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

Tue, 27 Mar 2001 08:21:24 -0500

On Our Feet


Bob Dolphin and his wife Lenore passed through Eugene last week on their way home from a marathon. The Dolphins, both in their 70s, travel to races about half the weekends of the year.

Bob runs the races; his marathon count exceeds 250. Lenore supports Bob and usually volunteers to help at the races they attend. Together they're directing next month's Yakima River Canyon Marathon, which was meant to be our lunchtime subject.

Shoe choices weren't on our agenda. But the subject usually comes up when two or more runners meet.

I noticed that Bob wore lightweight Nikes. The model was unfamiliar to me, but it looked like a racing shoe. "Do you run marathons in those?" I asked.

"I do," he said. "I think they are why I've run smoother and faster lately."

Such thinking goes against shoe gospel. We're taught that we need maximum support, and the longer we run, the more shoe we require. An industry is built around putting more into and onto shoes.

Bob Dolphin joins a fringe group of runners who don't buy this concept. They think the best shoes are the least they can get by with, not the most they they carry.

Rich Englehart has surveyed some of these runners -- and at least one rogue scientist who's convinced that less is better -- for an upcoming article in Marathon & Beyond. His devotees of minimal footwear include Jack Foster and Anne Audain, both former world record-holders from New Zealand.

Rich, who thrives on running high mileage in racing shoes, also sent me a list of questions. My longtime leanings are also toward lighter-is-better. His questions and my answers:

"YOU'VE WRITTEN a few times that you run in this type of shoe. How long has this been true?"

Forever, almost. In high school I often ran -- and sometimes even raced -- barefoot. And I've rarely worn socks.

So my preference has always been to run as close to "naked" as possible -- to feel somewhat in touch with the ground. Shoes that allow this feeling are increasingly hard to find, without going to strictly racing models that are quite expensive ounce for ounce and wear out quickly.

"COULD YOU give a brief description of some standard characteristics of the shoes you run in?"

I look for the lightest possible all-purpose models, adaptable to both daily runs and races. Main requirements: plenty of flexibility in the forefoot, heels of cushy single-density material, and a "quiet" (as opposed to slapping) run.

"WHAT TYPICALLY happens if you try to run in a mainstream trainer?"

The early warning system is my achilles tendon(s). The first signal that a shoe doesn't agree with me is soreness in one or both achilles.

Beyond that I simply feel awkward in shoes that are too bulky and stiff. In general the lighter and more flexible the shoe, the smoother the run.

"WHEN YOU mention your shoe preferences to people in the running world, what sorts of responses do you get?"

Disbelief. Like training slower to race faster or taking walk breaks to run longer, wearing lighter shoes to run injury-freer is too weird a concept for most runners to think of mimicking.

They say something like, "Well, it works for you because you're a lightweight yourself and don't run many miles. But because I'm bigger and run more, I need to wear more."

My response: I review my injury history until the listener's eyes glaze. Then I say that more of these troubles came from wearing the "right" shoes than the "wrong" ones.

"AS ONETIME Runner's World editor you oversaw the annual shoe issue, and you once edited a magazine published by Nike. Did your contact with the shoe industry leave any lasting impressions?"

This is all ancient history. I've intentionally kept my distance from the shoe industry for almost 20 years.

My old impressions: Modern shoes made it possible for runners of all sizes and shapes to take to the roads and up their mileage, which made the first Boom possible. But these companies were lured into the same thinking that runners are:

If some of something is good (in this case some support features), then more must be better. This isn't true with mileage or speedwork, and it isn't with shoe materials -- at least not for some of us.

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