Sam Naser

The bare truth about running

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There’s nothing like a jog in the park. The blue skies, warm breeze and sight of children playing are a sure way to burn off stress. But emerging evidence suggests that the act of running goes far deeper than that. In fact, running could be one of the most transforming activities in human history.

Evolutionary biologists say that humans may have parted ways with their tree-swinging ancestors some two million years ago, precisely because we started running. An article appearing in the journal Sports Medicine in 2007 studied the fossils of early humans, noting several characteristics unique to our species that suggest long-distance running played an important role in our evolution. From our spring-like tendons and ligaments to our large buttocks, our ability to run long distances is part and parcel to the origin of the modern human’s body form. But if we were born to run, why are athletic injuries so prevalent among runners?

The answer, it turns out, may have much to do with our footwear.

A nod to runners past

“Everything I’d been taught about running was wrong,” writes running enthusiast Christopher McDougal in his New York Times best-selling book, Born to Run.

“We treat running in the modern world the way we treat childbirth. It’s going to hurt and requires special exercises and equipment, and the best you can hope for is to get it over with quickly with minimal damage.”

It wasn’t until McDougal, vexed by routine, running-related injuries, discovered the reclusive Tarahumara Indians of the Mexican Copper Canyons that he put his finger on the problem. The Tarahumara regularly run distances of over 100 miles at a stretch, and at incredible speeds. Yet, in spite of their athletic prowess, McDougal found the incidence of running-related injuries among the Tarahumara is next to nil. And a large part of what McDougal attributes to the Tarahumara immunity to injury is their minimalist footwear.

The Tarahumara grow up barefoot, but during long-distance races don homemade rubber-like sandals that are mere millimeters thick. Anthropologists say our human ancestors have been running this way for over a million years. In fact, it was only within the last 10,000 years that humans have begun to wear any kind of shoes, and only recently has long-distance running begun to be associated with pain and injury.

That’s because studies show that runners who use modern shoes usually land heel first, generating a sudden spike of force that in effect is analogous to someone hitting you on the heel with a hammer up to three times your body weight. Barefoot runners and those with minimalist footwear, on the other hand, land further forward, on the balls of their feet or somewhere in the middle of the foot, and then the heel comes down.

McDougall makes the case that running in shoes has altered the biomechanics of running, leading us to poorer running form and consequently, a greater risk of injury. And his argument has an increasing tide of science working in its favor. A study published by the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation this year notes that the average athletic shoe can harm your hips, knees and ankles more than running barefoot. The study notes that “increased joint torques at the hip, knee and ankle were observed with running shoes compared with running barefoot. Disproportionately large increases were observed in the hip internal rotation torque and in the knee flexion and knee varus torques.”

Furthermore, a more natural running form is said to be much more energy-efficient. The human foot has an arch with ligaments inside that expand and contract with every stride. The front-first landing of the barefoot runner capitalizes on that flexibility more than a heel-first landing. Simply put, they get more buoyancy out of the natural spring mechanism.

While the jury is still out on whether the barefoot movement is here to stay, the shoe manufacturers have certainly hopped on board. Nearly every major shoe company has released a “barefoot” running shoe. Nike’s popular line, known as the Nike Free, runs for about $85. Another popular model called the Newton runs for around $150. Vibram’s Five Fingers is arguably the most minimalist “barefoot” shoe at $85. It is little more than a pair of gloves for your feet that resemble a rubber sock, for the purpose of protecting your feet from debris.

If you’re interested in going minimal, be prepared for the puzzled stares of passersby. And before you dive in headfirst, start with short walks and gradually progress to very short runs. It’s important to pay special attention to how your feet and lower legs adjust to your new running form. If they sore up, you may want to consult an experienced “barefoot” coach or podiatrist who can work with you to improve your form.

Evolutionary, revolutionary, fad or not, the Tarahumara already know the bare truth about running.

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