20 years of pain

(Re-posting from a 3+ year old post on a different blog. Still relevant, but notice the quaint usage of the word “wedge” before the term “drop” became widely used.)I usually donate my shoes to charity, but in the spirit of home brewed
scientific inquiry and plain curiosity, I decided to cut up a couple of
my old running shoes I’ve had jammed in the back of the closet. I was
wondering how high the heels were and how high they were in relation to
the toe area. We all take for granted that any type of activity shoe is
going to have more padding in the heel area. For years I’ve been hearing
how padding and stability are key in a shoe in order to prevent
injuries. I used to take this at face value as well, but my thinking has
changed over the last couple of years. Conventional wisdom and expert
opinion are at times wrong, or at least mis-guided. I am no expert
myself, but with the help of trial and error have come around to a few
things that work for me. Namely running barefoot or in minimalist shoes.
The two shoes below are from a past I will never return to,
archeological relics that seem increasingly backwards and absurd as more
time goes by.

So, on to the heels. It took me a couple of hours to exacto knife these
puppies, and some of the materials were “rotting” away which was kind of
gross. I probably don’t want to know what kinds of cancer causing
materials are in there. The shoes above are the Nike Air Max and Nike
Zoom air, I put a few hundred miles on each many many moons ago. At
first glance the Air Max looks much bulkier in the heel area with the
balloon bladders standing out in all their glory. The Zoom Air looks
decidedly low profile in comparison. Both have an obvious wedge shape
from the heel to the toe. Below are some traces and measurements that
better illustrate the wedge.

The Air Max was 3.5cm in the heel and 2cm in the ball of the foot area.
This shoe is an oldie, I think they’ve been in the closet for at least 6
years. When I look at this profile I can’t help but think back to all
the Runner’s World shoe reviews and various manufacturing marketing
materials with all their techno mumbo-jumbo about “space-age” materials
and always improving “features”. Balloons, pumps, more and better
padding. In other words marketing gimmicks.

The Zoom Air was 2.5cm in the heel area and 1.2cm in the ball of the
foot area. As noted above this shoe looks more low profile, but the
ratio of heel to toe is higher. One thing to note is that padding is
only one variable. Different material’s have varying abilities to absorb
as well. The thinner Zoom Air might have better padding even with its
thinner profile.I actually liked running in this shoe back in the day.
It felt comfortable and snug, and there was a period where my injuries
seemed to be dissipating. I usually had this feeling the first 50+ miles
of a new shoe, but after breaking them in, the pain would return. This
was usually another factor in me buying shoes at a higher rate than
usual. It made me think that it was the padding that was helping me, and
that a new shoe with fresh padding was the ticket. 

So for some conclusions: 
We have established the fact that there is a “wedge” in these shoes.

One can safely conclude that this wedge alters the way the foot behaves
as compared to walking/running barefoot. A person striking the ground
with their midfoot while in bare feet, would be “forced” to strike more
on the heel area because of the way the shoe slopes.

But is running
in padding better or worse? From my personal experience padding in the
heel and this wedge have been the main culprit for my heel striking,
over striding, injury prone years of running. Does this mean that most
running shoes are detrimental to all runners out there? It’s hard to say
without actual data. My opinion is that it can be, but I am pretty
biased in the matter. Luckily there are several studies coming out
focused on barefoot running that should shed some light on the matter,
also the growing barefooting trend seems to be picking up steam, so much
so that it may not just be another fad. When the founder of Google
Sergey Brin is wearing Vibram Five Fingers around town, it might just be
a sign of a changing attitude and hence a change in the landscape of
running footwear. I for one am glad to be rid of these dinosaurs of pain
and am eagerly awaiting the real improvements in running footwear.