Jan 17, 2009 by Christopher Kelsall

Top-level runners have always been known to conduct workouts and race while wearing lightweight trainers or racing flats. Now, finally there appears to be a growing trend towards minimalism in running footwear for runners of many levels and the marketing of minimalism is growing too.

Chaos theory and the Butterfly effect aside, runners attempt to ride that sometimes elusive, elevated sense of well being, by controlling it. Runners supplement it by eating well, sleeping optimum quantities, training smart and avoiding stressful situations, but is that enough?

When it comes to the lower extremities, especially the feet, there exists a certain lack of control. Our feet conduct random acts of unpredictability, or so it seems. There are a growing number of studies and there are an increasing number of athletes alike who are concerned about the increased impact and unnatural bounce back created by running in big, cushy trainers.

In 1989, Dr. B. Marti studied over 5,000 runners who participated in a 16km race and he found the incidence of injuries in runners using shoes costing more than $95 was more than twice that of runners using shoes costing less than $40. No wonder Olympian Ron Daws was known to purchase the cheapest shoes he could find at his local K-Mart; he may have been ahead of his time.

Have the big shoe companies been spewing information, to sell a solution where a problem may not actually exist? To no fault of our own, we are sold on the big shoe company rhetoric, they throw jargon at us like: stabilizing bars, forefoot cushioning, heel counters, orthotics, molded insoles and other mind numbing propaganda. The seeds are planted and as theory goe: if you hear something enough times you begin to believe it; the rhetoric becomes fact.

A powerful, multi-billion dollar industry is out there marketing bigger, fancier and more technically advanced shoes to the swelling hordes of recreational runners. Our uber-slick, modern rides, festooned with gel-this and giga-that; the so called modern running shoe, currently considered a form of protection, should be analyzed with distrust when wandering into your local Super Sport Store. You are on your own however, as some sales people are also sold on the concept and have unwittingly become corporate shills.

Recently I was at a coaching clinic, which included no less than 5 past Olympians and 4 coaches. Unanimously they agreed and came to the same conclusion regarding footwear; minimalism is the way to go, barefoot would be better, if possible. The foot needs to be let free to develop.

Commonly suspected, shoe induced maladies:

Plantar Fasciitis-

The plantar fascia ligament is like a rubber band, which loosens and contracts with movement. It also absorbs significant weight. Because of this function, plantar fasciitis occurs from a number of causes. Among the most common believed causes is a sudden increase in running volume or quality. This may be true however, legendary running coach from New Zealand, Arthur Lydiard, referred to plantar fasciitis as North American Shoe Disease, because runners in North America were purchasing heavy, supportive shoes, where the Kiwis didn't. PF, was a foreign issue!

Achilles tendinitis-

It is common belief among runners and coaches that causes of achilles tendinitis are recent changes in footwear and sudden increases in training or the amount of hill training they are doing, inflexibility is another culprit. Not necessarily so, say several studies, the culprit, a stiff shoe at the heel.

Shin Splints-

A primary cause of shin splints is a sudden increase in distance or intensity of your training load. This increase in muscle work can be associated with inflammation of the lower leg area, the muscles used in lifting the foot (the motion during which the foot pivots toward the tibia).

In an attempt to attenuate the apparent shock or slam or impact of running, manufacturers have created the cushioned shoe and have marketed the cushioning vigorously. YOU NEED TO BE CUSHIONED, they tell you, they literally have invented a market; to sell the latest advancement to buyers. Don't you want the latest? I have recently weaned myself from heavy, stiff shoes by wearing my flats, light-weight trainers and deadened old trainers (for trail) and have experienced absolutely no repercussions. In fact one specific benefit are that two niggling issues have disappeared. One was a chronic yet faint and distant irritation of the plantar fascia and the other was stiffer achilles tendons.

From Nike when describing the minimalist shoe model, Free. 'For decades, world-class athletes have conditioned their feet.' From Adidas: The adidas adiZero LT is a lightweight, minimalist running shoe with just enough cushioning and support to get you through your longest workout.

Now this looks like a trend towards rhetoric I can appreciate, if so, I am sold! In my opinion athletes, especially the recreational and beginning runners should not get caught up in the big, comfy shoe market, as foot development is at least as important as developing any other part of the body.

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