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

Fri, 04 Oct 2013 06:02:50 -0400

Least of All Shoes

(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each Friday, this one from September 1983.)

If any runner has reason to give her feet maximum protection, it is Anne Audain. The New Zealand Olympian has held the world 5000-meter record, yet she could barely walk as a child because of a clubfoot-like deformity. Doctors corrected that when she reached her teens, and she started running as part of her therapy.

Those feet still aren’t perfect, and Audain takes care of them in a most unusual way – as explained in a conversation with Bob Wischnia of Runner’s World. He asked Anne how much her feet bothered her now.

“Sometimes they can be very painful and feel like they did before I had them operated on,” she said. “When it’s cold, they have a tendency to throb a bit. However, they’ve never stopped me.”

Does she wear special shoes? “Heavens, no! I race and train in the same pair of racing flats.”

Racing shoes!? “You have to understand when I first started running, my doctors weren’t too keen on the idea of it. One of them told me – and I think he may have been trying to discourage me – ‘If you’re going to do this running, run in the nearest thing to bare feet.’ Since that time I’ve always raced and trained in the lightest shoes I can find. I’m something of a nightmare for Nike, because they don’t want other people training in raining flats and getting injured.”

Another New Zealander, Jack Foster, has given the people at Nike and now Asics similar bad dreams. He never has been seriously injured, but he has put almost 20 years of hard running on his 51-year-old legs.

Conventional wisdom insists that older bodies need more protection. Yet Foster prefers the least of all shoes.

“I was introduced to serious running over the farmlands, where the underfoot conditions were soft and yielding, and one developed good [foot] strength and flexibility,” he said. “I ran in light tennis shoes, because there were no training flats in those days.”

Jack thinks those shoes forced him to learn proper running technique: “We ran in those flimsy, light shoes and developed a ‘feel’ for the ground. We learned to land properly or get sore legs, since we couldn’t rely on the shoes to absorb any shock. We got into a light-footed gait which moved us over hill and dale very effectively. I’m certain this [running form] helped me stay injury free.”

Even now, when shoe companies beg him to wear their latest high-tech training flats, Foster said, “I continue to run daily in shoes which most people consider too light even for racing.”

The two New Zealanders agree on several points:

1. A runner might be wiser to wear the same shoes for all purposes rather than switch models from training to racing.

2. They prefer staying as close as possible to barefoot instead of removing themselves as far as possible from the earth.

3. Light shoes enhance good running form, while heavy ones act as crutches that let the shoes instead of the feet and legs absorb shock.

4. If form improves in lighter shoes, but high mileage on hard surfaces still hurts, maybe the fault lies in the running routine and not the shoes.

5. The biggest drawback in racing shoes isn’t the risk of injury but their cost. You usually pay more for less cushioning and less durability.

UPDATE FROM 2013

Note that this piece was written a quarter-century before publication of Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run. That book is credited with touching off the recent minimalist movement in running footwear: little or no heel lift, Five-Fingers, even going without any shoes.

While this trend is mostly positive, it comes with a warning label: make the change slowly and carefully. Runners accustomed to wearing substantial shoes need to make the transition to “minimal” with short, slow runs on soft surfaces, and maybe by simply walking in the lesser shoes before trying to run in them. Remember: Anne Audain and Jack Foster STARTED their running in the least of all shoes.

Audain, who migrated to the U.S. in the 1980s, now lives in Indiana. Foster died in 2004, at age 72, when struck by a car while bicycling.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as PDFs for e-reader devices and apps, from Lulu.com. Just released was Joe’s Team. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]
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