Let's talk about shoes, because they’re the culprits for many running issues I encounter - or at least the development of them. It’s time to realize that your shoes with the high stack height and nice cushy foam, all that “comfort” is breaking you down as a runner even as they likely advertise that they’re helping you keep from breaking down.
If you were a rock climber, would you climb in big puffy insulated winter ski gloves to protect your fingers from the rock? Of course not. As a climber your lifeline is your fingers, not only to feel the rock in a precise way, but also, how you use your fingers directly helps engage your forearm and shoulders for strength. So it would be silly to use gloves, as you would not be able to grasp the rock and perform without the risk of a fall. This is very similar to how our feet stabilize our body and help activate other important muscles when running, like our glutes. Yes, our feet dictate how well we use our glutes. And putting on big cushion pillows as shoes has a similar effect to our running as it does climbing with gloves. The super shoes, the cushion, the stack height, take away our foot’s ability to feel the ground and stabilize, which is our lifeline as runners.
Our Feet Are Our Super Shoes
I’m not a barefoot and minimal running purist who believes that you should run this way twenty-four/seven. Barefoot - or what I call natural running - has its purpose, particularly in strength exercises and run form practice - and for the purpose of this article, run strength. Running naturally is a great way to feel how your toes and arch stabilize our feet and our body as we run. It’s also a great way to build strength and muscle endurance that can be the most functional type of conditioning we do as runners.
But I am a coach, one who helps runners perform well in races in mountains and very long distances on road and trail. Most runners are not strong enough to run in minimal or natural shoes for longer than 15-20 minutes before breaking down. And it's very hard to train and perform appropriately without adequate protection for your feet. The Tarahumara Indian runners know to wear some kind of protection while traversing their rugged terrain over hundreds of miles.
Photo Credit: Luis Escobar
There is protection; then there is the kind of shoes that have gargantuan heels and stack height. They might feel comfortable, but they are problematic for lots of reasons: They inhibit the natural movement of your foot; they don’t allow you to engage your foot for stability or proper muscle activation up through the leg; and they elevate the heel. By taking away all of your proprioception and feel of the ground, the big shoes make it difficult to execute proper foot strike form, you have to almost force yourself to have a good forefoot strike, and even then, it is hard for your feet to stabilize and your calves aren’t engaged completely because your heel hits the ground too soon.
This means you’re not getting the stability and muscle activation you need from your forefoot to your knees to the glutes. This is a vicious cycle when tens of thousands of steps are involved in training and racing. Equally bad, when you heel strike, the calves do not fire as they should, which translates into a loss of power, elasticity, and an overstressing of the quads. You know the drill, tight hips flexors, tight IT Band, a speed or improvement plateau, and all the muscle tightness we have been brainwashed to think is normal - all from our inability to use our feet well.
Photo Credit: Eric Orton
Our calves act as loaded springs, storing and releasing energy as we jump or run. The calves need to be loaded (or what I call “on stretch”) to release this energy, giving us a springy feeling. This can’t take place in high, off the ground shoes. With the invasion of the super foam in today’s super shoes, the shoe industry is trying to manufacture this elastic energy with the use of carbon plats and very responsive foamed midsoles. And guess what, from all indications, they work and are making runners faster. It's no mistake that these companies are putting the carbon, propulsion plates into the forefoot of the shoe - which if you don’t believe in forefoot strike run form, this should convince you, as they do not engineer them into the heel. Records are being broken, but there is some indication that the performance gains are only real at very fast speeds. And if you wonder what destruction they are causing to your body, checkout many of the video clips on Youtube of the elites racing in the super shoes and notice the excessive pronation that occurs. This shuts down our glutes and over-stresses the quads and hip flexors, causing all sorts of muscle tightness.
Cushion Vs. Stability
Is there a perfect shoe? I’m not so sure, but I do know that if we begin to view our shoes as “tools” our perspective changes and that our shoe choice doesn't have to be an all or nothing approach. Furthermore, if we embrace the idea that our run health begins with the strength of our feet (link to foot strength article), we can then use a natural shoe as a strength tool to enhance our performance, strength and health. A natural shoe has a very thin, low to the ground sole that is flexible, with a zero drop, where there is no difference in height between the heel and toe. This kind of “performance” shoe allows for proper forefoot engagement with the ground, awareness of form, stability through the toes and foot, and the lengthening of the calves to act as a spring. By running in them, you foster foot strength and muscle equilibrium through the body, because you are able to use your feet and body better.
Look again at the Tarahumara runners. They run hundreds of miles in old tire treads cut to fit their feet, nothing more securing them than a leather strap between their toes and around their ankle. They have run this way from childhood, but you can benefit just the same by using a natural shoe as a strength based tool. The Kenyan runners start out running barefoot as a child, that develops foundational strength in their feet and legs that is no less important as their speed development as they mature.
Photo Credit: Eric Orton
Many of my ultra running athletes use this strength approach. I have coached Margot for almost 20 years. She was a triathlete who had some pesky injuries when we first started working together. We attacked her foundation by training her feet and infusing the use of a minimal, low to the ground, natural shoe for some of her runs. Every step can be an opportunity for strength.
The strategy is to use a natural shoe for some runs and use a more protective shoe for longer and faster runs. And then through time, as the athletes develop more and more strength and capacity for lower to the ground shoes, they are able to run their longer runs and races in a more natural shoe, based on the protection and their tolerance needed for the terrain and distance. Ideally, this process is never ending, you just get stronger and stronger, and lower to the ground.
We know strength training is beneficial for runners. And you might also realize the importance of speed training to improve your running performance. But we don’t have to go to the gym or the track every day to achieve these benefits. The approach here is no different with a natural shoe. A little bit of running in them goes a very long way towards improving strength in a very potent way.
This was my goal for Margot. Through our natural shoe strength development approach, she was eventually able to race the Tor des Geants 200 mile mountain race in Europe. She went into the race much stronger and injury free, and was able to race in a low to the ground, 4mm drop shoe that gave her great performance agility and feel of the ground. And this course was no joke, with 100,000 feet of elevation gain over the 200 miles. As a 50 year old athlete, Margot placed 17th overall female and 2nd women US finisher.
Photo Credit: Margot Watters
Strong From The Ground Up
But if you’re still not sure, just try it. Experiment with a zero drop, low profile shoe. Feel how much easier it is to feel the ground and use your feet for stability and how much stronger you become as a runner.
But don’t just toss out your old shoes. Remember the minimal shoe is a strength tool and you will have to take the transition slowly because you’ll be firing and using muscles you are not used to using - which is the point. The shoes will feel GOOD, and that is where runners get into trouble, they do too much too soon because it feels so good.
Here are a few ways to incorporate a natural shoe into your weekly running to help with the transition:
Improve Your Natural Running
What to look for in a natural shoe:
- Zero drop platform.
*Not every zero drop shoe is created equal. There are some very high stack height, cushioned shoes that are zero drop but are not minimal or natural in performance.
- Flexible Midsole/Outsole with a stack height of approx 10mm or less.
Natural Running Goal:
- Build up to 1-2 days of short, easy natural strength running.
- As your strength capacity improves, look to reduce the stack height and drop of your “everyday” shoe. As your feet get stronger, they will prefer more natural movement and your everyday shoe might start feeling uncomfortable, this is your signal to choose an everyday shoe that has more natural shoe qualities, like less cushion and stack height.
- Use a casual natural shoe for work and walking about your day. Now you are adding strength all day long.
Run strong, to run long.