On Sunday, the New York Times published a story about the new Converse Chuck Taylors. This is pretty big news. “The architecture of the All Star has in some ways remained the same since 1917,â€ the story reports.
Until now. Nike has supplanted the midsoles with Lunarlon cushioning. The shoes are apparently softer now (and of course, more expensive).
Yes—Nike. Converse has been owned by Nike for more than a decade. According to the story, Nike formulated the new version of the Chucks in response to consumers complaining about a lack of comfort in a shoe that’s flat and simple:
Ms. Semmelhack said classic Chucks hadn‘t changed — many of us had. “There have been so many innovations by shoe companies giving the soles of our footwear more cushioning and more responsiveness that our perception of comfort has changed,â€ she said.
The most distressing thing for me, however, was the reporter‘s assumption that the new iteration of the Chuck Taylor was good news because his feet were naturally older and hence worn out:
The old version, which I wore happily as a teenager and which, Mr. Cottrill says, are what athletes like Wilt Chamberlain actually used in the N.B.A., now seem impossibly thin-soled for my middle-aged feet.
Are our feet too delicate for the original Chuck Taylor?
There are sort of two different thoughts involved here. The reporter is of the belief that as feet get older, they wear out, or get weak, and therefore need what you might think of as a medically-dosed charge of comfort.
The thought issued by Semmelhack, is that we (and our feet) have changed because our sensibilities have changed—that because of modern shoe technologies introduced over the last 40 years. Like air soles, super-soft grades of EVA cushion and in running shoes, swollen heel pads that create heel-to-toe differentials upwards of 12mm.
Embedded within these lines of thinking is a belief that our feet are inherently lemons that need to be saved by technology.
But talk to folks like runner/podiatrist Nick Campitelli, mobility expert Dr. Kelly Starrett, Brian MacKenzie of CrossFit Endurance, and you encounter a counter-narrative: Our feet don‘t get old and powerless because of overuse. It‘s underuse that‘s at the heart of the problem.
As Starrett has explained to me, one of the misfortunes of the ‘motion-control running shoe‘ ideology is that to protect a runner or triathlete from injury, it‘s best to prevent the foot from moving. Combined with an orthotic or arch support and you can effectively put the foot into a cast. So the complex of bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments—in loose resemblance to the leaf spring of a car‘s suspension system—atrophies. What‘s lost performance-wise? The balance and power that feet are designed to deliver to the “Born To Runâ€ hunter-gatherer chasing down a prey.
Use it or lose it, in other words. Feet that have been incarcerated by super-soft shoes with big heels and laden with stabilization gizmos are going to bitch about being in a Chuck Taylor. The original Chucks, anyway.
As far as cushioning, a pilot study conducted at Harvard netted data that suggests that lots of cushioning in your running shoes “lullsâ€ a runner into crash-landing on the pavement with every step.
Lower Extremity Review reported on the study with this:
While counterintuitive, the results are consistent with other studies, the researchers said. In a 2006 study of nine healthy runners, investigators from the University of Florida in Gainesville reported that leg stiffness during hopping was significantly greater in a cushioned shoe than barefoot, whereas leg stiffness did not differ significantly between a less-cushioned shoe and barefoot. Those findings were published in the Journal of Athletic Training.
“People actually land softer when they have less cushioning,â€ said study coauthor Irene S. Davis, PhD, PT, a professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School and director of the Spaulding National Running Center. “Cushioning actually lulls you into thinking you can slam your foot into the ground.â€
This concurs with my recent Street Science: This past weekend, in giving my 30-day running form challenge a “beforeâ€ image to work with, I jumped in a local 5k and wore a pair of cushiony shoes that I have. I ran along with my fiancÃ©, Gretchen, who has enviable running form (along with running in minimalistic shoes for years, she concurrently had proper running technique drilled into her at San Francisco CrossFit). Although she‘s barely done any running in the last couple of years—she did five half-hour jogs to prepare for the 5k—I watched her run during the race in astonishment. She touched the ground so lightly you couldn‘t hear a sound. She was just brushing the street with her forefeet and hovering above the road.
I was brutally god-awful in comparison—symptomatic of my not working on my running technique at all the last two years. I had fallen deeply back into my clunker stride. Bam! Bam! Bam! It was embarrassing. After the race, I mentioned this to Gretchen. Did she notice how loud my foot strike was?
“It was so loud,â€ she told me, shaking her head, with no trace of mercy. “I couldn‘t believe how loud it was.â€
And I‘m a 51-year-old who is quite comfortable in flat, gum-rubber-soled shoes like original Chucks. In fact, I‘m so adapted to them that I am totally uncomfortable in super-cushy shoes. Unlike the NY Times writer.
But I obviously have a lot of work to do. How do I breathe more life into my feet and ankles so that I can avoid running like a broken robot?
Drawing on the work of Starrett and fascia expert Jill Miller, I‘ve put together a mobility routine that is fairly stupid-easy and something I can always find time to do at least once a day. Check in tomorrow for a description.
T.J. Murphy is a LAVA Magazine staff editor. Sign up for his newsletter and follow him on Twitter: @burning_runner.
(For an introduction to this series, click here.)
LAVA Podcast with running form expert, Valerie Hunt.
Is the minimalist shoe movement dead?
The 12 Mobility Standards for great running.