May 22, 2014

Rethink Your Running Shoes. ~ Alison Wilburn

running barefoot

I started running long before I ever took my first yoga class or became a yoga teacher.

For me, running started with my fifth grade track team and has continued, in some form, ever since—track and cross country in middle school, high school and college; various races over the years, including the New York marathon; and now medium distance trail and street running where I reside in Southern California.

With all these years of running, you can imagine the shoes I’ve gone through.

I remember being fitted for my first pair of true running shoes in high school. As is still the practice today, part of the process was testing my pronation. Pronation relates to shock absorption and describes the way weight is distributed over the foot.

In my case, under-pronation or supination—meaning more weight went to the outside of my feet—was the diagnosis and prognosis. I was assigned a nice, cushy running shoe that was supposed to balance the weight more equally over my feet. Excellent! Or so I thought.

Many subsequent years were spent buying shoes based on that assessment. But unfortunately none of the shoes actually corrected the issue. They only helped me cope with it and even reinforced the tendency.

Then came yoga. There’s nothing like standing barefoot on a thin yoga mat atop a wood floor to help you feel what’s happening in your feet. Right away I remember noticing and feeling things I’d never felt before.

Over the years, as the practice of yoga helped me bring more intelligence to my posture, I tried to translate that to my running stride. I did the best I could in the shoes I was wearing—not knowing there was another option.

It was only recently that I began to question the value of running shoes that kept the bottoms of my feet so far off the ground.

Over the last three years, the questioning gained momentum as the shoes I was wearing felt less and less aligned with what I was learning about posture and balance.

Time on my yoga mat was bringing me into contact with the incredible sensitivity of my feet and in contrast, making the failure to find the same sensitivity when I was running ever more apparent. I intuitively began to explore a gradual process of taking some of the cushion away and giving my feet a chance to make closer contact with the ground.

This took courage since the overall notion, and what I was educated to believe from the time I started running, is that the cushion is protection.

Thank goodness for courage because I’ve found that for me at least this is not the case.

In the midst of this weaning process, I attended a workshop with Leslie Kaminoff at a local yoga studio. Although I wasn’t expecting it, this workshop gave my intuitive nudges some credibility. Leslie, who is a widely respected contributor to many teacher training programs, has spent over 34 years in the fitness industry and has specialized knowledge in anatomy.

Two things that stood out to me in relation to running were:

1. The feet are all terrain vehicles.

The soles of our feet are meant to make contact with many different types of surfaces throughout our lives. This keeps them alive and sensitive. The feet are supplied with numerous proprioceptive nerve endings that sense the motion and position in the body. (See here for more explanation of this.)

In our civilized society our feet are not used to their full capacity because they are always in shoes—and very often shoes that don’t fit well. When we buy generic shoes, not tailor-made to our feet, we have to compromise to be in them. Over time our feet become dull.

It’s even asserted that a main contributor to elderly people falling isn’t weakness, but a loss of sensitivity in the feet. The answer, go barefoot as often as you can! Walk on the sandy beach, the asphalt, the sidewalk, the wood floor, the tile, the carpet. Give your feet as many surfaces to explore as possible.

Maximum sensitivity in the feet is especially important when running.

2. Feet need feedback to control impact.

To illustrate this, Leslie used an example of something we’ve probably all experienced. You’re wearing headphones, listening to loud music and talking to someone at the same time. What happens to the volume of your voice? It gets louder. Why? Not because the person you’re talking to needs that but because your ears need it to get the feedback they need.

The same principle applies to the feet when running.

Feet adjust their impact, (how hard they step), based on the feedback they get. So if you’re wearing cushy running shoes, the feet automatically step down harder to get the feedback they need. In this way, most running shoes probably do more harm than good. An article in Science Now supports this notion explaining that, “Researchers have discovered that sneakers and other sports shoes alter our natural gait, which normally protects us from the impact of running.”

The conclusion of the article is that barefoot or minimalist shoe running is the best kind, yet it encourages people to make a gradual transition.

As a teacher and student of yoga, I’m acutely aware of how weight distribution in the feet affects everything above them. I’m beginning to wonder if a lot of the knee issues people deal with today are brought about by the popular running shoes we wear, which reinforces bad habits in our posture starting with our feet.

Before you buy your next pair of shoes, consider scheduling a session with an experienced yoga teacher or running coach who can help you bring more mindfulness to the weight distribution on your feet. Then you can apply what you learn when you’re running and even bring that level of awareness to everyday activities that involve your feet.

If you do decide to make the transition to a sole that’s more flat, you can always use them as an alternate pair and run shorter distances in them until you build tolerance and strength. If running in a minimalist shoe is right for you, over time you’ll be able to go your full distance on any surface.

I started the weaning process about a year and a half ago and I’m now wearing my favorite running shoe to date, Brooks PureDrift. They are very flat, allow my whole foot to feel the ground and what I love most is the wide width around the toe area which allows me to expand, freely move and articulate with my toes when I’m running.

No other shoe has ever supported that and oh what a difference it makes. I never knew how important toes are in running!

Moving forward, I ultimately want to pare down to a barefoot minimalist shoe like Vibram Five-Fingers—also known as “monkey shoes”—if that choice is aligned with my experience of longevity and joy in running.

My hope is that what I’ve shared here will inspire more runners to cultivate mindfulness in their running habits and choice of shoes, maybe rethink things and explore some different options that could possibly benefit them greatly. In the context of what we’re talking about here, we might say that freedom in running literally starts from the ground up. And who doesn’t want freedom?

(learn more about Leslie Kaminoff here.)


For more:

Running: What’s the Best Shoe for You?


Love elephant and want to go steady?

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Apprentice Editor: Bronwyn Petry / Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Pink Sherbert/Flickr

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Alison Wilburn