PJ Fitness: Did Nike Tear Your ACL?

Among all the modern fitness conventional wisdom and habit which has been debunked over the past decade – led by Crossfit founder, trainer Greg Glassman, and his novel approach of actually seeing what works before telling his clients to do it – easily the most disheartening is that you’ve probably been screwing up your body before you even leave the house, and you’ve been spending a crapload of money to do it.

If you run regularly and stay abreast of the latest in the sport – or if you read the New York Times Book Review, which for the first time ever has brought some truth to this world (sigh…) — you’re likely aware of the “barefoot” or “minimalist” running movement. To get you up to speed if you aren’t: it’s exactly what it sounds like.

While it inherently presents as yet another “holistic,” “spiritual,” “wellness,” “politically correct narcissist” fad, it isn’t. Evidence — solid, objective evidence, not the “consensus” kind — and common sense are piling up in support of the minimalist shoe movement: cushioned, corrective running shoes have turned running into one of the world’s most predictably injurious activities by creating a biomechanically degenerative stride. They also cost a lot.

Here’s a good link to start with. Once you’re through, peruse anything you can find online about Dr. Nicholas Romanov and POSE running, and take a look at Christopher McDougal’s (NYT bestseller) Born To Run.

Here’s the basic technique (which actually doesn’t need to be taught, as by taking your shoes off and running you will automatically make the necessary corrections. It’s simply too painful to continue running improperly):

  1. Take off your shoes.
  2. Run in place. You will notice that you are landing on the balls of your feet, and not your heels. Because that would hurt.
  3. Now … wait for it! … lean forward.

What is it about cushy shoes that messes all of this up? It’s the strike point of your foot with the ground. Barefoot, you land on your forefoot. With cushy shoes, you come down on your heel. What’s the problem? Consider — how long have humans been:

a) Running with a forefoot strike?

Since approximately 200,000 B.C, late Pleistocene, when “Anatomically Modern Humans” originated in Africa:

b) Running with a heel strike?

Since 1972:

1972 saw the release of the Nike Cortez, the company’s first running shoe. For the first time, runners had a shoe designed with significant cushioning underneath the heel, a development that most athletic shoes you’ve encountered over your lifetime have continued with. Here’s the Cortez:

This shoe cushioned the severe discomfort of running with a heel strike, which — when barefoot — sends approximately three times your bodyweight of force into your heel and up to your knee. Runners lengthened their stride and went with the heel strike, because they didn’t have to worry about landing softly anymore.

But that’s not what your evolution-designed body was meant to do, as is evident by the barefoot test above. You should land on your forefoot because your ankle is already a brilliantly designed shock-absorber: the ball hits, and your arch — like an arched bridge with a keystone — doesn’t fail like a flat foot would. Dorsiflexion occurs, the shock absorbing process, as the various muscles in your rear calf stretch like a spring. Then, just as your heel is about to crash down, comes the beautiful part: you’re already lifting your heel back off the ground, primarily using your hamstrings and hip flexors, for the next stride. No damaging heel impact jamming your tibia into your knee.

What should you be wearing instead of what’s in your closet? The benefit of athletic shoes lies in protection, not correction. The Converse Chuck Taylor does exactly that, and is worthwhile for a host of athletic activities: a slab of thick rubber under your foot, some rubber on the toe so you don’t stub them. It’s a good shoe. They are heavy though, and you can still get by with much less for running.

I’ve worn these for about three years. Yeah, they look nuts, but my left knee used to hurt, and now it doesn’t. They weigh almost nothing, have 2 to 4 mm of rubber on the bottom, and that’s it. Additionally, I just love being able to feel the world with my feet again — experiencing all the cracks in the sidewalks, the marble steps of a museum. You’ll get it if you try it. I also wear them at the gym almost exclusively:

They won’t fit everybody, though — they don’t yet have a model for folks whose second toe is longer than the first.

What else can you try? Several companies are marketing barefoot, minimalist options now — just look them up and try them. Also, look for “racing flats,” those feather-light running shoes that were previously only intended for race day on a cushioned track. They are actually the right idea for training, too. Merrell has a line of minimalist trail shoes that may even be suitable for court sports. Tread lightly here, though, as the friction of a tennis court may still be too much for these, you are still probably better off in Chuck Taylors. The Merrell’s are expensive, too. Another option for courts is skateboarding shoes, which are flat and tough.

Just see what works, and be sure to ease into it. You won’t have the right stride yet, plus your feet have likely atrophied from being coddled since 1972, so you’re primed for injury if you just jump right into a barefoot 10K.

But get off the cushy soles as soon as you can. Your knees and your wallet will be pleased.