When it comes to running, less shoe is more

  • Published
  • By Steve Hoffmann
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
I run, but I wouldn't call myself a runner. I don't get the runner's high. I get the runner's low--self-esteem. Distance running just isn't something that has ever felt natural to me. I've always felt clumsy, heavy and inefficient, like my legs are two malnourished slaves struggling under a platform to keep their fat king from toppling over. Every time I begin to run with any consistency (usually driven by a desperate bid to lose weight) I develop painful shin splints and knee pain. This is when the volume of negative self-talk that accompanies runner's low self-esteem gets turned way up.

"Why are you doing this to yourself? You're in pain. Just stop," it tells me. "You're not even good at running. You never have been. Do you realize how many times you've tried this? And what was the outcome? Huh? Answer me! You quit. And guess what you're going to do this time? You're going to quit. So just... stop. You're embarrassing yourself. You're probably the worst runner within a 50-mile radius, possibly 100. Ok, you can stop now."

But, so far, I haven't. My most recent attempt at running began in January. The biggest reason for not stopping is because I figured out how to prevent shin splints by gradually increasing my distance. In the past, shin splints have always kept me from being able to run consistently from week to week. But now, knee pain has the mic of my negative inner monologue while I run.

However, it appears I might have a fix for that too. Last week, I, along with approximately 80 others, attended a free running seminar hosted by Keesler's Health and Wellness Center and presented by Lt. Col. (Dr.) Antonio Eppolito, chief of Air Force telemedicine, 19-year member of the Air Force Running Team and five-time Air Force half-marathon champion.

During this two-hour seminar, I basically came to the realization that I've been running wrong my entire adult life. That's not my negative thinking. That's observed experience in comparison to proper running form as demonstrated by Eppolito.

The first hour of the seminar was spent by Eppolito making us feel very uncomfortable in our own shoes. I was wearing Asics GT-2170s, size 11.5. They are the traditional running shoe that most runners run with -- high heels, stiff arches and well-cushioned soles. It's the kind of highly technologically-advanced 21st century shoe that looks like it took an entire engineering department years to develop. And it probably did, which helps you justify the price.

But Eppolito contends that all this technology surrounding my feet was obstructing the real engineering marvel--my feet. More than three decades of clumpy shoe wearing was rendering obsolete what's taken millennia to evolve and perfect.

How could this be? Weren't we supposed to protect our precious, fragile feet from the stresses of running on asphalt? Yes, but only lightly. There's no need to run with mattresses on our feet.

Eppolito along with Lt. Col. Mark Cucuzella, a doctor in the Air Force Reserve Command and two-time Air Force Marathon winner, retired Lt. Col. Dan Kuland, orthopedic surgeon and professor of sports science at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and a host of other sports science professionals are leading an effort within the Air Force to teach Airmen the principles of what they call Efficient Running. They travel to bases around the country to conduct clinics in an effort to reduce injuries and improve physical training scores.

Their research supports and has helped advance a recent trend in distance running. It's known by such names as Minimalist, Natural, Gravitational, Pose, Evolution or Chi running but their mantra is the same--that less shoe and even no shoe is better than big shoe.

After a fairly detailed explanation of exactly how our big shoes were adversely affecting our body's natural biomechanical processes and rhythm, I don't think I was alone in my desire to remove my shoes and never put them on again.

And during the second hour of the seminar, we did exactly that. Eppolito had all of us run around the pavilion in the middle of Crotwell Track with our shoes on and then again with our shoes off. With our shoes on, nearly all of us were landing on our heels. With shoes off, out from under the influence of rigid arch supports and high heels, however, our body naturally adjusted its stride to land in the middle of the foot.

So that's it? Just take off our shoes and we're good? Not really. Going cold turkey without gradually and properly rebuilding, stretching and strengthening the myriad of muscles and tendons that have atrophied over the years, can and will do significant damage to our feet. Eppolito advises a gradual movement toward less shoe by using a transition running shoe. Nearly every major running shoe brand now offers a transition shoe. Eppolito says that by just doing that, many common running injuries will diminish or be completely resolved.

We finished the seminar by doing a few running drills in the grass to demonstrate proper form and stride. Eppolito also left us with a number of visualization techniques to help us remember proper running form.

Since I tend to dive right into new ideas, I drove home, picked up my 5-year-old son from school and we went for a short barefoot run on the beach. Of course, my son didn't want to stop and shouted, "Let's keep going!" I wanted to but quickly shouted back, "I can't!" When my son asked why I gently explained to him that I haven't properly rebuilt the muscles in my feet.

All in good time, my son. All in good time.

However, the next day I went for a 4-mile run in my old shoes. Just by remember the timing, the quick pitter-patter of a shortened stride that we learned in the seminar, I was able to run without any pain in my right knee. It was a completely different running experience. I felt swift, like I should be holding a spear running down a Thompson's gazelle till it collapsed from exhaustion. I did the same thing the next day. On the third day, I got a blister high on my heel and had to stop. I took my shoes off and walked the rest of the way home. But for the first time in my life I allowed myself to at least consider the possibility that I might be a runner.