Innovation is not always productive.
Although Homo sapiens are incredibly advanced at inventing new measures of comfort and commodity, sometimes it can be more important to keep our enormous history in the front of our minds.
In this case, commodity has drastically changed the way we run, and not for the better. You see, the new norm for non-competitive running shoes is to have a nice, cushy heel – some more than an inch thick. While these may seem immediately comfortable, they have slowly altered the way we let our feet fall, and with crippling results.
So exactly how did our ancestors chase down game on the plains of Africa? Why, barefoot, of course.
Human beings are not physiologically equipped to run in a heel-to-toe motion. Modern running shoes as we know them have only been around for less than 50 years, which isn't nearly enough time for our on-the-move species to have made any drastic anatomical changes.
Consider first the structure of your leg. Even just glancing at a skeleton – if you have one handy – reveals that we have some fairly linear structures going on. In fact, it wouldn't be too difficult to draw a straight line from your hip to your heel. Now imagine standing on your head and having a close acquaintance drop a cinderblock on your heel three to four times a second. You can easily imagine how this would send painful shocks all the way up your legs.
If you were to turn back right-side-up and make that cinderblock weigh significantly more than you do, you would simulate running heel-to-toe.
Seemingly extreme examples aside, it boils down to force dispersion. Landing on your heel is jarring. Landing more on the balls of your feet helps diffuse the force of impact when you run across your foot and leg, effectively converting it into a manageable quantity. This concept was explored in-depth by Harvard University's Daniel E. Lieberman.
"Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners," his publishing in Nature Magazine, explained that our modern running habits are the driving factor behind repetitive running-related injuries.
So why isn't this incredibly public knowledge? Well it seems that it is on a competitive level. If you go to a serious running store, they're bound to have a section of "racing flats." That's right. Most marathon runners are essentially wearing athletic slippers to hit mile 26. Remember that guy you thought was weird because he ran in those shoes with toes? Next time you see him, ask him if he's ever gotten shin splints.
These simplistic shoes help because they make it uncomfortable to slam your heel into the ground. They simulate running barefoot. The data, as well as the leg providing the data, doesn't lie. It would seem that our hunter-gatherer forefathers didn't have to take much time off of running because they landed toward the front of their foot.
If you don't feel like buying a new pair of running shoes, which you should be doing about every six months anyways, then start with your running. It's hard to adjust, but try it. Go to the track outside of the rec center and see if you can run with your forefoot landing first. You may find yourself falling into an awkward, shuffling gait, but push through it. I've personally seen several of my friends seemingly fix their mild tendinitis and shin splints just by taking some of the shock off of their legs.
This information does not dictate that you should increase your mileage in a day, or magically be able to run twice as fast as you used to be able to.
This is just a way of tuning up your legs, so to speak. That being said, with proper form, you're going to be amazed how much more enjoyable it is to progress as a runner.
Andrew Fleming is a junior in neuroscience. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.