Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Running Shoes, Part 1

January has so far proven to be a very busy month and is only going to get busier due to upcoming travel. Hence the gap in posts here which is probably going to continue. But with a small break in the activities today I found an opportunity to post on something a few people have asked me about recently – running shoes. Specifically, the questions have been on the advantages (or disadvantages) of wearing minimal shoes or none at all by running barefoot.

Let me provide a bit of background for this piece first by describing how I came to be a runner and the shoes I used back then. In Part 2 I will get into what I tell the runners and triathletes I coach now about their footwear.

I was a track and field athlete starting at age 12 in junior high school and then on through college. I ran the low and high hurdles in junior high, high school and freshman year of college. In my sophomore year (1964) U.S. collegiate track and field began the introduction of the intermediate hurdles. These were at a height half-way between the lows (which were eliminated) and the high hurdles. Hence the name 'intermediate.' The distance of the intermediate race was longer – 300 meters (330 yards back then in the U.S.). The lows were run over 200 meters (220 yards) and the highs at 110 meters (120 yards). The 300-meter race eventually became the internationally common 400 meters which is the distance now run in all college track and field.

Back then as a hurdler there was no difference between the shoes I trained in and those used by shot putters or milers. The shoe had a black canvas top with laces and a gum rubber sole. The sole was perhaps a centimeter thick from toe to heel. There was no built-in arch support. For competition we wore racing spikes that were leather uppers with a thin leather sole and five to seven replaceable spikes in the forefoot. The spikes were in the range of one to five centimeters long and were changed relative to the conditions of the track on a particular day. All of the tracks I ran on then were cinders over clay which made for a great running surface. But they were a hassle to maintain so were replaced by “all-weather” surfaces beginning in the 1970s.

I took a break from serious running after graduation from college in 1966 as the government needed me to help win the war in Vietnam. While there I jogged a couple of times a week around the airbase (Phan Rang – “Happy Valley by the Sea”) wearing “Chuckies” – white, canvas, high-top basketball shoes. They offered minimal cushioning and had no significant support for the arch.

After Vietnam I continued to jog occasionally but sporadically through the early ‘70s. By the middle of the decade I was still jogging but starting to get serious about running once again. By now I had morphed into a distance runner. I had a pair of Nike Cortez shoes with leather uppers and a wave-pattern, rubber outsole. They are still made to this day and look much the same as back then.

By 1979 I was running a lot, so much that I decided to leave teaching and open a running store. That was a pretty radical idea back then as there were only a handful of them in the country. In 1980 I bought a local running store – Foot of the Rockies in Fort Collins, Colorado. The sale was completed in the spring and I took possession in July. We carried the major and popular brands of the day – Nike, New Balance, Tiger (now ASICS) and Brooks. The only major brand we didn’t have was Adidas.

At the time I bought the store running shoe design had not progressed much beyond my Cortez. About the only big changes were the Nike Waffle sole and nylon uppers. In the early 1980s Brooks introduced the anti-pronation wedge in a shoe which proved to be popular. Soon other manufacturers were making changes in their shoes to control pronation. At my store we tended to shy away from “high-tech” shoes preferring instead to put runners in the older-style, more basic shoes. The Tiger “Montreal” was our best selling model. It was a thin-soled shoe with a nylon upper. I loved them, and probably still have a pair stashed away somewhere in the attic.

As the technology of running shoes became more complex the price of shoes escalated. Our average shoe sell then was about $35, about $10 below the industry average, and the most expensive was a New Balance shoe at $79. It came in widths which made people with wide feet very happy and they were willing to pay for the comfort.

In 1987 I sold the store to become a part-time coach (I had a day job as a fundraiser for a non-profit). By 1992 I was coaching full-time. During this time running shoes experienced continuing change as they became even more complex. I tried to keep up with the new shoe widgets but finally gave up by the late 1990s. Now when I go into a running store I’m amazed at how much stuff has been added to the shoe to “correct” a problem with the human foot and movements of running.

This may give you some idea as to the direction I’m going with my advice to athletes when it comes to running shoes. But I’ll leave you to ponder that until I get an opportunity to write again in a few days. Now I’m off now to Lehi, UT (Wednesday) and then Ballwin, MO (Saturday) for clinics at which I’m speaking. If you’re in either neighborhood I hope you can attend (see my most recent posts below for the details).



At January 12, 2010 8:42 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cool to hear that you're a bit retro grouch when it comes to running shoes.
Quite a contrast to your views on cycling, which cannot be done seriously without a power meter, "active spokes", "midsole cleats" and what have you.

At January 12, 2010 8:56 AM , Blogger Eric Johnson said...

i manage a running/tri store so it's interesting to see the shoe/injury dilemma from both sides of the coin.

we do a barefoot video gait analysis to match a person's pronation up to specific amounts of "correction" in shoes.

we see tons of people with injuries. that's probably 30% of our customer base.

so while i see the logic of the minimalist shoe (and i practice it personally), we often see people recover from various chronic problems with a switch to a shoe with the "appropriate" (subjective term) correction.

for example, someone who over-pronates badly and has a case of plantar fasciitis or patellar tendinitis will often get better with a stability shoe.

so the question is this: would these people also get better eventually if they got a minimalist shoe, took a bunch of time off, and progressed back into training very, very gradually?

or are a certain percentage of us "screwed" because our parents put us in shoes while we were little and our feet never developed properly?

can our feet ever be fixed by going back to minimalist shoes or none at all? wish i knew!

i'm experimenting with wearing vibrams to strengthen my feet at work while running in cushioning shoes (even though i'm a mild-moderate over-pronator).

and we're definitely keeping our 1 year old out of anything but moccasins until school starts.

wonder if anyone is doing studies currently on shoes vs. barefoot running and injuries?

At January 12, 2010 8:56 AM , Blogger tirebiter_g said...

5cm long spikes? You mean mm? Yikes!

At January 12, 2010 10:09 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

tirebiter--Well, pehaps 3cm. It's been a long time. :) Not mm. Cinder tracks could be quite loose. Had to get the spike through the cinders and into the clay.

At January 12, 2010 10:10 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

eric j--Interesting dilemmas, huh? I'll get into some of this when I get a chance to write again.

At January 12, 2010 11:14 AM , Blogger Jared said...


I myself am a minimalistic / barefoot runner, but a fairly new one at that. Prior to going the barefoot/Vibram FiveFingers I had terrible foot problems running. I was in San Diego, so I had a ton of "expert" shops who measured my feet, watched me run on video and did a ton of pressure tests. I went through a ton of expensive "corrective" shoes with no real avail. Shin pain, knee pain, sprained ankles (because the "corrective" shoes lifted my feet so far off the ground) were commonplace. I ended up swearing off running and doing other things. Well this year I got into the minimalistic movement starting with the FiveFingers and I've never looked back. I haven't had an injury all year, I started actually loving running for the first time in my life, and I killed my triathlon PR. So it is of my opinion that we can get our feet back to where they are supposed to be despite all the damage we've done to them through the over corrective and restrictive shoes. The only thing is that you have to take it slow because our overly supported feet simply don't have much muscle in them to begin with. Now, my arch has raised, I've lost a half a shoe size and I just feel stronger. No more sprained ankles for me!

Anyway, YRMV... but that is my experience.

At January 12, 2010 12:51 PM , Blogger Kevin McMahon said...

Interesting article out just today reporting on a study done at UVA about the apparent additional torque stress running shoes place on the knee - even more so than that of women's high heels.

I think the way towards "minimalist" shoes is emerging and we'll see an explosion in these types of shoes over the coming 24 months. Of course, there are 30 years of marketing efforts to undo in people's heads, but the evidence is mounting.

It's funny you mentioned the Brooks shoe with the additional "wedge" to help with knee injuries. I wore that shoe, as did most of my cross country team. I think it was called the Varis Wedge and no sooner did I change to this model than did I begin to have serious knee pain that lasted for several more years. Prior to that I'd run in the old Nike Waffle Trainers with no issues.

Last comment - funny how minimalist shoes that eschew all this design and engineering tech cost even more than our regular "bloated" shoes. Cost goes up as content comes down. Go figure.

At January 12, 2010 8:07 PM , Anonymous BillG said...

Joe, great post. It took me back to my days (in the late 80's) running the 300 intermediates and the 400. We trained in our racing spikes often, just swapping out the shorter ones for practice and keeping the longer, 3-5 cm. ones for meets. I miss those spikes b/c I think they are the closest thing to running barefoot that we could have done, and it always just felt better (and faster). Less foot soreness always seemed to follow.
I am convinced, after suffering my own foot issues, running injuries after an extended time away from real run training, etc., etc.. that less is better (absent a specific injury). I run barefoot as often as I can, strides on grass etc.. and it always feels the best. "Minimalism" is right, in my view. Too bad we can't really do entire track workouts barefoot.. Or can we?

At January 14, 2010 11:13 AM , Blogger Rick said...

I would be grateful for any suggestions and feedback.

I've been running for about forty years in the interest of recreational fitness and a couple triathlons a year.

About 18 months ago, I fractured my pelvis in a bike crash. The pelvis has recovered.

However, I am now plagued with cramps in my calves, especially the one on the side of the fracture.

While I always had tight calves, the occasional cramp and received regular massage to avoid this, it has now become debilitating. No amount of rest and massage seems to solve the problem; I go out run a couple miles and have to stop due to calves cramping or about to cramp. I also have tight IT bands.

I weigh 175, don't have major structural problems, have worn Nike Pegasus for 5-10 years and don't have any other apparent causes.

Would anyone offer suggestions for shoes or other fixes? (I have a pair of Vibram Five Fingers on order.)

Thanks. Rick

At January 16, 2010 5:06 PM , Blogger Fe-lady said...

I started running in 1970 in the leather Nike Cortez also, because that was all the store had in my area!

I worked in a running store for years and the shoes kept getting higher and cushier-not good for most people.
I did best in a flatter non cushioned shoe by "Tiger" (now "Asics") :-)

Need orhotics and more cushioning now as almost 40 years of running still takes it's toll no matter how good you have been to yourself , how much you go barefoot, how many ballet classes you took to strengthen your feet, etc. Old is old and we all wear out...but I can still run some, thanks to my shoes and needed extra support!

At January 16, 2010 5:06 PM , Blogger Fe-lady said...

orthotics...but you know what I meant....eyes get old too! :-)

At March 18, 2010 4:32 AM , Anonymous K Swiss trainers said...

wow the blog is really interesting and the story about how you become a runner is really matter because if the person is willing to get something he or she must be more conscious about that.
anyway thanks for sharing the information. your story give me a new direction toward my passion.


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