Shoes, Inserts, and Our Steps
Choreography. Hitting the mark. Timing. The musicians in the pocket.
Our body has various muscles grouped together to perform together, to create and control motion together, relying on each other and relying on the other groups as well.
The timed sequential synchronized activity – that is our gait. Walking, running occurs automatically. Reflexively. Choreography motion.
In a performance, you can observe when it is all on point; flawless. You can also notice when some performers miss their mark slightly, and their motion lags ever so slightly behind the rest of the group. Or a few. But the performance is still beautiful and smooth.
And some performances land on the struggle bus. Their ranges of motion, the timing to the beat, the spacing on stage, are all off. Not so elegant. Some even painful. But they got the job done.
They started, moved, and ended.
The timing, the cascade of muscle activity necessary for running occurs on a continuum similar to that of a choreographed performance.
At one end of the spectrum, we find on-point, graceful motion. At the other end, we cringe at the hobbling, disconcerting steps of one that is simply trying to get from point A to B, fingers crossed.
The attempt to create a beautiful arc of sequential movements from the start of a performance to the end. Or the attempt to get to the finish by any means necessary.
Are we interested in the journey? The process?
Or just the finish line? The completion of the task?
Are we talking about running, or greater truths of life?
For another time perhaps.
We need muscle tension, flexibility, joint range of motion, and overall posture (muscle and bone) to be on relative point.
We need the signaling of the cascade of muscle chain activity to be on relative point.
It is movement of these variables along a sliding scale that adds up to our quality of motion and relative success of movement – graceful, efficient power and speed or clunky, inefficient staggering movement, achy and painful.
A continuum of movement efficiency.
But what about shoes?
And for that, we turn to
Watch a child run. Well, play, really.
The running form of an active and able-bodied child on the cusp of school age is flawless.
You can’t teach it.
They naturally fall into such graceful, efficient form.
Fluid arm motion in concert with their trunk twist.
Powerful knee drive that pulls the foot up and forward.
A confident stance leg striking the ground beneath with a balanced, light contact.
Those children have three things going for them (in theory):
Lack of time spent in shoes.
The desk talk is for another time.
The shoe talk, is our next turn.
As for the fun, that is up to you (and perhaps a delving into the greater truths of reality some other time).
A sphere of thought holds the contention that the more time an able-bodied, active child spends in modern-day footwear, the more they lose their natural running form.
Christopher McDougall made famous the idea of shoes as an actual problem, not solution, within modern day running.
With that, he introduced the concept of barefoot running; along with the anthropologic study of the bare human foot and the ritualistic ultra-distance running of the Rarámuri (or Tarahumara) people in the Copper Canyons of northwestern Mexico – without shoes (the huarache is a minimal type of sandal utilized by these phenomenal souls.)
To paraphrase and adjoin with the concepts we have been working with, Chris held the contention that the thick foam and rigidity of a running shoe altered and dampened the foot’s experience of the contact it has with the ground during each step (altering the experience of the ground reaction forces). The height difference (heel drop) between the front of the shoe and back also alters the joint angles and motion that occurs. All of which thusly changing the responsiveness of the stretch reflex mechanism that our body uses to create movement.
If our foot experiences the ground differently, the muscles of the body will be signaled differently. Our timing and power output will behave differently.
If the joints of our foot and ankle align and move differently, the whole ride of the body will move differently.
And these differences, per Chris, were large contributing factors to his physical health, pains, and inability to run very far at all.
Seemingly, shoes were a constraint for him; having to stop running after a short time because of the pains he experienced.
He found his way to the idea of running without any shoes. And voila! Pains – gone. Freedom – achieved. He not only found his way to running pain free, but for ultra-distances – sans shoes.
And that is how the barefoot running craze of 2009 caught on.
As an iconoclast myself, the railing against a systematic structure like the shoe industry could be quite tempting. And for a time, I was up to half-marathon distances in my own bare feet.
Yet, I do not ascribe to seeing shoes as the “foot coffins” many make them to be.
The ‘all or none’ absolutist nature of that argument doesn’t work well. In other words, I can not find a stance to take as an absolute that provides the one, correct answer for all.
I will say this:
There are styles of shoes that can enhance a runner’s performance.
There are styles of shoes that can impede a runner’s performance.
Too much foam, too stiff, too much control,
Not enough foam, too flimsy, too much freedom.
Much of the best practices to fit a runner with a shoe rely on classifying one’s foot structure via arch position (pes cavus, pes rectus, pes planus) or by classifying one’s foot motion via barefoot gait analysis or treadmill running analysis.
All of those methods account for the foot. But what about the rest of the kinetic chain? Trunk, hips, knees – muscle and joint range? What about the stretch reflex mechanism controlling the automation and correction of gait?
Pause for a short group exercise. Take your shoes off and stand up. Slightly bend your knees. Now wiggle your knees inward and outward. Notice how your feet respond. Notice how your hips respond. There is motion everywhere! Not just your feet. Now watch what happens if you try the same wiggle standing on one leg. I am not responsible for any falls or injuries. Assume responsibility for yourself.
I offer the wiggle waggle exercise as insight to demonstrate the fact that there is more that influences position and motion of the foot than just the foot.
Years ago, I attended a continuing education course for physical therapists treating runner patients, put on by a nationally recognized sports medicine entity. In the course, the instructors sited a reputable publication investigating the matching of shoe-type (neutral, cushion, stability) and foot-type (rectus, cavus, planus) vs providing a neutral shoe regardless of foot-type, and its affects on incidence of injury among army recruits (n>100). This multiple-month study found no statistical difference in the number of injuries between the two groups.
Shoe technology did not offer any reduction of injury. Shoe type doesn’t matter?
It matters. But not how we thought.
The shoe type and technology absolutely influences our stretch reflexes, joint ranges, and muscle activity; thusly affecting our performance.
We just can’t find the shoe type based solely on our foot structure or motion.
Some runners with a high arch respond well to an extra cushion shoe; allowing for good input and experience of the joint motions, muscle activity, and stretch reflexes.
Others with a high arch can respond well to beefy medial posting; relying on that type of input to allow for good joint motions, muscle activity, and stretch reflex response.
The same holds true for neutral arches and low arches. Usually.
And the same holds true for inserts (orthotics).
Some respond well to a partially rigid platform (a la Superfeet).
And others respond well to the pressure input and flexibility of a softer platform (a la Currex).
And to add one more piece to the game,
A runner may respond well to a stability shoe now,
And in 5 years, actually respond better to a neutral shoe.
We are dynamic, ever-changing systems, after all.
I didn’t spend over 1,380 words to bring you to this point to say shoe type doesn’t matter.
It does. I offer these thoughts to empower each runner to have better understanding in what is behind a shoe choice, and why for some the shoe type they were fit with feels like junk. Or why their shoe used to feel good and now it doesn’t (aside from the fact the companies also modify their shoe models from year to year).
Ultimately, the best shoe for you is the one that feels the best for that moment in time.
With that, aside from those at the extremes of the bell curve, the most success I had with rehabbing patients and setting them up for their seasons was with offering the concept of pairing a neutral shoe (no bells and whistles (no dual-density foam or motion control) with the Currex insert.
The Currex orthotic seemingly created input/pressure at specific spots of the foot that were influential on the stretch reflexes we use to fire off our muscle chains and patterns in a positive manner, but are flexible so as not to impede, restrict, or over-pressure regions of the foot.
They provide a cuing to the body, just as gentle hand on the back saying, ‘this way.’ It provides input, but does not force or restrict motion.
The pairing with a basic shoe model was to allow for a simple foam base to provide cushion and not alter the influence of the Currex insole.
Quick aside –
The arch of the foot – the act of pronation – is NOT FOR THE PURPOSE of shock absorption. To design a shock absorber that moves millimeters in one small region (in addition to other mechanical disadvantages), to absorb 100s of pounds of force – is poor physics, and completely misses the intricacies of the three-dimensional mechanics and neuro-musculoskeletal ongoings necessary for human propulsion.
Another aside –
Be easy on shoe sales people and coaches.
They are doing the best the can with the information provided. They are knowledgeable, sincere, and helpful. They aren’t necessarily wrong.
They were educated well by the sales reps regarding what the tech is designed to do and sell.
There is simply more going on with human mechanics that their training addresses.
Same with health care practitioners and movement specialists.
They are doing the best with what they have in the current social media and marketing climate
that reduces great tools and philosophies like muscle scrapers, ASTYM, cupping, dry needling, Active Release Technique, MacKenzie Method, Gray Institute, PRI, etc to become the magic bullet, catch-all fix-alls.
Like shoes, they are tools. They are part of a larger picture in the process of it all; not the answer to everything.
All of that (this post as well as the previous 4 articles) to establish a bit of the foundation from which to finally start building some application upon.
With all of the ongoings and complexities of the human body, how can I
Better understand said complexities AND have the ability to influence them in a positive manner,
Improving my performance (time, distances) and my resiliency (safety and injury prevention)
So as to tap into this extravagant participatory ongoing connection to the self within, the physical self, and the world among me, such that I can step ever so closer to that unitive consciousness, transcendent experiential flavor of flow, the zone, and oneness – or that thing we call fun?
Well, we just started with shoes.
Next, we will move into the relationship between our fuel and muscle power – breathing and core power – your diaphragm and internal obliques.
And for that, we look to the lion and gazelle.
© Dr Adam Fujita