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It’s the cushioning that kills

As I told you the other day, I just devoured and obsessively loved Born to Run by Christopher McDougall.

I loved everything about it. I love that it literally pulled me out my door to run on a Saturday night at 7pm—when I’m a certified, card-carrying, morning runner. I love that I think I’m going to go again tonight. I love that it has made me feel like anything is possible. (When you read what these runners have done (eg. running 100 miles straight across mountains in the dark), you suddenly know that you can make it for a measly ten.)

Most notably, I love that I learned this: cushioning is bad for us. Sounds weird, right? Many instances spring to mind where I would literally beg for a little cushioning—feedback on my writing, the end of a relationship, a pillow when you’re trying to sleep on a plane…I could go on and on.

Killer cushioning…since 1972

Did you know that running shoes, as we know them, were created as recently as 1972. 1972. Remember Chariots of Fire? It looked like those dudes were running in jazz shoes. Go back farther and farther until you get to the people who didn’t even have shoes (or go to remote places today where they still don’t)—they were still running. For sport, for survival, for food and because it feels really, really good. Many of them ran 50, 75, 100’s of miles at a time. Barefoot.

Duh. Of course they did. But in our westernized minds, we think we need fancy cushioned shoes to run. Because that’s what we’ve been told. By these guys:

Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman, Nike’s founders, created the concept of ‘jogging’ and they created a running style that had you reach forward with your leg and hit the ground with your heel first (up to that point, everyone ran by landing on the fat of the midfoot pad with shorter strides). Because there is no natural padding on the heel, you simply couldn’t land on it unless you suddenly had a shoe with a cushioned heel. [Note: read that last sentence again.]

In an astounding marketing move, these two men created a new sport (jogging) that depended on a new way to run (the heel strike), neither of which could exist without their brand new, never before seen, bright and shiny, product.

Excuse my French, but, holy shit.

I read this part of the book five times in a row, my mind churning. How many other ‘cushioned shoes’ have we been sold? And what have they done to our bodies, our minds, our crafts? How else have we cushioned ourselves and therefore deprived ourselves of our true connection to the art and pure love of what it is that we do?

  • With the advent of cushioned shoes, running injuries skyrocketed. While they promised to make us go faster.
  • With the advent of processed and fast food, obesity and degenerative disease skyrocketed. While it promised to make our lives simpler.
  • With the advent of marketing schemes, bad writing that is unconnected to heart or soul skyrocketed. While it promised to make our lives successful overnight.
  • And with the advent of _______ , _______ skyrocketed. While it promised to make our lives ______.

Go ahead, fill in the blank. And then kick off those shoes, bring your feet back to your ground…and see what happens.

Image credit: R. Motti

Join the discussion 23 Comments

  • Nicki says:

    Just another review and reason this book is on my MUST READ and OWN list. I just have to find it but may end up breaking my buy local and ordering it online.

  • Julie Roads says:

    Nicki, my little Vineyard local bookstore had it…so I bet you can get it. Sadly (well, for our wallets, not for McDougall), it’s been so successful that it’s still only available in hardcover.

    Let me know how you like it!!!

  • Aaron Pogue says:

    Wow, you’re speaking my language! (Not that I’m surprised.)

    I’ve mentioned this to you briefly before, but I’m trying to set up a company that pays artists — really good artists — to produce works into the public domain. It’s a lofty plan, and a huge commitment, and it’s terrifying.

    I keep agonizing over some of the “business decisions” I’ve made (and will be making) that are essentially the core principles of the whole venture. I keep thinking, “Well, I could use copyright to generate some income for the business, and just go public domain after 90 days.” Or, “Well, I could at least enforce my trademark. I have to do that much, right?”

    But the whole concept of intellectual property is bad. It’s bad for the public, and it’s bad for artists. And even though it’s not quite as new as running shoes, it’s not as old as we often think. For thousands of years, artists were paid to be artists, and the majority of the stuff they created belonged to the public. That’s how the Renaissance happened.

    And with the advent of copyright, shallow corporate “art” skyrocketed — along with the perception that artists are shiftless and flaky, because most of the serious, responsible ones got real jobs. While it promised to make our lives easier.

  • Jason says:

    Well, a read the book a while ago. It is a fine read, but from a scientific standpoint, (I have a degree in Sports Medicine) the increase in running injuries increased basically due to the fact that MORE PEOPLE STARTED RUNNING. Think about it… it is the law of averages. Many of the footnotes in the book cited studies to support his theories, which is fine, but you must also consider the study groups. I worked in a bio mechanics lab at UConn, one of the leaders in such studies, and I learned many things, notably how to read and interpret studies. The same is true of life, it is all in your interpretation.
    I liked the book. I would never consider running barefoot. Those two parallel line will never converge. That’s just my perspective.

    • Julie Roads says:

      To each his own, ‘Jason’. I’m running in the Nike Free’s right now and it has transformed my running. And there is evidence to support how halting natural pronation and changing the way we were built to run causes issues. My experience is enough for me.

      Anyway, you are welcome to take this as literally as you’d like. That’s totally your prerogative.

  • Becky Pearce says:

    I’m downloading that book to my Kindle app now. I’m a new runner – only been at it for about 7 weeks – and just yesterday finally built up to 3.5 miles so am running my first 5k this Saturday. I’m feeling motivated right now so I may wait to read the book until I really need the push. :)

    I’ve struggled with pain & discomfort, so a couple of weeks ago I did some reading on causes & solutions and changed my run so I was landing midfoot AND shortened my strides. It’s less of a full-out run and more of a casual jog. It’s made a tremendous difference for me. I’m amazed. Most nights I feel like I could run forever. I’ll have to see how things go by the time I need new shoes again and maybe invest in something with less padding.

    • Julie Roads says:

      Becky! That is so great! I’d say…don’t wait to read this book. And get yourself some Nike Frees – you don’t even have to think about landing on your midfoot. It just happens naturally. I tried to run 8 miles in them on Saturday…and ended up running 10.

  • Dad says:

    The reversal theory again. Less is more.

  • When I finished reading Born To Run, I was enjoying a weekend at the beach…and decided that it would be a great idea to test out the barefoot approach on the sand. AMAZING! I ran 5km but could’ve kept going for much, much longer. I blame the scorching Nicaraguan sun for forcing me to stop short.

    Any way, some of the worst cushioning I’ve experienced has been the whole “You are great at whaever you try!” shmoop. While promising to protect us, family, friends, and pop culture indoctrinate us with feel-good types of motivation, but, in reality, failing is so vital to development. We all need support and a small grade of cushioning every once in a while, but hearing the hard truth can be just as beneficial.

    • Julie Roads says:

      Love that, Marcella! Great example of cushioning gone awry. And, I have a beach run planned soon!!!

  • So, Nike wins again… you bought one of their products. Hee hee. What the book did NOT cover was all of those people that were NOT trained to run. The Mexican Indians learned through their culture. All of the runners in the book LEARNED how to run. A pair of shoes cannot teach. I correct runners’ mistakes and they improve. Running is a SKILL to be improved upon. Happy to hear YOU are improving your running skills.

    My two cents

    • Julie Roads says:

      Yes – Nike looked at the evidence and the studies and noted that they were wrong and offered a viable solution. Should they be punished for that?

      AND – McDougall does mention – quite a bit about being trained and skills and culture and everything you just said he didn’t mention.

  • Walker says:

    Wow.. I’m thinking about what cushioning I’ve had and have in my life… it is a little breath taking to know we’ve been drinking the kool aid….
    I’ll have to think about this topic for a bit.

  • The untrained people not mentioned in the book I was referring to were those individuals that “took up” running in the 1970’s, those he accredited with the “skyrocketing” of running injuries. Just because you run, you are not a “runner”, nor is it true that just because you blog, you are not a “blogger”. There are levels and degrees, pre-existing injuries and conditions. I BEGAN as a barefoot runner BEFORE Zola Budd took out Mary Decker in the Olympics. I developed stress fractures in both legs. I learned that everyone is built differently. Me, I can STILL do 8 miles in under an hour… in shoes. (Saucony-36 pairs in 23 years);-)

  • Julie,
    Born to Run was an excellent read, and, while I do not agree that Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman created the running boom (I will go with Arthur Lydiard on that), they certainly were the most successful at capitalizing on it. The story of how Knight screwed over his “partner” (Tiger shoes in Japan – Phil was the U.S. importer) by ripping off their designs and leaving them without an American outlet would read like a lurid novel.

    I was fortunate enough to start my running career pre-Nike, when running shoes were minimal covers. As a result, I have been a mid-foot striker from the start and seldom wear out the heels on my running shoes. So I have always gone for the lightest, least structured shoe possible. (Adidas Marathon 10 right now, since you asked!)

    But I hope “Born to Run” does not inspire too many people to rush out and dash down the road or trail or beach barefoot. It is a hard-surfaced world out there and we all need a little protection. At least until we can build up a hard outer shell.

    And that is where the discussion get philosophical and I get off the bus. Thanks.

    • Julie Roads says:

      Bill – great point…and thanks for the Adidas tip! (and yes, I totally would’ve asked). The funny thing was, on that Saturday night when I flew out the door, I actually put my Chuck Taylors on. I laced them up, looked down at my feet – then out at the road – and then said, No f*ckin’ way. And put my Asics back on – and decided to look into the Nike Frees the next day.

      Hopefully others will have that same moment of…hmmm…maybe not all the way to that!

      Thanks for your great comment…and for running all these years.

  • Dave Doolin says:

    Interesting. Haven’t read the book. But the notion of running on the forward part of the foot make sense to me… biomechanically.

    This allows the leg to store elastic strain energy. Like a spring.

    This reminds me of an argument in the paleo community 10 years ago, where the authors of some study decided that T. Rex was a carrion eater because it wasn’t able to run fast enough to catch prey. See, T. Rex is big, like an elephant. And everyone knows elephants don’t run fast.

    I was like, “WTF?”

    Damn thing looks like a roadrunner on steroids. The amount of elastic energy T. Rex might store in those legs could be *huge*. In contrast, elephants stomp around on tree trunks. And I’ll agree that tree trunks don’t run very fast.

    Personally, I think they confused the notion on velocity with acceleration. Yeah, Ole T. Rex ain’t coming out of the blocks all that fast. He’s got a lot of mass to get moving. But once that critter builds up a good head of steam… I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near it.

    You know, like a bicycle, right? Not that many cars can move off a red light as fast as bicycle, but by the other side of the intersection, the race is won, and it ain’t the bike winning it.

    Anyway, since I was a dunderhead engineer at the time (of the worst strip, having abandoned geology), I very prudently kept my mouth shut. Nothing good could have come pointing out the obvious.

    Biomechanics indeed.

    But I’ll tell you, one of the very cool thing about having as much education as I have is that I can challenge an expert: “Oh yeah? You write any papers on that? Show me how the equations work.” ’cause I’m good for it.

  • Dave Doolin says:

    And returning to the topic at hand, I got used to running in boots in the Corps, so the point is moot to me. Oorah.

  • ryan says:

    Related question to you and your readers – Will a mid-foot-strike running style lessen shin splints? I used to run a bit when I was young. Every time I got to day 3 or 4, (day 2 now that I am over 30) my shins tie themselves around my knees.

    As for filling in the blanks: With the advent of the internet, boredom skyrocketed, while it promised to fill our lives with knowledge. Or something like that.

    You make the book sound intriguing; I’ll look it up.

  • Andi says:

    Wow, so powerful! I think this applies to modern medicine as well.

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