running through a forest on a snowy trail

If, two days ago, you felt more inclined to travel by foot—this post is for you.

I’m a travel-by-foot person, myself. I’ve been running since I discovered the sport in my late teens. By the time I hit my early twenties, however, I was experiencing intermittent knee pain. A serendipitous conversation with a doctor caused me to suspect that I should lift weights if I wanted to continue running; specifically, I should target my quads (the muscles on the front of the thigh).

To my great relief, this worked! I did not experience knee pain as long as I did my strength exercises two or three times a week. During weeks when I didn’t make time for this routine, my knees would start to whine again.

Thus I seemed to have overthrown the oft-repeated refrain that running is bad for one’s knees . . . but I didn’t understand why it worked. Evolutionarily, I knew, humans were built for running. Did our hunter-gatherer ancestors do squats twice a week? Well, probably they did, regularly throughout the week, during ordinary hunter-gatherer activities like picking berries, utilizing one’s favorite digging tool, or, you know, taking a shit. But that still doesn’t answer the question of why the quads, specifically, need to be strengthened, as opposed to, say, the hamstrings, in order to run without knee problems.

Enter Christopher McDougall’s runaway bestseller. Born to Run, published in 2009, caused a sensation in the running community and running shoe industry that has not yet fully died down. The book advocated running in minimalist style. Barefoot running, running in sandals, and running in lightweight and minimally cushioned shoes became all the rage. In the book, McDougall quotes Eric Orton, his running coach:

“Imagine your kid is running into the street and you have to sprint after her in bare feet. . . . You’ll automatically lock into perfect form—you’ll be up on your forefeet, with your back erect, head steady, arms high, elbows driving, and feet touching down quickly on the forefoot and kicking back toward your butt.”

According to my local running store manager, tons of people started getting injured when running in minimalist, or no, shoes became all the rage. To be fair, McDougall duly notes that a quick switch away from a regular running shoe is a bad idea: “Eric warned me that I was cruising for a stress fracture if I tried to suddenly go naked after keeping my feet immobilized for forty years.” But this warning is buried amidst all the hype of McDougall’s radical running ideas; and minimalism in running shoes now has a mixed reputation. Some say it’s a miraculous life saver, while others say it’s a recipe for injury.

I say, do it with care, and it may just be the ticket to a lifetime of joyful fitness.* Ever since I read Born to Run, in 2017, the ideas therein—especially the ones about running barefoot after your kid; and about running easy, light, smooth, and fast—have been jogging, hither and thither, through my brain. I liked the idea of running lightly, up on one’s toes, well enough to try it . . . but when I did, something strange happened. My toes started banging up against the front of the traditional running shoes I was wearing.

I thought my feet had grown bigger. I went to my local running store and bought shoes a size larger, but returned them when they didn’t solve my problem. Next, I tried, on the recommendation of an employee, shoes in wide width; I returned those, too. Finally, I spoke to the manager, and that was when we started discussing minimalism and Born to Run. He discouraged me from getting minimalist shoes as regards cushioning. I was on board with that; while our ancient ancestors ran, for the most part, on soft dirt, I run mostly on asphalt and concrete. But then he brought out and sold me some zero-drop shoes (with a non-pointy toe box to accommodate my new stride and prevent toe-banging) . . . and something magical, very slowly, happened.

Zero-drop shoes keep the heel at the same height level as the balls and toes, like bare feet, and unlike traditional running shoes that elevate the heel. This means that the gait of a person wearing traditional shoes will differ from the gait of a person going barefoot or wearing zero-drop shoes. As it turns out, the latter gait keeps one moving more forward, and less up-and-down bouncy; more of one’s energy is put into the forward motion. That’s a good thing if you’re trying to get to the finish line fast—or trying to save your knees from excessive pounding.

But more to the point—and this is just anecdotal evidence from one person—I noticed something fascinating when I made the switch. My quads were insanely sore after doing a mini-run in my new zero-drop shoes. This seems to answer my question. I could of course be wrong, but I believe this explains why I had to do so much quad strengthening previously: my traditional running shoes with elevated heels were preventing me from having a natural running form that would force the quads to thrust more powerfully forward and back. Hence, a strength imbalance in the leg muscles. Hence knee pain.

A HUGE word of warning: it took me four weeks to transition from wearing traditional running shoes on every run to wearing my new zero-drop shoes on every run. It may take you even longer, depending on a bunch of factors. The best way to avoid injury is to listen to your body, and only do what feels right to you.

I also want to note that, despite this seeming solution to my problem, I still lift weights two or three times a week. ’Cause, while I do sometimes pick berries and use digging tools, I spend way more time sitting at the computer and sitting reading. And I pretty much always use toilets.


*Please take me and McDougall's book with a big grain of salt. I have def not been to med school since writing the footnote here.

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