“We don’t need smarter shoes; we need smarter feet.”

In the interim, I know you’ve been wondering: What about your quest for that sub-three marathon time?

Well, okay…I know the thought never crossed your mind once.

But I’ll tell you anyway. The ironies continue to pile up faster than Tour de France cyclists in a sprint finish crash.

After three days off, icing my foot and waiting for the plantar pain to subside, I woke Sunday feeling not so bad.

Saturday would have better: it was plus-two with no wind. Sunday morning, a nasty little wind clawed at our clothing as we set out in the minus-10 temperature. Still, it wasn’t too bad, the nasty ice sheets covering the sidewalks notwithstanding.

Five kilometres in, I began to warm up. My muscles felt loose. My breathing was terrific. I felt good to go. We were running along a fairly flat stretch with a smidgen of a hill and I felt like I could go forever – except for the sudden, unwelcome pain in my left foot. Every step I took it felt as if someone was driving a nail up into my heel. At eight km, I briefly walked. By 11 km, I made it back to my car, far short of the 20 mile run I’d hoped to complete.

Plantar: it’s an ugly little word for an ugly little pain and it seems to inflict so many runners I know. A lot of them talk about having to wear the ski boot to bed at night, an orthopedic aid meant to pull your toes into a more optimal position to help relieve the pain.

The plantar fasciitis is a thick band of tissue running along the sole of your foot, connecting the heel bone to the toes. A number of factors can irritate it, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, including obesity. Yup. That had to be it: my weight of roughly 120 pounds must have stressed my big feet.


Other causes include foot arch problems, long distance running (don’t do that, folks!), a tight Achilles and shoes with poor arch support and soft soles.

No matter what the cause, the end result is the same: friggin’ pain that leaves you gnashing your teeth and shaking your fist at the heavens because you can’t run. (Okay. Disclosure: you’ll most likely just get the pain. The teeth gnashing and fist shaking don’t always occur – just in case you were worried that, not only did your damn feet hurt, but to top it off plantar made you look like you suffered from Tourette’s as well.)

After running largely pain-free for six years would such a thing occur? I have a theory. Bear with me. The last few months I ran in a ratty old pair of Nike Vomeros. For the past three years, the Vomero has been my marathon shoe of choice. It’s one of the most cushioned models I know, but light-weight. However, this pair was long past its prime; I’d actually worn the treads off the bottom to the point where you could see my footprint and the landing pattern of my feet.

I’ve always been an efficient runner as well, landing mid-sole, light enough that you don’t hear my foot-falls. So why the sudden pain? Let’s cut over to a recent feature by Christopher McDougall in the New York Times (http://nyti.ms/sbCqaU) to find a possible answer. For those of you who aren’t familiar with McDougall’s writing, his book, Born To Run, may be more responsible for popularizing the barefoot running explosion than anything else.

In his article, McDougall not only extols the virtues of barefoot running, but he also discusses the whole cushioned shoe revolution. His conclusion is the entire industry around soft shoes is a con.

“Consumers were told they’d get hurt, perhaps for life, if they didn’t buy the “right” shoes. It was an audacious move that flew in the face of several biological truths: humans had thrived as running animals for two million years without corrective shoes, and asphalt was no harder than the traditional hunting terrains of the African savanna,” McDougall writes.

Earlier in the piece he opines, ” And those special running shoes everyone thinks he needs? In 40 years, no study has ever shown that they do anything to reduce injuries. On the contrary, the U.S. Army’s Public Health Command concluded in a report in 2010, drawing on three large-scale studies of thousands of military personnel, that using shoes tailored to individual foot shapes had “little influence on injuries.”

Rather, McDougall argues “we don’t need smarter shoes; we need smarter feet.” McDougall said he ditched his own cushy pillows and instead took on the “whisper-soft stride” of the running tribe whom he studies in his book.

All of which leads me to wonder: maybe after running for months on those default, old minimal Nikes of mine, switching back to a heavily cushioned shoe allowed me to become sloppy in my stride and slam my foot down, causing my current injury. As soon as I can run again, I intend to test the theory with some of my less-cushioned shoe models.


About subthree

A multiple award-winning journalist, I'm currently a contributing editor with both Canadian Running and Canadian Cycling magazines. My articles have appeared in Explore, Canadian Geographic, enRoute, The National Post, The Globe and Mail, and many other magazines and newspapers. Formerly a competitive cross-country mountain biker, I switched to running in 2006. I've run seven marathons, qualifying for Boston five times (and which I've run once). Generally, I've placed or won in my age group in races, in distances ranging from five and 10 kms to half and full marathons. I've also taught spin classes at a number of leading Eastern Canadian gyms. Sub-three was a 2012 #Runchat finalist for Best Overall Blog.
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2 Responses to “We don’t need smarter shoes; we need smarter feet.”

  1. Carol says:

    Hey Charles,
    Sorry to hear about PF, or anytime a runner is injured, actually. It is so frustrating when your body won’t do what you want. I empathize greatly. However, even though I have read C. McDougall’s Born to Run, I can’t help but think yes, he has a point…it is a great story, but is it true? What people will do for money (a lot of money) is my usual thought. This guy wrote a great “story”. And, yes, I think he’s right about natives who have run from childhood, without shoes, who continue to keep a native lifestyle (i.e. no desks involved). They don’t need cushion/support, perhaps. However, I do believe he is very wrong that we (the royal “we”) could ever adapt, in mid-life no less, to no cushion and no support.

    Because I read Born to Run, I have been preferring some Saucony models, the Peregrine, the Kinvara, and the Cortana all have less than a 4% difference from heel to toe – got them from Alex Coffin’s Fitness Shop. I quite like that these may save me from injury, and, there still is some impact protection involved. As well, I may very well be building up muscle where it needs it. After 10-15 miles, I sometimes run on automatic and placement/focus can leave me. I use support for long runs thanks to the very opinionated/naggy Alex Coffin.

    Last year, when I ran 25K at Brookvale, PEI, I wore a nice little trail shoe that has cushion, a high-arch fit, and a fluid post for support. It has been my best purchase. Montrail’s BadRock has not let me down. I bought them from MEC! (When did you ever go wrong with a MEC purchase?)

    I think the best thing to do is to find your three or four favorite shoes and mix them up. When you use the same shoe over and over, this is a factor in injury, or so I have read.

    Mix it up, Charles. That’s my advice. 🙂

    • subthree says:

      Hi Carol:

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree with you on a couple of counts. I don’t think anyone can just leap into wearing minimal shoes. It takes time to strengthen the ligaments, tendons and so forth in the feet and adjust your running style to a less cushioned ride. Certainly, it will be interesting in a few years as studies (as they no doubt will) begin to appear on the “bare-foot revolution” and the contrast in injury rates between minimalist shoe runners and those who wear more cushioned models.

      Secondly, I do mix my shoes. Currently, I have five different pairs on the go. I’m a strong believer in rotating shoes, not the least because one Alex Coffin once impressed upon me that in doing so, you’d strengthen your feet and legs because of them having to adjust to the shoes themselves.

      For right now, I’m sticking to my hypothesis that it’s the cushy ride after having run so long in worn out (therefore minimalist by default kicks) that’s caused my current problem. As soon as I can run properly again, I intend to test the theory with some of my other, less cushioned shoes.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

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