On shoe reviewing, running form and silver bullets

I started this article as a review of the Nike Free Run 2, but as I went I realized it was turning into a commentary on the perspective of the shoe reviewer and why the reader needs to take that into account when making their own choices about which shoes to buy and more importantly, to run in.

I’d been mulling over the Nike Free Run review for a few weeks now as I’ve been having trouble getting a clear picture in my mind of how I see the Nike Free Run 2 in the context of my own running and in comparison to some of the other shoes I wear and have reviewed on this website.

While I have worn the Free Runs a few times now, probably 7 or 8 times in a couple of months, they’ve yet to completely win me over as being great for my running. While figuring out the reasons for this, I started to think it was worth restating that everyone should always read shoe reviews through the lens of the reviewer.

Ask yourself these questions: what sort of runner are they, what’s their background in running and how well do they move? All of these factors will play a role in how they see the shoe – the good reviewers such as Pete Larson of Runblogger fame will mention this as part of the text or have their back-story available to read so you have a better feel for where they are coming from.

Different runners have varying perspectives on shoes

I’ll get to the Nike Free Run 2 review as one of my next few articles, but it stimulated aspects of this discussion as I’ve been talking to fellow coach Mark Gorski about our differing perspectives on the shoe. We also both read Pete’s review of the Free Run and came away from that with slightly different views.

This stands to reason: Mark has a background as an elite runner, so we can reasonably assume his running mechanics are different and much better than mine. He’s also naturally a forefoot to neutral striker that has been wearing the Free Run 2 religiously for most of his (these days more casual) running during the course of the year. He loves the shoe and so do a number of other runners we work with, some of them reasonably neutral in the way they strike the ground, others light heel-strikers.

The main area where we saw the shoe differently was that for Mark he finds it easy to run his normal forefoot to neutral striking pattern, whereas for me, and keep in mind I’m transitioning towards forefoot, I find myself working hard to maintain my forefoot first contact.

I tend to agree with Pete that perhaps the additional cushioning gets in the way. And I would add to this that I believe this could be more of an issue for runners coming from heel-striking transitioning towards forefoot. Why? Good runners can pretty much run in anything.

I’ve often wondered why elites do so much running in regular trainers rather than minimal shoes. Sure they race and train in flats and spikes but despite what some people may think, I would say that most elite athletes do a lot of miles in traditional shoes.

I doubt many are in heavier motion controlling models, but shoes such as the Adidas Adizero Boston or the Nike Pegasus would do a few kilometers on talented feet. I think I even saw Craig Mottram warming up in a pair of Adidas Supernova Glide ahead of the recent Zatopek 10, which doubles as the Australian 10,000m championships. These are cushioned neutral shoes that many recreational runners would be wearing.

This is really a topic for another day as I have another theory. Bottom line though, I’m thinking minimalist, lighter, responsive, flexible shoes are relatively more important to runners with less than perfect mechanics who are learning better technique because we need the additional feedback, feel and flexibility to help us work towards proper running form. Of course we need to go there slowly and not try and run elite mileage. But if you’ve already got great technique you’re probably quite able to run ok in a pair of army boots.

I’ve been open about the fact that I’ve come from a background of running pretty horribly with an injurious heavy heel striking, quadriceps and hip flexor dominant running style that even after a few years of improvement is still much less than perfect. That said, I feel as if I run pretty well now in comparison to where I was before, so I’d now characterize my technique as having some solid elements that help me run stronger and avoid getting major injuries. Yes there are still niggles here and there like most runners get, but no major break downs or long layoffs in recent times. Touch wood! Running is a great leveler, so it is a good idea not to get too far ahead of yourself.

So how did I make changes to my running technique?

There have been four main ingredients to the changes I have made:

  1. Structured strength training with focus on running like postures, muscle activation patterns and hip alignment and stability.
  2. Conscious use of mental cues to purposefully change the way I run to be more buttock and hamstring driven and more forefoot oriented (foot-strike is a more recent change).
  3. Using a careful mix of running training with more emphasis on running with good form at sub threshold pace, not pushing the long run further than good technique can be sustained and using shorter mile pace intervals and hill training to stimulate and encourage the conditions for developing fitness while maintain good running form and strength.
  4. Wearing less shoe than previously – most people would say I run pretty minimally these days, but I have not generally been a habitual barefoot runner or wearer of zero drop shoes. Although I have started very gradual experimentation with both of these in recent months. I’ve tended to wear Nike Frees and Marathon racing shoes, which do retain some modest support, heel and cushion, but still provide better feedback and feel for the road.

All of these four elements help stimulate the conditions for running with good technique and I’m not sure that any used in isolation (aside from good strength training) would be successful in making long term gains while keeping risk of developing injuries as low as possible. When we coach for technique we try and cover each of these bases, largely because we think they all help, but more so because used in combination there seems to be a much greater chance of making progress because not all the running eggs are in the one basket.

There are no running silver bullets

I mention these points because it’s unwise to think that purchasing any one shoe model or deciding to run barefoot is going to solve all your running problems. When it comes to shoes I think they have an important role to play. Getting a better feel for the ground and hastening your body’s reactions to ground contact are very important, but depending on who you are, how much you run and how you run, leaping directly into the barefoot or extreme minimalist movement can be risky as I discussed in this article.

My reviewing bias or lens

I admit my own bias is towards moving away from stability or heavy cushioned supportive shoes in favor of neutral shoes with relatively less spongy, soft cushioning. But in the work that Mark and I do, we don’t slot every runner into a Nike Free, minimalist shoe or a racing flat and expect them to be able to cope with it. Where we do recommend moving into minimal territory the advice is to proceed cautiously from your relative starting point and in combination with the other elements mentioned above.

As an aside I also maintain that if you’re uninjured, enjoying your running and happy with your performance levels then there is really no compelling reason to make running technique changes or radical shifts in your footwear. If it ain’t broke …

Where am I now?

In more recent months I’ve continued working on my running form with gradual evolution toward a more forefoot orientation combined with further tweaks to my hip alignment, strength and posture.

I state again that I’m not claiming to be anywhere close to perfect, but this recent footage gives you an idea of where I’m at today. Note this was the third of four 1km intervals at about 3.40 pace wearing Nike Free 3.0. So this gives you some perspective when you get around to reading my review of the Nike Free Run 2. One of these days I’ll sort out my Japanese arm swing too and get Mark to stop commenting on how horrible it is!

Forefoot teething

As I’ve become more attuned to landing forefoot I’ve noticed more acutely the difference between wearing stiffer or more cushioned shoes even at the minimalist end of the spectrum where I spend most of my time running. This doesn’t mean you should go directly from heel striking in your traditional running shoes into an extreme minimal model and try to run forefoot. Most runners can’t bring this off because their feet and lower leg muscles are not strong enough.

I’ve now had a couple of years wearing Frees and more flexible shoes, which promote the development of foot and lower calf strength. I’m sure that is helping me move further forwards over my foot without breaking down. I’m also keeping my mileage quite low (about 50km per week) as I make these changes to reduce the risk of injury.

Summary

I’ve covered quite a bit of ground in this article but the message that I’m trying to convey is that running is not a sport where silver bullets and rapid solutions can be relied upon. You really need to work at a range of measures consistently and over a long period of time. As a final note always read shoe reviews with one eye on the background of the reviewer and the other on where you are in relative terms with your running.

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4 Responses to On shoe reviewing, running form and silver bullets

  1. heather gaunt December 17, 2011 at 1:33 pm #

    Brian, thanks for the thoughtful and considered piece… Always enjoy your articles. It makes perfect sense that we shouldn’t need to load our feet with too much shoe. I sometimes think back to growing up in the country, right next to a state park. We spent all summer in bare feet, growing such thick layers of skin on our feet soles that we did all our bush exploring, bindies snakes granite and all, happily barefoot. I am starting gently gently to run again bare foot, grassy ovals etc, and it feels so good. Racing flats feel great, though I’ve only raced up to 5k on the track with them, and a bit longer x-countries. Looking forward to more running with less shoe. Thanks so much for your writing on the subject.

    • Brian December 17, 2011 at 4:11 pm #

      Hi Heather, thanks very much for your comments, I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Sounds like you went a bit more barefoot than me when I was growing up, but I do remember coming off second best to a few three corner jack prickles and a rusty nail! I’m also enjoying a few trots around some grass ovals sans shoes, I’ll be writing a bit more about that soon. Brian

  2. Paul Joyce December 16, 2011 at 11:28 pm #

    Brian, another great article. I agree that there are no silver bullets and changing technique and footwear type takes time. Over the past 12 months ago I have made the transition from conventional running shoes to now running 95% of the time in zero drop shoes (it would be 100% except I like my Nike Frees too much!). I still have a long way to go before I could claim that my technique is good but it is way better than it was 12 months ago. But is has taken a lot of time, patience and effort along the way. Like your articles a lot. Cheers, Paul

    • Brian December 17, 2011 at 7:40 am #

      Thanks Paul, appreciate the feedback. It’s a patient man and woman’s game that’s for sure! It’s definitely not about being a superstar, but moving a few steps along the pathway toward what the better runners are doing really helps. Brian