Friday, August 5, 2016

Toastmasters: Minimalist Running Shoes

My most recent Toastmasters speech was a "demonstration talk". While the demonstration shouldn't be the entire thing or only source of information, the purpose was to work into your speech demonstrating a process or product, providing additional context with the demonstration.

Having recently bought a new pair of running shoes and having to switch back to a brand I'd previously used after my current brand ceasing making the product lines that were fully minimalist (in my definition), the concept was in the front of my mind and I thought I'd explain the benefits of minimalist running shoes and how they different from conventional shoes. I brought in one of my new minimalist pairs along with a cheap pair of Nikes (that I'll be returning) to compare them to. I passed one of each around the room, while demonstrating with the remaining of each pair. 

(This topic also overlaps with this post from a few years ago.)

Title: Minimize Your Shoes to Maximize Your Health. 

Running is often portrayed as a very accessible sport - you don't need a team, or a playing field, or any special equipment. Just put on some athletic clothes and shoes and head out the door. 

However, there's nonetheless a market, for plenty of things you don't necessarily need for running. And the shoes, in particular, are marketed as something you DO need, as a very specialized tool that will help your running and keep you from getting injured. So after I'd been running for a while, I did what I thought I was "supposed" to do, went to a running store, and got fitted. 

They had me run a short distance, and tell whether I over or under pronated, and asked about my arches, and sold me something that was suppose to be just right to essentially fix things that were apparently wrong with my feet. I took those home and started running - and they hurt! I could barely walk in them. I started googling to figure out what went wrong, and ended up going down the trail of minimalist shoes. 

Now, at the extreme, these are barefoot shoes, like the Vibram Five Fingers you've probably heard of, that fit like a glove with separate toes, or even running sandals, that are just the flat sole and straps to keep it on. But it's also a large category that looks like a shoe - although at races, other runners can still notice the difference and comment on them, I've found - but is less of a shoe. It's there more to keep your feet from getting dirty, than to fix anything or change how your foot moves, the way that conventional running shoes.

I've been running in minimalist shoes for several years now, and have no intention of going back. So today I have a pair of minimalist and regular shoes to compare, and show you how the minimalist features can actually be better for you.

1. Low stack height. 

This is the thickness of the sole, and is typically at least 20 to 30 mm, whereas minimalist shoes are closer to 4 to 8 mm - about quarter of an inch or less. Shouldn't that cushioning help you when you're hitting the ground with impact while running? Actually, there are studies with gymnasts, who of course are jumping off stuff and landing on mats, that show more cushioning actually leads to more injuries! How is that? Because you body knows how to land on the ground. It knows if you're falling or jumping that you'll be landing on the earth and the most surfaces are fairly hard and rigid. It prepares itself to brace and stabilize itself and land without being hurt. But when the landing is on cushioning, it gets confused! The stabilizing doesn't work, and actually leads to more injuries.

2. Zero drop. 

The drop is the difference in stack height at the heel and at the toe. This is at least 10 mm on conventional shoes, and zero or just a few mm in mimimalist shoes. Think of women's high heels - most people realize those aren't healthy, because you're raising the ankle of your foot and maintaining a contraction in your ankle, achilles tendon, and calf muscles. But pretty much every modern shoe has a raised heel. Even if it's not as steep as a 4" stilleto, you're still maintaining a contraction, and keeping your ankle from fully expanding and reaching its full range of motion. Over time, this makes it more susceptible to stress or pressure causing it to stretch when it's not used to it, and snap and cause injury.

3. Wide toe box. 

Think of the shape your foot when you're barefoot. And then think of the shape of the shoe. Your toes end up being all squished! If you want to take advantage of your foot's engineering and natural architecture, you have ot let the toes splay out and have a solid foundation to land on. They can land properly and brace yourself for that impact if they're all smushed together.

4. Flexible sole and no arch support. 

A regular sold is thick and solid - it keeps your foot in one position. But your arch and sole of the foot moves naturally. Minimalist shoes, being thinner and deliberately flexible, can move - however your foot wants to move, it moves with it. It also makes your arch support itself - a problem, perhaps, if it's not used to it, but by nature it will build muscle to be built-in support. Forcing your foot into artificial support is like putting a cast on your arm - and leaving it there indefinitely! Of course it will feel weak and like its can't stand up on its own, because you've let it atrophy.

All of these features add up to a shoe that isn't try to fix anything - because until you use the shoes that are trying fix it, there isn't anything to fix! Our feet are designed to support and move and we're just ignoring all of that by forcing into a rigid shoes and not letting it move or develop muscles on its own. Now yes, the more used to a regular shoe your foot is, the more gradually you would want to transition to something else, because it will take time to re-learn and develop that support on its own. But it's really re-learning, because it used to be able to do this, when you were a little kid learning to walk. 

So the next time you're looking for the perfect shoe, maybe it's time to look at one that is less of a shoe. 

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