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Is run­ning on hard sur­faces re­ally bad for the joints? Fit­ness Guru Matt Lins­dell ex­plains why you’re prob­a­bly bet­ter off not both­er­ing with those über-ex­pen­sive, low im­pact run­ning shoes. It’s time to stop fear­ing the pave­ment.

In the North­ern Hemi­sphere days are get­ting longer. The air is feel­ing warmer and the snow has melted – so I can ac­tu­ally see the black sur­face of my drive­way. This must mean it is time to do some out­door run­ning. When the snow melts a bit more (I live near Ot­tawa), I’ll be able to run on the vast net­work of trails right out­side my house. As a per­sonal trainer I of­ten hear run­ners espous­ing the virtues of softer sur­faces un­der­foot. Trail run­ning is known for be­ing good for you be­cause the ground is softer than the hard pave­ment. I’m told it will be less likely to get an in­jury on those nice soft sur­faces. Con­versely, I also hear of the evils of the as­phalt, with its hard, un­re­lent­ing char­ac­ter, dam­ag­ing the joints.

Run­ner af­ter run­ner adamantly swears how

gen­tle trail run­ning is on the body com­pared to man’s ‘evil’ pave­ment cre­ation. Good sense or non­sense? It sure sounds like the nat­u­ral­is­tic

fal­lacy to me (if you con­sider groomed hik­ing trails to be nat­u­ral, that is). Let us ex­plore th­ese ideas to­gether. And by ‘to­gether’, I re­ally mean that you just read what I write and as­sume I’m 100% cor­rect…(!)

A run­ning myth?

Con­crete doesn’t of­fer much give com­pared to the earth that trees and shrubs grow in. So, it is log­i­cal to be­lieve that the im­pact of a run­ner’s foot re­peat­edly hit­ting a hard sur­face will re­sult in higher stresses to be ab­sorbed by the body com­pared to the same run­ner’s foot strik­ing softer ma­te­ri­als. To some de­gree this is true, but evo­lu­tion con­sid­ered this long be­fore Nike did. When we (of the genus Homo) rose up from quadrapedal move­ment to bipedal walk­ing, our feet un­der­went se­lec­tion pres­sures that made them bet­ter at deal­ing with stresses from all kinds of sur­faces – hard and soft. Firstly, take look at your heel. It is big and wide. This shape is good at ab­sorb­ing and dis­tribut­ing the forces that as­sault your body when the heel strikes the ground. Also, if you look at the bones of the hu­man foot from a side view (see X-ray photo) you can see that when the heel and front foot touch the ground, the mid­dle of the foot stays sus­pended. For the me­chan­i­cal types amongst you, this fea­ture might re­mind you of a leaf spring. The curved shape dis­si­pates some of the forces act­ing on the body dur­ing run­ning – in the same way a car sus­pen­sion does. There is also ex­tra shock ab­sorp­tion from mus­cles and ten­dons in the an­kle and leg. Add to all of this the pro­tec­tive na­ture of a run­ning shoe

(to guard you from sharp rocks, hy­po­der­mic nee­dles, sear­ing hot sur­faces or numb­ingly cold ground) and you’ve got a match made on Earth. Thanks to our big brains for de­vel­op­ing train­ers, we have a read­ily avail­able tech­nol­ogy in an ar­ray of sizes and colours that al­lows over-fed or­gan­isms to aim­lessly per­am­bu­late in an at­tempt to keep their hearts pump­ing. Life is good. So shoes and the struc­ture of our foot make con­cerns about the den­sity of a run­ning sur­face mostly moot. I’m sure some­one could de­sign a study to find a mea­sur­able dif­fer­ence in the to­tal force sub­jected to the body over a large dis­tance, but that wouldn’t ap­ply to nor­mal peo­ple out for some aer­o­bic ex­er­cise. We can ex­am­ine that ev­i­dence when it arises. For the run­ning sur­face to make a real dif­fer­ence, you will need to be run­ning huge dis­tances day-af­ter-day.

Run­ning in the woods

So is there a ben­e­fit to run­ning on trails? Well, yes. But it isn’t be­cause of the soft-ish for­est floor. It is lit­er­ally be­cause of chang­ing di­rec­tions. Wood­land trails tend to me­an­der left and right and the pitch goes up and down. Some­times there are pud­dles or logs to jump over. Th­ese com­bined move­ments re­sult in spread­ing out of the wear on the an­kle, knee, and hip joints. At least it does in the­ory – al­though I’ve yet to find any re­search to con­firm it. I don’t know that any ex­ists, so for now let’s just con­sider it in a crit­i­cal way by com­par­ing trail run­ning to tread­mill run­ning. On the tread­mill you can change the speed of the belt and the pitch of the en­tire ma­chine. And that’s about it, un­til you switch the thing off or fall over and get whipped off the back. We are able to com­pare tread­mill run­ning stresses to oc­cu­pa­tional repet­i­tive strain in­juries. For ex­am­ple, con­sider a lab­o­ra­tory tech­ni­cian who mi­cro-pipettes hun­dreds and hun­dreds of sam­ples ev­ery day. Each lit­tle click is no big deal to the hand and wrist, but over time it can crip­ple the ex­trem­i­ties. Repet­i­tive Strain In­juries (RSI) and Cu­mu­la­tive Trauma Dis­or­ders (CTD) are overuse in­juries that can cause end­less suf­fer­ing to peo­ple who work in labs, at com­put­ers, or who swing a ham­mer day in and day out. In con­trast, trail run­ning, while still repet­i­tive, in­tro­duces more va­ri­ety. Side­ways move­ments seem to spread out the mus­cle and joint wear by re­quir­ing the run­ner to ro­tate at the hips slightly and change the an­gle of the foot. The run­ner strug­gles through muddy sec­tions, up and down un­du­lat­ing trails. Each lit­tle change helps to add to the va­ri­ety that can help pre­vent an overuse in­jury. But it won’t pre­vent it al­to­gether: ex­ces­sive train­ing, even on trails, will re­sult in an in­jury just like any other ex­ces­sive amount will.

My hope, Guru Read­ers, is that my opin­ions make sense and that you will agree. Now I’m off to the trails to use what nat­u­ral se­lec­tion has so kindly sup­plied me, plus an ex­pen­sive shoe to cover it. And I won’t worry that I have to run on the street to get to where the squishy trail be­gins. My only con­cerns are for bears. There are hun­gry bears in them there hills and I re­ally hope they don’t get me.


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