Cut through the hy­per­bole

Multisport Mecca - - News - Peta Bee

I AM run­ning on a tread­mill at a pre­de­ter­mined pace while an ex­pert as­sesses ev­ery as­pect of my tech­nique. There are cam­eras po­si­tioned to catch my foot­fall and to mon­i­tor my stride length and cadence (steps per minute), the drop of my hips and the line of my shoul­ders.

When I step off I am shown video im­ages of my tech­nique from ev­ery an­gle, told I might need to work on the flex­i­bil­ity of my left an­kle and to do more core work to pre­vent the slightly un­even tilt of my right hip from de­te­ri­o­rat­ing.

You may think I am tak­ing part in some elab­o­rate study in an ex­er­cise science lab­o­ra­tory. Ac­tu­ally, I am in a run­ning shop and all I am af­ter is a new pair of train­ers.

It’s not the first time I have un­der­gone such painstak­ing anal­y­sis when shop­ping for sports shoes, and nei­ther, I sus­pect, is it new to you. If you have bought run­ning shoes in the past few years, you will likely have been through at least some level of biome­chan­i­cal assess­ment. From run­ning over a force plate in a shop, to head­ing out­side for a jog with sen­sors stuck to your skin that feed back to a com­puter, to 3D “foot map­ping” that uses lasers and cam­eras to check your arch height and the align­ment of your achilles ten­don, there is an ever more bewildering ar­ray of tech­no­log­i­cal tests that pre­cede the pur­chase of a pair of shoes. How did it be­come so com­pli­cated?

Per­haps it is be­cause run­ning’s pop­u­lar­ity is on the rise. With such growth, the mar­ket is ever more com­pet­i­tive and man­u­fac­tur­ers vie to gain a win­ning mar­gin over their ri­vals. Tech­ni­cal claims about a trainer’s heel drop, sta­bil­ity, cush­ion­ing and fore­foot or rear­foot strik­ing can be baf­fling but, in short, the prom­ise is that if you choose the right shoes you will run more ef­fi­ciently and avoid sore knees and tight ten­dons. How­ever, is that the case?

John Brewer, a pro­fes­sor of ap­plied sports science at St Mary’s Univer­sity, near Lon­don, be­lieves much of what we are told when tak­ing up run­ning is un­nec­es­sary.

“Run­ning is one of the sim­plest of all sports and we are all de­signed to run,” says Brewer, the au­thor of Run Smart: Us­ing Science to Im­prove Per­for­mance and Ex­pose Marathon Run­ning’s Great­est Myths.

“All too of­ten run­ners be­come vic­tims of mar­ket­ing and pseu­do­science, which is used by man­u­fac­tur­ers very care­fully to stim­u­late con­sumer de­mand.”

When choos­ing a shoe, he says, the only thing you should con­sider is com­fort. “Some sup­port and cush­ion­ing are im­por­tant but if a shoe doesn’t feel good, it’s quite likely that you will be get­ting abra­sions and blis­ters be­fore long, re­gard­less of how much they cost,” Brewer says.

Paul Freary, whose so­cial media han­dle is “the run­ning shoe guru”, has tested thou­sands of train­ers for the magazine Ath­let­ics Weekly, yet agrees that science should not be a de­cid­ing fac­tor. “The most im­por­tant thing to look for in new run­ning shoes is com­fort,” Freary says. “More than any­thing else the shoes should feel like they are ready to run in as soon as you put them on.”

He has a point. Two years ago a re­view of decades’ worth of re­search into run­ning shoes and their link with injuries came up with the most un­likely con­clu­sion. Pub­lish­ing find­ings in the Bri­tish Jour­nal of Sports Medicine, Benno Nigg, an emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of ki­ne­si­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Cal­gary in Canada, and his col­leagues dis­cov­ered that there is scant ev­i­dence that any train­ers are help­ful — or nec­es­sary — in pre­vent­ing many of the prob­lems they pur­port to cor­rect.

Over­prona­tion, where feet roll in­ward, is con­sid­ered a red flag for run­ners and shoes de­signed to cor­rect it are big sell­ers. Yet Nigg and his team found that over­prona­tion was not a prob­lem that needed iron­ing out, that run­ners with nor­mal gait were just as likely to get in­jured and “that a pronated foot po­si­tion is, if any­thing, an ad­van­tage with re­spect to run­ning injuries”. They also found lit­tle ev­i­dence that chang­ing your run­ning shoes al­ters the shock that nat­u­rally re­ver­ber­ates through the body when you run. What did mat­ter, they de­cided, was sim­ply that a shoe felt good when you put it on.

What of the sug­ges­tion that a shoe has an im­pact on your run­ning style and that, by ad­dress­ing your gait — or the way you run — you will find the ex­pe­ri­ence more en­joy­able, not to men­tion less stress­ful on your joints? Brewer is scep­ti­cal.

“I’m al­ways a bit con­cerned when I see peo­ple plonked on tread­mills in stores as a means of analysing their gait and choos­ing a shoe,” he says. “Tread­mills cre­ate a dif­fer­ent run­ning gait to out­door con­di­tions.”

There is, he in­sists, no need to make dras­tic changes to even the most un­usual run­ning style. By adult­hood most of us have adopted a tech­nique that best suits our bod­ies. Yes, we can make tweaks that en­hance our move­ment pat­terns but gen­er­ally we be­come more ef­fi­cient at run­ning just by do­ing more of it.

“Try­ing to make ma­jor changes to your run­ning style can of­ten cause prob­lems, re­duce run­ning ef­fi­ciency and may even in­crease the risk of in­jury,” Brewer says. “Just be­cause a style may not look good does not mean that it doesn’t work for a par­tic­u­lar run­ner, and chang­ing it for aes­thetic rea­sons, or be­cause of a cer­tain shoe, does not nec­es­sar­ily mean bet­ter run­ning.”

In a re­cent trial at Brigham Young Univer­sity in Utah a team of sports sci­en­tists re­cruited a group that in­cluded ex­pe­ri­enced run­ners and be­gin­ners and asked them to per­form tread­mill tests in their per­for­mance lab­o­ra­to­ries.

In the first part of the trial they were asked to run at their pre­ferred pace while the sci­en­tists kept a tally of their strides and worked out their stride length. On their sec­ond visit the run­ners re­peated the test but were asked to wear masks that mea­sured their oxy­gen up­take and to run at their same pre­ferred pace, but in time with a metronome that, un­be­known to the volunteers, meant that their stride length was al­tered.

Their re­sults, pub­lished in the In­ter­na­tional Jour­nal of Ex­er­cise Science, showed that short­en­ing or length­en­ing their nat­u­ral stride not only made run­ning feel more ar­du­ous for the volunteers but also ren­dered their tech­nique less eco­nom­i­cal. It sug­gests that we have a “built-in” run­ning stride that is per­fect for us, says Iain Hunter, the pro­fes­sor of ex­er­cise science who led the study and who is an ad­viser to the US track and field team.

“Don’t worry about chang­ing your stride length,” Hunter says. “You should just leave it alone or you’re go­ing to use more en­ergy in the end. Your body is your best coach for stride length.”

There are things you can change for the bet­ter.

“Over­strid­ing is one of the most com­mon er­rors and can cause knee, hip and back dis­com­fort over time,” says per­sonal trainer Matt Roberts. “Ide­ally you want a rel­a­tively short stride with high cadence and good en­gage­ment of your core mus­cles.”

Strength­en­ing your but­tock mus­cles and stretch­ing your hip flex­ors (in­ner hip mus­cles) will re­duce the need to over­stride, Roberts says. How­ever, if it’s not bro­ken, don’t try to fix it, the ex­perts say. –THE TIMES

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