Easy On The Joints

Local Running Trail

The day I turned 30 I decided to change my lifestyle, making a lifelong commitment to health. A few years later and 50 lbs lighter I started to run as a challenge to myself in doing something I never thought I’d be able to do. It was an exhilarating year.

Fast forward and as I approached 40 I started to reflect if running was something I should continue to do long term. I enjoyed running and while I’d been lucky not to develop any serious running injuries, the high impact nature of running was a concern. Would I end up with name-your-joint chronic problems and regretting it in a couple of decades?

Around the same time, barefoot running was all over the running media and I started looking into it. If our bodies truly evolved running long distances as suggested by some literature, perhaps there was a better way to run that could make it a safer long term activity. I had to explore and experiment.

As I researched, I quickly learned there was something of value in the approach. I had to deliberately choose to change my running form and focus on it during the runs, but after each run I felt my muscles had worked hard, including some muscles I didn’t know I had, but there was no soreness on any of my joints. None of the usual pain and stiffness I used to experience on my ankles, knees and lower back. Seemed promising.

Next I entered the running shoe maze. Traditional running shoes tend to have a significant drop from heel to toe combined with a good amount of heel cushioning, making heel-striking possible. You don’t need to try heel-striking while barefoot to imagine the result. Ouch.

While this heel cushioning reduces the force of the heel-striking impact to a degree, the body position when it happens, often the result of a longer stride, makes joints vulnerable and the impact force that’s not absorbed is sent up through the body with much of it hitting the joints.

In contrast, zero heel-to-toe drop shoes, including the very cushioned ones, tend to invite shorter strides with mid-to-front foot striking, exactly the form I wanted to adopt long term. I had shoes that supported the approach.

The muscles seemed to work harder and there was an important period of adjustment. I had to retrain to make this my automatic running form and gradually increase the mileage so my muscles would adapt to the different workload. Too much too fast and underdeveloped calves and feet will send you to the couch.

The running form is certainly more important than the shoes, however my conclusion is that the right shoes make it easier to keep what I came to think of as a more natural running form, encouraging shorter strides and higher cadence along with mid-to-front foot striking. I particularly like the well cushioned zero drop shoes with some arch support.

It’s been a few years and, outside of a couple self-inflicted issues caused by ramping up mileage way too fast, that combination of form and shoes continues to be an approach to running I feel I can safely maintain long term, without the fear of breaking down my joints in the process.

Run on! #themilesawait