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

Sat, 28 Apr 2007 05:00:53 -0400

On Your Feet


How many pairs of running shoes line your closet or clutter your doorstep? If you're typical of runners, you can count a half-dozen with mileage left in them. My current total is an even dozen.

And how many of those pairs feel just right? If you're lucky, you can name one or two. I'd hoped for better from all of mine than they have delivered.

That's why I now own 12 pairs, most with little or no mileage on them. Each represents a failed search for the perfect shoe.

Perfection might be too much to ask of our shoes, but we keep asking. We want them to give no trouble from first use to retirement.

Of course this almost never happens, so we blame the shoes for letting us down. (In fact, RC 662 carries that title, with a question mark, "Blame The Shoes?")

Even if shoes could be perfect, we can't. Our biomechanical oddities and running excesses cause most of our troubles. Even the best shoes can't overcome these imperfections and indiscretions.

This I know from having worn out at least 100 pairs of shoes since the 1960s. They weren't perfect but were the best available at the time. We ran hundreds of miles as a team, as if it were a mini-marriage: for better or worse, in lameness and in health, parting only when the shoes died of old age.

I haven't quite averaged one injury per shoe change. But the breakdowns have come often enough to confirm the first of the following beliefs about shoes and their connection to healthy, happy feet.

1. Shoes are directly responsible for no more than half of running injuries. The other perpetrators are running too far, too fast, too soon, too often. Relief often comes from correcting those mistakes, not from changing shoes.

With a recent injury, I blamed the shoes worn at the time and replaced them. Later I forgave them and credited the same pair for my quick recovery. These shoes weren't as bad as I thought, or as good. Readjusting the running routine helped the most.

2. We wear shoes on both feet. If our shoe choice were bad, we should hurt equally on both sides. Yet most injuries are one-sided, again pointing to a running error as the prime suspect, not the shoe choice.

Twin injuries happened to me only once, when calf muscles tore the same way at the same time on both legs. I immediately and permanently retired the shoes worn then.

3. The "popular" injuries go in cycles. Achilles tendinitis and plantar fasciitis had their day; now it's the IT band's time. Shoe changes that ease one problem can aggravate another.

In the 1990s, the IT band might have been an obscure rock group, so seldom was it mentioned. Now at least half the runners who come to me with medical complaints point to the outside of a knee. I suspect that the stability features in most of today's shoes contribute to the IT-band epidemic by controlling too much the normal shock-absorbing motion of the feet and legs.

4. Shoes should be seen and not heard. A shoe that slams, slaps or scrapes is too hard or stiff, and it transfers the impact forces upward. A quiet shoe absorbs shock as it should.

Silent shoes let you sneak up on people. To avoid startling lone runners and walkers when coming from behind, I intentionally make foot noises to alert them.

5. The best shoe is the least you can wear, not the most you can lug around (and afford). The lighter and more flexible the shoe, the more it lets you run as nature designed us to run -- barefoot.

As a kid who couldn't yet find good shoes, I ran barefoot whenever the weather and surface allowed -- and was never healthier. Next I ran mainly in flimsy racing shoes, and finally in bulkier models. The trend toward more and more of a shoe parallels my trend toward more and more injuries.

6. Barefoot running is impractical, but walking that way is the best exercise for keeping the feet healthy and happy. The next-best is wearing sandals or slippers that let the feet function naturally.

I like the Asian tradition of stepping out of shoes at the house door. Recently I've taken to wearing the plastic sandals called Crocs outdoors, winter and summer.

7. A runner's two greatest loyalties are not to any shoe company or model, but to the left foot and the right. You wear what performs best in your road test, not what the ads and shoe ratings say is best.

I'm not brand- or model-loyal. Only some good runs in a pair of shoes can win my fidelity to a shoe, and then only until a better one comes along. The search for the perfect one never ends.
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