The Great Shoe Debate - James Kuegler

Posted by Valerie 02/06/2016 0 Comment(s) Articles,

"I have a question about shoes.
Its been probably 2 months since I started 'changing' my run form. Before that, there was plenty of heel striking going on, but I guess my shoes are made to suit that.
 I'm sitting here now, and find the front half of my feet are real achy, and my calves are getting tight when they wouldn't usually. I've noticed more recently my shoes haven't felt quite right, but put it down to tired legs. When I was really concentrating on everything I was doing this morning, I got thinking about how my feet land, and its definitely not on the heel.
 So if that's the case, and I'm landing flatter of my foot then technically I'm landing on an angle because of how the shoe is made? 
How do I fix this?"
It is an interesting discussion point and something that I am very passionate about, so I thought I'd share my very very long winded response with you.
The story starts in approximately 1963 when Bill Bowerman came to NZ and spent some time with Arthur Lydiard who was in the process of revolutionizing running with the idea of running long slow distances for cardiovascular fitness at a time when the medical profession thought this detrimental to the individuals health. Bowerman came up with a hypothesis that if he could get his University of Oregon runners to extend their stride and achieve/maintain a high cadence then the would ultimately be faster runners. A fair enough hypothesis, though Bowerman who had a small shoe making business quickly realised that his runners were getting heel injuries as the shoes of the day offered little protection (see the photo below of an Arthur Lydiard shoe from that time) from the amount of impact that was being placed upon the solitary calcaneus bone with each foot fall. This style of running became the trend of the day with many Mof the runners or yester-year talking about how they always prided themselves on having an incredibly long stride.

Bowerman, and Phil Knight founded Blue Ribbon Sport in 1972, a company which later became Nike, named after the Greek goddess of victory. Bowerman and Knight developed shoes to counter this, adding increasing amounts of protective cushioning under the heel and in fact the entire shoe. In 1978 by the time the squabbling Dassler brothers Adolf (responsible for Adi-das) and Rudolf (responsible for Puma) caught up, Nike went on a marketing campaign claiming that inward rotation of the ankle or pronation was the cause of running injuries, and naively the sporting and medical world believed them. 'Features' became the way of staying ahead of the game, to the point that by the early 2000's running shoes were vastly different to the Lydiard originals in the photo above and stacked full of crazy air pockets, plastic posting and other such features.
The great irony being that at an Olympic level, athletes continued to race in unsupportive, flat, minimal track spikes. What did they know that everyone else didn't or was this just a case of habit.
A similar story occurred in the world of sports drinks, medicine and in fact almost all areas of western society. I don't want to come across like a member of the flat earth society but essentially 'he' with the biggest and smartest marketing budget has won, and hence McDonalds and Coca-Cola, are two of the most recognizable brands on the face of our little planet. I have a hypothesis that I refer to as The Inverse Marketing Law which essentially states that the more a company spends on marketing, the less likely it is that you need their product/the worse it is for you. Think about which you see more advertising for: McDonalds v Fresh Fruit, Alcohol/Bottled Water/Coke v Tap Water, Panadol/Neurofen v Sunlight/Fresh Air, Les Mills/Home Exercise Gear v more natural forms of exercise. You get the picture, again another blog for another time.
The pendulum is swinging back the other way with all of these things. This began again with Nike in 2004 when they came to the realization that what they were essentially selling lies and released the Nike Free which stripped away almost all of the features and returned to somewhere near where all this madness started. Run Free was the slogan the premise being to allow the 26 bones and 33 joints of each foot to do as they were supposed to do. At the same time Robert Fliri was developing the idea of an individually toed boat shoe with a razor siped rubber sole, the shoe was eventually adopted by Vibram, in a bold move that saw the 65 year old Italian rubber sole making company embark on a shoe, albeit a weird looking one. The shoe was adopted by 'barefoot runners' and a huge catalyst for their rapid growth in the running and fitness world is due to the antics of Barefoot Ted in Chris McDougalls's best selling book Born To Run (if you haven't read it, you should). Vibram FiveFingers + Nike Free has lead to a rapid back pedaling by every running shoe manufacturer introducing shoe models that have less stack height (padding), less pitch (front to back height difference), less features, more flexible composition, more anatomical shape to resemble how a human foot should look.
But, why?
Anthropology tells us through a range of anatomical changes between us and our tree bound ancestors that we were designed to run long distances at a time when our human endurance was essential for survival. Features include, to name but a few: a high concentration of sweat glands and fur less skin in which to cool ourselves down, the ability to take more than one breath per step, a long torso allowing our lower body and upper body to counter rotate and stabilize when running, and a head rested directly above our shoulders. So I guess the take home is that our bodies have been pretty well adapted to run for long distances for the last two million years. I'm not going to suggest that this was always barefoot, and in fact I'll go the other way and say that every civilization since the dawn of time has created some form of protective footwear from flax and whatever was readily available to be used at certain times for certain tasks, think fishing off a reef for example. These were very simple though and certainly didn't include a heel lift, nor pronation control, just enough protection for whatever was underfoot.
Still reading?
So the original question was "is it the case that if I try and land flatter/under my centre of gravity in my current shoe I will be landing on an angle because of the how the shoe is made?"
Often times yes. The majority of running shoes are designed to suit the Bowerman hypothesis, and therefore mean that to land flat in the shoe one is essentially running in high heels. Have you ever tried running in high (stiletto) heels? If not, go and get your heels, or borrow some and see how easy/difficult it is to run. To make it possible you have to land flat otherwise I am almost certain that you will break your ankle. Such built up running shoes have a huge impact on the intelligence of the foot (and in fact the whole body, again another blog for another time) which is disrupted by limited movement and maximum padding within the shoe, not to mention (though far less of an issue now) the weight. The foot is designed to move and adapt to the surface underfoot, so to lock it in a rigid coffin is to completely ignore one of the primary functions of the foot. You feet like your hands have millions of nerve endings, the reason being that your brain require feedback as to where you foot is in space another system that is disrupted by the sensory deprivation chamber, and in fact the more padding in the shoe the harder your foot will have to hit the ground to push through the padding in order to gain that feedback that your brain requires. Again I hypothesize that there is an exponential relationship between the amount of padding in a shoe and the number of ankle sprains, the rationale being that the quicker your brain receives information as to where your foot and ankle is in space the quicker it can respond and feedback information to the muscles in order to stabilize/control movement and potentially limit lateral movement.
So, how do we fix this?
In an ideal world, we would strip the shoe away completely and use the absolute minimum required to perform a task. Unfortunately for most there are a couple of reasons why this is not the best idea, these being (but not limited to) The intrinsic muscles of the feet are not strong enough, the deep calf muscles are not strong enough particularly in a lengthening capacity (controlling the foot as it kisses the ground), the sole of the foot is too tender, the joints of the foot do not move as well as they should. Having said that there are hundreds of thousands of case studies around the world of people who as a result of taking their shoes off have been able to run again after long periods of inability due to back pain, knee pain, ankle pain, ITB, plantar fascia etc etc. It's not a panacea, but (again) I hypothesise that this is due to a more natural form with a shorter stride, higher cadence, more erect stance, less impact on the joints, less load on the muscles and therefore a happier body. Perhaps the lesser of two evils is to deal with the potential tightness of calf muscles and tender feet, we can have that debate as I'm sitting on the fence.
What I suggest is a gradual, slow, delicate process of stripping back the layers and exploring new options. I certainly don't want anyone to go and burn their current shoes, instead I would suggest that when it is time to but some new shoes you look at the options of finding something that is flat, or much closer to flat, with a simple flexible structure and an anatomical design that will allow your feet to function much closer to how they are meant to. From there, the best idea is to merge the two shoes, so initially small amounts, and then more and more as your body is able. Emphasis on the time factor, this is a slow gradual process. For some it will be 1-2 months, for others up to 6 months or longer.
More important than all of this is to learn good form, as ultimately if the form is good you could run in anything and get away with it. You can still run well in a heavily pitched shoe, it just means that in a controlled environment, the foot will kiss the ground more towards flat.

A special thanks to James Kuegler from James Kuegler Coaching for providing this article. 

Check out James' website for workshops and personal coaching options at


Leave a Comment