What Barefoot Running Taught Us About Expensive Sneakers (And What Nike and Others Really Don’t Want You To Know)

"You're definitely gonna want to pay a lot of money for good quality sneakers. I mean, seriously, if you go running in those $29.99 loser no-name running shoes, you'll hurt your knees! Or your iliotibial band. Or something. You'll definitely hurt something.

Forget those cheap shoes. These $175 running shoes are far better. Mass produced, yet designed to fit your feet. And they're built for comfort, with extra padding to absorb all those shocks to your body."

Readers, this is the basic marketing message behind high-end sneaker brands. For many, it's highly persuasive. After all, how dumb would it be to take a chance on some no-name pair of sneakers... and maybe hurt yourself. Right?

But then, something odd happened.

Some ten or so years ago, "barefoot running" became all the rage. And it raised questions the sneaker industry didn't want you asking. For example, a thoughtful if sarcastic sneaker buyer might ask, "Now hold on a minute: First I had to buy overpriced cushiony sneakers to protect myself from injury. And now you're telling me I don't even need shoes?"

But it gets worse: it turns out that many if not most running injuries result from protecting ourselves too much. All that padding in all those ultra-expensive shoes actually prevents our body from feeling, sensing and properly responding to the various healthy stresses of running. Or, as researchers at the University of Oregon found, "the greater the cushioning in the shoe, the greater the impact shock on the leg."

Ironically, this highly counterintuitive discovery was made in Eugene, Oregon--barely a hundred or so miles from Nike's world headquarters in Beaverton. Huh.

Somehow, our consumer civilization transformed running--a quintessentially basic human act--into an expensive pastime, with luxury-branded shoes, unpronounceable injuries... and $300+ marathon entry fees.

It's also instructive to observe the shoe industry's response. After all, no one makes money not selling shoes, so Nike and other high end sneaker brands had to at least try to figure out a way to "brand" the barefoot running experience too.

And so, for only about a hundred bucks or so, we can buy a pair of Nike "Barefoot-Like" sneakers. They're for sale on Nike's website, right next to all those expensive heavily-padded shoes we were supposed to buy before.

Readers, tell me, how are expensive branded sneakers any different from any other zombie-based advertising/consumption cycle? And if it bugs you to pay 30% more for, say, a name-brand can of tuna when it furtively emerges out of the same third-party factory as lower-priced unbranded tuna, shouldn't it bug you enormously to pay 700% more for sneakers? Especially when all those sneaker features they use to justify their high price at best make no difference, and at worst might actually hurt us?

A final note: Speaking as a three-time marathoner and multi-time half-marathoner who's logged thousand and thousands of running miles, most running injuries are form- or technique-based. This goes double for casual runners. In other words, fix your running form, improve your technique, and you'll run injury-free in whatever pair of reasonably priced sneakers you're happy with. For readers interested in an excellent resource on how to improve running technique, I strongly recommend Danny Dreyer's book Chi Running.

1) A short video of a fateful day when the NY Times did a piece on barefoot running. Hipsters raged, then bravely began the search for the next new thing. Note also the mention of the University of Oregon's biomechanical research study at 2:21 in the video.

2) More on how to run barefoot.

3) Why is too much protection a bad thing? For more on this topic, see Nicholas Taleb's discussion of the concepts of hormesis and mithridization in his book Antifragile.

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Marcia said...

A lot of this is going to depend

- on form, yes
- but also genetics

I struggled with IT band and piriformis and sciatica pain when I trained a lot.

Some of this was due to form and some? Due to being a short, wide-hipped female with loose hip joints from having given birth. Not exactly a body built for distance.

I made the switch to barefoot running, and piriformis gone, yay! Hello achilles tendonitis, boo!

What works for me now is good shoes with a decent amount of cushion, but not overbearing. My form has improved, but mostly I've given up on speed/distance combos. I've done a couple of half marathons this year, injury free! By using decent cushion shoes AND doing a run/walk combo. Bye bye speed.

I also learned that an uphill half marathon (4000 ft elevation gain), while sucky, led to zero injuries and much less pounding.

Mostly if I'm successful in finding a shoe that works for me, it comes down to being big enough in the toe box. I have a very wide toe box for a size 6.5, so much that I end up buying an 8.5.

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