Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Wed, 14 Jun 2000 09:01:37 -0400

On the Surface

(from RC 306)

Doug Thomas writes on health-fitness topics for the Omaha World-Herald, where I have ties both current and distant. My sister Anne now works as an editor for that paper, and as a kid I delivered the "Weird Harold" in my hometown.

The first personal article I ever wrote appeared in that paper. Doug himself wrote a feature about me for the paper a couple of summers ago.

We talk from time to time as he develops his articles. Doug wrote recently to ask for comment on research by Dr. Bruno Nigg from the University of Calgary.

"He has found that running on hard surfaces results in no more injuries than running on soft surfaces, and that the joints are taxed most not by the foot striking the ground but when the runner's weight rolls from the heel toward the toes," said Doug. "The role of running shoes, he believes, is to support the natural alignment of the feet and legs rather than correct it.

"This is seemingly contrary to conventional wisdom, especially the part about hard vs. soft surfaces. What do you think?"

Let's first ignore aesthetics, I told him. The search for soft surfaces no doubt takes us nicer places, away from traffic. This eases the mind, even if it doesn't greatly reduce pounding on the feet and legs.

Back in the 1970s I reported an unscientific survey of Runner's World readers that supported Dr. Nigg's recent findings. Our runners were hurt just as often and as seriously no matter where they trained, just as those in the Calgary study were.

Surface seemed to be a minor culprit. The big three errors of too far, too fast, too often were much more to blame.

My gut feeling -- and it's only that, plus some experience -- also tells me that Dr. Nigg is right. The reasons I'd give are slightly different than his, but his research and my intuition lead to the same conclusion.

Today's running shoes are made to work best on hard, smooth surfaces. The shoes artificially soften the road shock.

These shoes work worst on soft, rough, natural surfaces. Our thick, heavy, well-supported shoes can increase pains when we take them where they aren't designed to go. A flimsy racing shoe probably works better off-road.

This seems especially true when developing an injury or coming off one. Conventional thinking is to stay off the roads when hurting.

But relief can come the opposite way -- but avoiding the soft ground, not because it's soft but because it's uneven and causes too much twisting of tender parts. Roads can be good not because they're hard but because they're smooth.

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