Thursday, June 25, 2009

The $900 Foot

“I’ve spent $900 on this foot so far. If it gets injured again I think my husband is going to divorce me!”

Words spoken recently by a plantar fascitis sufferer. She had been dealing with this issue for at least a year. Between seeing her podiatrist for orthotics and cortisone injections, me, and then most recently a rolfer, the foot pain had finally resolved. Now she was looking for guidance on getting back into running safely.

My response essentially was, “Run barefoot.”

I’ve finally reached the point where I can look a person in this situation in the eye and make this recommendation. This is in large part to reading the new book ‘Born to Run’ recently. I’ve been leaning in the minimalist shoe direction for about three years now in my own running. During this time I’ve discussed the benefits of getting away from orthotics and bulky stability shoes with only a few runners who seemed open-minded and good candidates for this approach.
Reading ‘Born to Run’ however, has caused a paradigm shift in my approach to running injuries, particularly to the feet. I realized that there are many other people, who are much more qualified than I, who believe that modern running shoes sometimes cause more problems than they help.

Think about the fact that in regions of the world where people don’t wear shoes, plantar fascitis is almost non-existent. So if we reverse engineer the problem, we can assume that there is something about shoes that actually promotes increased stress to the heel. So why do we then recommend to plantar fascitis sufferers that they need more cushioning or support in the form of heavier shoes or orthotics. Have you heard the definition of insanity? To continue doing the same thing and expecting different results.

Now I’m not saying you need to eschew running shoes altogether. But understand what they do. The main function of all the various motion control features is to decrease the amount of muscle contraction required to stabilize your foot. The flip side to this is that by only running in shoes, your feet become weaker with time. Imagine if you put on a nice soft neck brace. It would probably feel good for a while. You could totally relax your neck muscles and allow the brace to carry the weight of your head. Now imagine how you would feel upon removing it if you had left it on for two weeks. You would have experienced so much muscle atrophy that you could barely hold your head up. I see runners and other athletes everyday who are in otherwise great shape but who have weak feet. We forget that our feet are supported by muscles and other soft tissues that respond to appropriate conditioning by becoming stronger.

I’ve come to question if many if not most foot injuries, and even many knee injuries, would have happened in the first place had the person done regular training barefoot or in something like Vibram Five Fingers to experience what running shoeless feels like. Running this way, you experience constant feedback from your feet and adjust your gait accordingly. Your lower extremities become stronger with time, instead of weaker.

So, for our friend with the expensive foot, I honestly thought that running barefoot or in Vibrams on soft grass would be the safest means of getting back into running.