2014-02-25

Another Day, Another Fitness Fad

It seems as though every year comes with a new trend in fitness, promising to cure an expansive list of problems by "getting us back to nature." We can all think of a long list of examples, but let me give you my own list: Paleo-dieting, barefoot running, Crossfit, high-fat diets, and now... fat-soled running shoes. A surprisingly ungated article in The Financial Times (of all places - more on that in a moment) has the story.

Before I provide my own personal take on fat-soled running shoes, I'd like to take a brief moment to explore the often ridiculous claims of fitness fads and underscore what I think we should all keep in mind as we find our way through the never-ending list of new fitness technologies.

Back To Nature
If there is any one concept that should give you pause when considering the validity of a new idea in health or fitness, it's the idea of getting "back to nature," or doing something that is somehow more like what ancient humans used to do. There may or may not be a good reason to do what ancient human beings used to do, but the mere fact that they used to do it is not in and of itself a justification for doing it.

Why not? Because nature is a cold and brutal place that is constantly trying to kill you. There is nothing good about getting closer to what nature intended. What nature intended was for you to be eaten by a lion. The fact that you and your fellows figured out how to make tools and language and books and agriculture and modern technology is a fact that takes us all further and further away from nature's intentions. In doing so, it has extended our lives by decades and enabled us to live a quality of life that would make us appear as gods to our ancient forefathers.

The point is that science and technology are good things. So, if a new fitness idea is based on the best available scientific information, then that is the best we can do today. If, by contrast, a new fitness idea is based on old, long-forgotten folklore that makes you feel like you are living in a cave, that is only going to be a good thing if it is also based on the best available scientific information.

Note that this does not mean that "the best available scientific information" is a constant that will never change over the course of your lifetime. It will. That's because new information is always coming along, upending what we previously thought, and improving on our total knowledge. That's what the scientific process is all about.

Barefoot Running Versus Fat-Soled Shoes
Readers know that I gave barefoot running a try last year, and found the experience largely favorable. I suspected at the time that one reason it worked for me is because I already had good running form. I've never been a heel-striker. Most of the "lessons" people "learn" from barefoot running shoes are things that I already knew. So when I tried out a pair of barefoot running shoes, I felt sort of connected to the road.

But after the initial mystique wore off, I realized that I was really just running in racing flats, which I had been racing in for decades. There's nothing dangerous about running in racing flats - if there were, people wouldn't do it. But is it a panacea? Is it an ancient secret for being a great Tarahumaira runner? No.

The real secret is the one I stress on this blog over and over again: Good running form is the difference between a good runner and a bad one. Without good running form, it won't matter much what your shoes look like.

So when the Financial Times article talks about an uptick in heel and Achilles tendon injuries or tight calf muscles, there is a proper way to interpret that information. Barefoot running shoes didn't cause heel injuries, heelstriking caused them. If you land on your heel, you're going to get a running-related injury, and this is true no matter what your shoes look like.

The next question we need to ask is: Why is The Financial Times reporting on barefoot running shoe injuries? The answer is because the second half of the article goes on to promote a new type of running shoe fad: fat-soled running shoes. These new shoes are based on a new idea, with a new design, but hearken back to the old days when shoes were designed to reduce impact. More cushion = less stress; plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose, meet the new boss / same as the old boss, etc.

Will these new shoes finally unlock the secret to injury-free distance running? No! Because it's not the shoes that help you avoid injuries. It's your own running form. Fix your running form, and you'll avoid future injuries, no matter what shoes you wear.

If you need "barefoot running" shoes to fix your form, then use them. If you need "stability shoes" to fix your form, then use them. If you need fat-soled running shoes to fix your form, then use them. Use whatever shoe or lack thereof it takes for you to improve your running form. Then just run. The fads will come and go, but proper running form has been the same for 20,000 years.

Conclusion
It's no coincidence that every new fitness trend comes with a list of products that will help you achieve it, no matter what it is. The marketplace is always and everywhere actively trying to meet your needs. The minute a new piece of information becomes available, an entrepreneur will try to leverage that information to make some money. The upshot of this is that you get a wide range of products that can meet your needs, no matter whose story you find most appealing.

The downside is that a lot of the available "information" out there is really just marketing. That's why it's important to keep up with what science is actually telling you. Don't just take claims at face-value, analyze them. Just because The Financial Times reveals a new running shoe doesn't mean that the shoe is actually based on sound technology. In this case, it may or may not be. It all kind of depends on what your running form is like, and what changes you need to make to improve it.

The point is, think. Thinking is what will help you make the best possible decisions.