Who knew that "Born to Run" is a book as well as a song? I happen to love both. But today I am talking about the book by Christopher McDougall. However, if you need a classic Bruce Springsteen fix, go here.
The book is about the Tamahumara Indians, who run long distances barefoot without injury. Even if you don't believe in the concept of barefoot running, and there are plenty who don't, it's a grand adventure story about a foot race through the Copper Canyons of Mexico.
Some might call it pseudoscience, but the author discusses the running shoe industry and how all the cushioning, especially in the heels, has actually made us more prone to injury. The padded shoes encourage a heavy heel strike at impact. Barefoot running proponents say we should be trying for a mid-foot strike, which not only reduces injuries but also makes us faster.
The book helped spawn a barefoot running revolution, except that few actually run barefoot. Most people who want to try this out wear what are typically called minimalist shoes. One could argue all day about what makes a shoe minimalist. There are plenty to choose from! One data point is the drop, which is the difference in height between the heel and the ball of the foot. Some barefoot runners look for "zero drop."
Smitten after I read the book, I was eager to see if minimalist walking shoes could help fix my aching body parts. Sadly, I've written more than I care to about my knees and back, but here is the executive summary. You can browse through the rest of the Health, Fitness & Body Image category of the blog for more gory details.
Last year I was in physical therapy, and I asked the practioner about minimalist shoes. Granted, I'm only talking about walking not running. A young physical therapy student, he said, no, absolutely not, you need cushioning. I looked down at his feet, and he was sporting Vibrams, the funky standard of barefoot shoes. I said, well, you're wearing them!
He said, and I quote, "Well, let's put it this way. You have a few more miles on you."
I abandoned the idea of barefoot walking. Still wearing my heavily cushioned shoes, I went to a specialist in sports medicine, who figured out that my back was actually the primary source of my knee pain. I worked with him for several months and am now pretty much back to normal. Toward the end of my therapy, I said, you know, I will need new shoes pretty soon, what should I get?
He said since my knees were so sensitive I should introduce them very slowly but try a zero drop shoe. I told him the other guy said I was too old, had too many miles on me, and he said that was ridiculous. Note that anyone, regardless of injuries, should acclimate slowly to a minimalist shoe. Transitioning too quickly is a good way to find new muscles and possibly other injuries. He recommended Altra.
I bought a pair and began my transition, starting with 10 minutes. I did have some calf pain in the beginning, but that's gone. I now wear them for 1.5 hour walks and even wore them to walk 18 holes of golf because they are so darn comfortable. My knees and back are getting better and better. I do take shorter strides to facilitate the mid-foot strike, but I still move along at a pretty good clip.
Since I started with all the knee pain three years ago, I've steered clear of heels for work. I didn't really see much improvement in my pain, though, until I went to see this doctor. But now that I'm wearing the minimalist shoes for walking, I'm noticing how much I like a super flat shoe the rest of the time as well. I like the way the ball of my foot hugs the ground. Maybe I'm starting to feel that now because I've modified the way I walk. Whatever -- I feel great, and my knees are happy.
I still have some pretty shoes with heels in my closet, but I am not sure I will wear them again. This minimalist thing is working for me, and I don't want to go back to where I was on the pain scale after making so much progress. Now I want totally flat shoes for work, too. I feel lighter on my feet. Why even yesterday I was walking on the treadmill and suddenly had an urge to run! I ran one minute, walked one minute and then ran one more minute.
This is fun! Who knows where this might take me? I'm so glad I didn't listen to the guy who said I was too old for minimalist shoes. They might not be for everyone, and I encourage you to do your homework if this sounds like something you'd like to try. Here's a good starting point.
I know legs look great in heels, but swollen knees don't look good in braces and bandages.