Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What the Minimalists Don't Tell You

Look, I'm a minimal runner. I firmly believe that it is the best way, in terms of biomechanics and efficiency, to run. And I've converted my fair share of runners to minimal shoes. However, I never under any circumstances do so without fair disclosure. So here it is:

Humans are meant to run in the same manner that minimalists do. We evolved without shoes. We learned to put scraps of leather on our feet for protective purposes. Here's the cache: We ran on soft surfaces. Tarmac roads were first implemented in the US in 1909. For thousands of years, humans ran on primarily dirt and grass. Suddenly in the space of 100 years, we go from lithely pacing across fields back to the barn to pounding pavement with Bill Bowerman's waffle-soled Nikes after work. See the problem here?

The problem is that while we are innately designed to run on grass and dirt, our Parks and Recreation departments tell us that we should have nice, paved paths running through the city. We're sold over cushioned, overly supportive shoes that impart the notion that it's perfectly okay to run on hard cement and tarmac. Just today, I received a promotional email from Under Armour with this picture:
Really, Mike?
The problem is that we're constantly bombarded by media, pundits, and for-profit companies telling us that we can, we should, and we must run on our local streets. Until fairly recently, when people began looking for a new, crazy challenge, trail running was a sport that was only undertaken by those with questionable sanity.

Turns out these possibly insane runners were actually the smart ones. Running on those soft surfaces with little between you and the ground does a couple things: It forces you to land on your forefoot instead of your heel and it also reduces the amount of pounding your body takes. See, it isn't so much that form is the problem when it comes to minimalist runners. I've already discussed form in several other posts and won't be touching on Mr. Phelps form today (or lack thereof). The issue here is that no matter how you run, your body has to absorb a significantly higher amount of impact when you run on concrete or tarmac because those are significantly higher harder surfaces. Grass and dirt don't impart nearly the force on your bones that hard surfaces do.

The issue is that we have two conflicting pictures, and one is winning out. On one hand, we're told that minimalism is the way to go. It promotes proper form and lessens the chance of injury. On the other, we're sold the idea by contractors and developers that we should have paved "trails" everywhere. Let's add them together: Hard surface + very little cushion = higher chance of injury overall because no matter how you run, hard surfaces mean that something has to absorb the impact, and because it's not the tarmac, the impact is imparted on your body. Not so difficult to grasp.

Here's what I'm getting at: Running on concrete should not happen. Alberto Salazar, one of the most prolific coaches of all time, has his athletes running 90% of their volume on soft surfaces. It needs to be said, and I hate saying it, but if you're going to run on concrete for an extended amount of time, you need a cushioned shoe. It doesn't have to be a high drop, ultra supportive one, it can be Newton or Hoka One One. The best solution is to not run on tarmac or concrete, it's to run on some real trail, not the one Parks and Rec sold you. Run soft, run light, run on.

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