Why Expensive Trainers Could Be Worse Than Useless

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Science and
sceptical runners are catching up with something the Tarahumara
Indians have known for ever: your naked feet are fine on their own.
According to a growing body of clinical research, those expensive
running shoes you’ve been relying on may be worse than useless:
they could be causing the very injuries they’re supposed to prevent.

Perhaps the
best research in the field has been going on for hundreds of years
in a maze of canyons in northern Mexico. There, the reclusive Tarahumara
tribe routinely engage in races of 150 miles or more, the equivalent
of running the London Marathon six times in the same day. Despite
this extreme mileage, as I learnt during several treks into the
canyons, the Tarahumara are somehow immune to the injuries that
plague the rest of the running world.

Out here in
the non-Tarahumara world, where we have access to the best in sports
medicine, training innovations and footwear, up to 90 per cent of
all marathoners are injured every year. The Tarahumara, by contrast,
remain spry and healthy deep into old age. I saw numerous men and
women in their seventies loping up steep, cliffside switchbacks
on their way to villages 30 miles away. Back in 1994, a Tarahumara
man ventured out of the canyons to compete against an elite field
of runners at the Leadville Trail Ultramarathon, a 100-mile race
through the Rocky Mountains. He wore homemade sandals. He was 55
years old. He won.

So how do the
Tarahumara protect their legs from all that pounding? Simple –
they don’t. They don’t protect and, most critically, they don’t
pound. When the Tarahumara aren’t barefoot, they wear nothing more
cushioned than thin, hard sandals fashioned from discarded tire
treads and leather thongs. In place of artificial shock absorption,
they rely on an ancient running technique that creates a naturally
gentle landing. Unlike the vast majority of modern runners, who
come down heavily on their foam-covered heels and roll forward off
their toes, the Tarahumara land lightly on their forefeet and bend
their knees, as you would if you jumped from a chair.

This ingenious,
easy-to-learn style could have a profound effect on runners, not
to mention the multi-billion dollar running-shoe industry. Ever
since Nike created the modern running shoe in the Seventies, new
joggers have been repeatedly warned that their first step should
be through the door of a speciality store. Without proper footwear,
they’re told, crippling injuries are inevitable. Take this recent
comment by Dr Lewis G Maharam, "the world’s premier running
physician" as he’s known, and medical director for the New
York City Marathon. "In 95 per cent of the population or higher,
running barefoot will land you in my office," Maharam said.
That’s because only "a very small number of people are biomechanically
perfect."

Shortly before
the New York City Marathon, David Willey, the editor of Runner’s
World magazine, broadcast a similarly dire warning on the radio.
"If a lot of runners or all the runners out there in America
did that tomorrow [ran without shoes], the vast majority of them
would get hurt very quickly and would have to stop running for a
long time." And why? Because, Willey said, "the vast majority
of people are not blessed in that way. They’ve got some biomechanical
inefficiencies."

This logic
has at least one major flaw: the vast majority of runners, "blessed"
or otherwise, are getting hurt anyway. The injury rate among all
runners has hovered somewhere between 60 and 80 per cent for the
past 40 years. You’d expect casualties to decrease as technology
improved, but you’d be wrong: there are more heel and Achilles’
tendon injuries now than ever, even though Adidas sells a trainer
with a microprocessor in the sole to customise cushioning, and Asics
spent $3 million, and eight years – three more than it took
the Manhattan Project to create the first atomic bomb – to
invent the awe-inspiring "Kinsei", a shoe that boasts
"multi-angled forefoot gel pods" and an "infinitely
adaptable heel component".

Astonishingly,
there’s no evidence that any of this technology does anything, which
may explain why Nike ads never explain what, exactly, those $190
shoes are supposed to do. In a 2008 research paper for the British
Journal of Sports Medicine, Dr Craig Richards, a physician at
the University of Newcastle in Australia, revealed that after scouring
30 years’ worth of studies, he couldn’t find a single one that demonstrated
that running shoes made you less prone to injury.

So if shoes
aren’t the solution, could they be the problem? That’s what Dr Daniel
Lieberman, the head of the evolutionary anthropology department
at Harvard, began to wonder. Humans, after all, are the only creatures
that voluntarily cover their feet, and we’re also the only creatures
known to suffer from corns, bunions, hammer-toes and heel pain.

Read
the rest of the article

January
13, 2010

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