I’ve been reading with some amount of amusement the comments associated with Christopher McDougall’s latest article in the NY Times Magazine. On the one hand there are folks decrying the use of anecdote and asking to see the data showing that barefoot is better, as well as those horrified at the thought of running barefoot on concrete. On the other hand are the exuberant individuals ready to head out and start padding along on their forefeet tomorrow, many of whom will probably hurt themselves in the process by forcing change too quickly. As usual, the middle ground tends to get lost, and that middle ground tends to be where I find myself these days.
My general feeling is that there is no such thing as “perfect” running form, but rather that there is a “best” running form for each individual given the peculiarities of their own anatomy, physiology, and personal history (shoes, activity level, etc.). Unfortunately, I suspect that many individuals are in fact not running with the best form for them, and that this might indeed be the fault of the shoes on their feet. Watch slow motion video from any recreational race and you will soon realize just how common overstriding and heel mashing are. I’m not talking about all forms of heel striking here, but the extended leg, nearly locked knee, toes pointing to the sky at contact kind of gait. A runner can heel strike and do just fine – I truly believe this. But, I worry about the massive overstrider, and I think that overbuilt modern shoes make the overstride much more likely to occur.
Given my thoughts about form, I also don’t think there is a perfect shoe for all runners, nor do I think everyone should go barefoot. To be honest, I don’t even think science currently provides particularly good answers as to what any individual should wear or not wear on their feet. I think runner’s need not be afraid to experiment, and that they should take what they are told in most running stores with a grain of salt. Be wary of someone who gives you a selection of shoes based on your sitting or standing arch height, and don’t put too much stock in prescriptions based on degree of pronation observed on a treadmill (and even less on pronation observed when you walk across a store!). The pronation control model may be useful at the extremes or as a starting point for looking at shoes, but runner’s need not feel locked in for life if told that they “overpronate.” Overpronation “diagnoses” are subjective and will likely vary depending on who is looking at you – go to three stores, and you may be told three different things (and yes, I have heard of this happening). What’s more, there isn’t even strong evidence that overpronation is a huge risk factor for injury. Best to find an open-minded salesperson who can offer you practical advice based on experience running in lots of shoes. Tell them what you like in a shoe – firm or soft, wide or narrow, high heel or low heel, arch support or flat insole – they can narrow down choices for you based on far more than just pronation control.
In general, I do think that running shoes have been overbuilt for a long time, and that a return to simpler designs is a positive step. I do think that most runners should strive to find the least amount of shoe that they can handle. And I do think our current shoe fitting process is based on very little science and is pretty seriously flawed.
So, what’s a runner to do when it comes to form and shoes? If you’re running well and are injury free, it may be best to do nothing – just enjoy your well-oiled running life by maintaining the status quo. Don’t feel that you have to change just because someone said barefoot is better. However, if you’re having problems, don’t be afraid to experiment with shoes outside of your “pronation control category” (gasp!!!), or with a more drastic change to a more minimalist shoe. Or consider adding in some barefoot running and form work. If you’re careful and slow in your approach, and mindful of the language of your body, you’ll probably be just fine. There are risks involved with any change, but you may just find that an old problem disappears when you make a switch to your form or footwear.
The most important thing for any runner is simply to be able to run, and to be able to run for the reasons that are important to us as individuals (enjoyment, exercise, competition, etc.). Experiment, find what works, and stick with it. At the end of the day, the only “perfect” running form is the one that keeps you off the couch.