quite the right term; it’s more like “dead certainty.” Every year, anywhere from 65 to80 percent of all runners suffer an injury. That’s nearly every runner, every single year. No matterwho you are, no matter how much you run, your odds of getting hurt are the same. It doesn’tmatter if you’re male or female, fast or slow, pudgy or ripped as a racehorse, your feet are still inthe danger zone.

Maybe you’ll beat the odds if you stretch like a swami? Nope. In a 1993 study of Dutch athletespublished in The American Journal of Sports Medicine, one group of runners was taught how towarm up and stretch while a second group received no “injury prevention” coaching. Their injuryrates? Identical. Stretching came out even worse in a follow-up study performed the following yearat the University of Hawaii; it found that runners who stretched were 33 percent more likely to gethurt.

Lucky for us, though, we live in a golden age of technology. Running-shoe companies have had aquarter century to perfect their designs, so logically, the injury rate must be in free fall by now.

After all, Adidas has come up with a $250 shoe with a microprocessor in the sole that instantlyadjusts cushioning for every stride. Asics spent three million dollars and eight years—three morethan it took the Manhattan Project to create the first atomic bomb—to invent the awe-inspiringKinsei, a shoe that boasts “multi-angled forefoot gel pods,” a “midfoot thrust enhancer,” and an“infinitely adaptable heel component that isolates and absorbs impact to reduce pronation and aidin forward propulsion.” That’s big bucks for sneaks you’ll have to toss in the garbage in ninetydays, but at least you’ll never limp again.



“Since the first real studies were done in the late ’70’s, Achilles complaints have actually increasedby about 10 percent, while plantar fasciitis has remained the same,” says Dr. Stephen Pribut, arunning-injury specialist and past president of the American Academy of Podiatric SportsMedicine. “The technological advancements over the past thirty years have been amazing,” addsDr. Irene Davis, the director of the Running Injury Clinic at the University of Delaware. “We’veseen tremendous innovations in motion control and cushioning. And yet the remedies don’t seemto defeat the ailments.”

In fact, there’s no evidence that running shoes are any help at all in injury prevention. In a 2008research paper for the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Dr. Craig Richards, a researcher at theUniversity of Newcastle in Australia, revealed that there are no evidence-based studies—not one—that demonstrate that running shoes make you less prone to injury.

It was an astonishing revelation that had been hidden in plain sight for thirty-five years. Dr.

Richards was so stunned that a twenty-billion-dollar industry seemed to be based on nothing butempty promises and wishful thinking that he even issued a challenge:

Is any running shoe company prepared to claim that wearing their distance running shoes willdecrease your risk of suffering musculoskeletal running injuries?

Is any shoe manufacturer prepared to claim that wearing their running shoes will improve yourdistance running performance?

If you are prepared to make these claims, where is your peer reviewed data to back it up?

Dr. Richards waited, and even tried contacting the major shoe companies for their data. Inresponse, he got silence.

So if running shoes don’t make you go faster and don’t stop you from getting hurt, then what,exactly, are you paying for? What are the benefits of all those microchips, “thrust enhancers,” aircushions, torsion devices, and roll bars? Well, if you have a pair of Kinseis in your closet, braceyourself for some bad news. And like all bad news, it comes in threes:

PAINFUL TRUTH No. 1: The Best Shoes Are the WorstRUNNERS wearing top-of-the-line shoes are 123 percent more likely to get injured than runnersin cheap shoes, according to study led by Bernard Marti, M.D., a preventative-medicinespecialistatSwitzerland’sUniver(a) sity of Bern. Dr. Marti’s research team analyzed 4,358 runners inthe Bern Grand-Prix, a 9.6-mile road race. All the runners filled out an extensive questionnairethat detailed their training habits and footwear for the previous year; as it turned out, 45 percenthad been hurt during that time.

But what surprised Dr. Marti, as he pointed out in The American Journal of Sports Medicine in1989, was the fact that the most common variable among the casualties wasn’t training surface,running speed, weekly mileage, or “competitive training motivation.” It wasn’t even body weight,or a history of previous injury: it was the price of the shoe. Runners in shoes that cost more than$95 were more than twice as likely to get hurt as runners in shoes that cost less than $40. Follow-up studies found similar results, like the 1991 report in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercisethat found that “Wearers of expensive running shoes that are promoted as having additionalfeatures that protect (e.g., more cushioning, ‘pronation correction’) are injured significantly morefrequently than runners wearing inexpensive shoes (costing less than $40).”

What a cruel joke: for double the price, you get double the pain.

Sharp-eyed as ever, Coach Vin Lananna had already spotted the same phenomenon himself back inthe early ’80s. “I once ordered high-end shoes for the team, and within two weeks, we had moreplantar fasciitis and Achilles problems than I’d ever seen. So I sent them back and told them, ‘Sendme my cheap shoes,’” Lananna says. “Ever since then, I’ve always ordered the low-end shoes. It’snot because I’m cheap. It’s because I’m in the business of making athletes run fast and stayhealthy.”

PAINFUL TRUTH No. 2: Feet Like a Good BeatingAS FAR back as 1988, Dr. Barry Bates, the head of the University of Oregon’sBiomechanics/Sports Medicine Laboratory, gathered data that suggested that beat-up runningshoes are safer than newer ones. In the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, Dr.

Bates and his colleagues reported that as shoes wore down and their cushioning thinned, runnersgained more foot control.

So how do foot control and a flapping old sole add up to injury-free legs? Because of one magicingredient: fear. Contrary to what pillowy-sounding names like the Adidas MegaBounce wouldhave you believe, all that cushioning does nothing to reduce impact. Logically that should beobvious—the impact on your legs from running can be up to twelve times your body weight, soit’s preposterous to believe a half inch of rubber is going to make a bit of difference against, in mycase, 2,760 pounds of earthbound beef. You can cover an egg with an oven mitt before rapping itwith a hammer, but that egg ain’t coming out alive.

When E. C. Frederick, then the director of Nike Sports Research Lab, arrived at the 1986 meetingof the American Society of Biomechanics, he was packing a bombshell. “When subjects weretested with soft versus hard shoes,” he said, “no difference in impact force was found.” Nodifference! “And curiously,” he added, “the second, propulsive peak in the vertical ground reactionforce was actually higher with soft shoes.”

The puzzling conclusion: the more cushioned the shoe, the less protection it provides.

Researchers at the University of Oregon’s Biomechanics/Sports Medicine Laboratory wereverifying the same finding. As running shoes got worn down and their cushioning hardened, theOregon researchers revealed in a 1988 study for the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports PhysicalTherapy, runners’ feet stabilized and became less wobbly. It would take about ten years beforescientists came up with an explanation for why the old shoes that sports companies were tellingyou to throw away were better than the new ones they were urging you to buy. At McGillUniversity in Montreal, Steven Robbins, M.D., and Edward Waked, Ph.D., performed a series oftests on gymnasts. They found that the thicker the landing mat, the harder the gymnasts stuck theirlandings. Instinctively, the gymnasts were searching for stability. When they sensed a soft surfaceunderfoot, they slapped down hard to ensure balance.

Runners do the same thing, Robbins and Waked found: just the way your arms automatically flyup when you slip on ice, your legs and feet instinctively come down hard when they sensesomething squishy underfoot. When you run in cushioned shoes, your feet are pushing through thesoles in search of a hard, stable platform.

“We conclude that balance and vertical impact are closely related,” the McGill docs wrote.

“According to our findings, currently available sports shoes … are too soft and thick, and shouldbe redesigned if they are to protect humans performing sports.”

Until reading this study, I’d been mystified by an experience I’d had at the Running Injury Clinic.

I’d run back and forth over a force plate while alternating between bare feet, a superthin shoe, andthe well-cushioned Nike Pegasus. Whenever I changed shoes, the impact levels changed as well—but not the way I’d expected. My impact forces were lightest in bare feet, and heaviest in the Pegs.

My running form also varied: when I changed footwear, I instinctively changed my footfall.

“You’re much more of a heel striker in the Pegasus,” Dr. Irene Davis concluded.

David Smyntek decided to test the impact theory with a unique experiment of his own. As both arunner and a physical therapist specializing in acute rehabilitation, Smyntek was wary when thepeople telling him he had to buy new shoes were the same people who sold them. He’d beenwarned forever by Runner’s World and his local running store that he had to replace his shoesevery three hundred to five hundred miles, but how was it that Arthur Newton, one of the greatestultrarunners of all time, saw no reason to replace his thin rubber sneakers until he’d put at leastfour thousand miles on them? Newton not only won the 55-mile Comrades race five times in the1930s, but his legs were still springy enough to break the record for the 100-mile Bath-to-Londonrun at age fifty-one.

So Smyntek decided to see if he could out-Newton Newton. “When my shoes wear down on oneside,” he wondered, “what if I just wear them on the wrong feet?” Thus began the Crazy FootExperiment: when his shoes got thin on the outside edge, Dave swapped the right for the left andkept running. “You have to understand the man,” says Ken Learman, one of Dave’s fellowtherapists. “Dave is not the average individual. He’s curious, smart, the kind of guy you can’t BSreal easy. He’ll say, ‘Hey, if it’s supposed to be this way, let’s see if it really is.’”

For the next ten years, David ran five miles a day, every day. Once he realized he could runcomfortably in wrong-footed shoes, he started questioning why he needed running shoes in thefirst place. If he wasn’t using them the way they were designed, Dave reasoned, maybe that designwasn’t such a big deal after all. From then on, he only bought cheap dime-store sneaks.

“Here he is, running more than most people, with the wrong shoe on the wrong foot and not havingany problems,” Ken Learman says. “That experiment taught us all something. Taught us that whenit comes to running shoes, all that glitters isn’t gold.”

FINAL PAINFUL TRUTH: Even Alan Webb Says “Human BeingsAre Designed to Run WithoutShoes”

BEFORE Alan Webb became America’s greatest miler, he was a flat-footed frosh with awfulform. But his high school coach saw potential, and began rebuilding Alan from—no exaggeration—the ground up.

“I had injury problems early on, and it became apparent that my biomechanics could cause injury,”

Webb told me. “So we did foot-strengthening drills and special walks in bare feet.” Bit by bit,Webb watched his feet transform before his eyes. “I was a size twelve and flat-footed, and nowI’m a nine or ten. As the muscles in my feet got stronger, my arch got higher.” Because of thebarefoot drills, Webb also cut down on his injuries, allowing him to handle the kind of heavytraining that would lead to his U.S. record for the mile and the fastest 1,500-meter time in theworld for the year 2007.

“Barefoot running has been one of my training philosophies for years,” said Gerard Hartmann,Ph.D., the Irish physical therapist who serves as the Great and Powerful Oz for the world’s finestdistance runners. Paula Radcliffe never runs a marathon without seeing Dr. Hartmann first, andtitans like Haile Gebrselassie and Khalid Khannouchi have trusted their feet to his hands. Fordecades, Dr. Hartmann has been watching the explosion of orthotics and ever-more-structuredrunning shoes with dismay.

“The deconditioned musculature of the foot is the greatest issue leading to injury, and we’veallowed our feet to become badly deconditioned over the past twenty-five years,” Dr. Hartmannsaid. “Pronation has become this very bad word, but it’s just the natural movement of the foot. Thefoot is supposed to pronate.”

To see pronation in action, kick off your shoes and run down the driveway. On a hard surface, yourfeet will briefly unlearn the habits they picked up in shoes and automatically shift to self-defensemode: you’ll find yourself landing on the outside edge of your foot, then gently rolling from littletoe over to big until your foot is flat. That’s pronation—just a mild, shock-absorbing twist thatallows your arch to compress.

But back in the ’70s, the most respected voice in running began expressing some doubts about allthat foot twisting. Dr. George Sheehan was a cardiologist whose essays on the beauty of runninghad made him the philosopher-king of the marathon set, and he came up with the notion thatexcessive pronation might be the cause of runner’s knee. He was both right and very, very wrong.

You have to land on your heel to overpronate, and you can only land on your heel if it’s............
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