Minimalist Running Approach Aims to Use Natural Long-Distance Abilities

While it may seem that running is a relatively painless activity, especially when compared to traditional contact sports such as football and rugby, the reality is that running hurts.

On a college campus like Pomona, where the student body is motivated in its pursuits both in and out of the classroom, many of us find solace in a daily (or weekly) fitness routine. While some stick to the sweaty, stuffy weight room or the cardio room in the Rains Center, others prefer to brave the streets of Claremont and go for a jog.

For those who identify as runners (whether for a daily slog or a weekly romp), chances are that you have experienced some sort of running-related injury. While the more common injuries are often benign and could consist of a pulled hamstring or sore knees, injuries sustained from repeatedly pounding the pavement can be as severe as fractured bones or destroyed cartilage.

According to a recent New York Times article previewing this weekend’s New York City Marathon, 90 percent of people training for the marathon have experienced some sort of injury due to running.The discussions about how to stay healthy and treat injuries range from the practical to the downright loony.

A recent trend in injury prevention discussions has been inspired by what some say are the roots of human evolution. Many avid runners have turned towards a minimalist approach to running and claim that the extra padding and support provided by high-tech running shoes do more to cause injury than protect from it. Now, runners are not only skimping down on the size of their shorts, they are also looking for more lightweight and less substantial shoes. These runners want to find shoes that allow the foot to feel as though it is running bare.

If you go into a specialty running shoe store, the sales person will attempt to determine whether you pronate or supinate when you walk (either roll on the outside or inside of your foot). They will also diagnose your arch and then recommend a certain type of structured shoe that will best support and correct your slightly deformed foot strike. According to the proponents of the minimalist movement, shoe companies created the classification of “deformities” to sell more expensive shoes.A recent book by Chris McDougall, Born to Run, presents an evolutionary argument for why human beings are the perfect long-distance runners. According to McDougall, the ultra technical, microchip-infused running shoes have actually done more harm than good. The argument goes as follows: the human body on its own is actually designed to withstand the impact of running; however, the advent of the cushioned and supportive running shoes built to protect ones own body from its “deformities” has prohibited the natural corrective mechanisms in the legs from working properly. High-tech shoes inhibit the muscles in the lower leg and feet from becoming strong, which destroys the integrity of the body as a running machine.

While I am no biology expert, the argument makes intuitive sense. If the muscles in the lower leg and ankle are never developed because of the artificial support provided by high-tech shoes, then these supportive muscles will not be able to properly function as corrective mechanisms.

“I have chubby toes, and apparently that makes me better able to run long distances,” said Alicia Freese PO ’10, a member of the Pomona-Pitzer women’s cross-country team. McDougall argues that there are many characteristics that point to humans being natural-born runners, and one of these is the size and direction of toes.

Zoe Meyers PO ’10 jumped on the minimalist train but quickly jumped off after the lack of cushioning in her lightweight shoes caused severe inflammation of her plantar fascia. “With all the pavement we are running on, it ridiculous to think that our feet don’t need some sort of cushion or protection,” the disgruntled senior said. Meyers has only recently recovered from injuries related to her lightweight experiment.

In his book, McDougall recounts the story of a western traveler who encounters a group of indigenous southern Africans who utilize humans’ ability to run long distances more efficiently than any other animal as a means for survival. According to the story, these men actually chased an antelope for so long that it died of exhaustion. While many animals are faster sprinters than humans, humans can outrun even a horse if the distance is long enough.

If humans are, as many argue, natural-born runners, then why are running injuries so prevalent among those training for marathons, cross-country, and track events? The easiest answer to give to this is the material we are forced to run on: pavement. While our ancestors were chasing antelope across soft dirt, we are forced to pound our legs on hard pavement.

We can also point to the sedentary lifestyle to which we have become accustomed and claim that because we are not used to running a lot, when we start to do so, our body is not able to adjust.If you agree with the many runners who have jumped on board the minimalist movement, you can point to the artificial crutches of high-tech shoes as the reason for injury prevalence.

One entrepreneur has taken this idea to the extreme and developed a lightweight rubber shoe called the Vibram Five Fingers. The “shoe” resembles an industrial rubber glove and has individual sleeves for each toe. While it provides protection from the coarse texture of our hardened streets and sidewalks, it does nothing to correct or support the foot during each stride.

While it is still too early to determine whether this new trend will have lasting success in eliminating injury from the runners’ lifestyle, some members of the P-P cross-country teams have embraced the concept behind the movement by striding barefoot over the soft grass of the soccer and football fields.

Facebook Comments

Leave a Reply