This question can’t be answered simply! There are more than 20 million runners crossing finish lines every year, but we still can’t define what a running shoe is. SOM Footwear is offering a casual sneaker that, according to our customers, serves well for multiple activities from walking the dogs, to climbing mountains, including running both short and long distances on trails or roads. Yet, we don’t call them running shoes - but could we? How can we know what is right and what is wrong and should you trust someone who works in a company that makes and sells shoes in a category that is very different to that of the main running shoe brands?
Would you consider yourself a runner?
We are all runners, or have been a runner at one point in our life. But for our purposes here, let’s define a runner as a person who practices the activity of running on a regular basis. The regularity can vary from one person to another.
I started to run after work with some colleagues, in the middle of the Montreal winter. It was magic when the snow had fallen all day, and the sidewalks were obstructed by snow banks. The twilighted street-light ambiance together with the million snow twinklings made for enchanted runs. I had joined my colleagues for fun, not knowing if I needed to think about equipment. One of my friends was a long-time runner, and the initiator of one of the first 100 km races in Quebec. He was mellow and suggested that if I like to run, eventually I should buy some running shoes. Tralalala! Here we go, my shoes were not running shoes! How did he know that? I didn’t ask but I assumed the shoe store would help me with that.
What are running shoes?In the nineties, if the shoe store had a running shoes section, it was there that you would find the best “expert” in all kinds of pronators and how the shoe would work for your specific and personal running needs and preferences. The running shoe “science” - or industry! - focused on shoes with cushioning, elevated heels and pronation-controlling systems, dictating how your feet should run. In 2008, Craig E. Richards, and Drs Magin and Calister co-authored an article proposing the term PECH for ‘Pronation control, Elevated Cushioned Heel’ running shoes prescribed to distance runners. Their study concluded that PECH shoes had never been supported by research to show that they could prevent injury. Furthermore, the study raised notable questions to the contrary.
Have the shoes evolved since? Are we that much faster than the runners of the past?
New discoveries flood the market claiming they’ll make people run better: faster, longer, and of course, injury-free. Today, some running shoes look like space shoes (whatever a space shoe looks like but you get the point) with heel-elongated soles, super-cushioned soles (true words), air soles, gel soles, alcove soles, rocking soles, spring blade soles, and the list goes on. In other words, high-tech running shoes. Do we really have to integrate technology into our feet and bodies to be better or simply to enjoy a sport? Can’t we keep it simple and trust our ability to perform naturally?
Jesse Owens - 1936 vs Usain Bold - 2013
In the 1936 Olympic games, Jesse Owens ran 100 meters in 10:3 seconds. In the 2013 world championships, Usain Bolt ran that same distance in 9:77 seconds. Both achievements are very impressive! Would the results have been the same if Usain Bolt had run 100 meters eighty years ago? If, like Jesse Owens, he started by propelling himself out of holes dug in the dirt instead of starting blocks? If, like Jesse Owens, he ran on cinder (ash from burnt wood) instead of a specially engineered surface? And if, like Jesse Owens, his shoes were made with a thin rubber sole and canvas? Maybe, maybe not! There’s one thing we do know: Jesse Owens didn’t rely on technology to achieve his impressive result.
We are hearing more about letting the feet do the work they were meant to do. There are categories of neutral or stability running shoes; a novel verbiage. The industry keeps innovating in the running shoes language. Do the running shoes work better for our body today than in the past? When you look at them closely, not much has changed. Many of the brands still have cushioning and elevated heels and the rigidity of the shoes (pronation controls) are still offered. There are more brands offering roomy toe-box and zero-drop sole and yet, still with substantial sole cushioning.
What do the experts in feet say?Several studies have shown that running in cushioned shoes (more likely heel strikers) doesn’t make people run faster. Article: Healthline - Heel Strike and Your Run. It’s been observed that elite marathon runners are less likely to heel strike than non-elite runners.
A cushioned shoe may provide some comfort in the short term but may also weaken our feet in the long term. Science has proven several facts we can trust:
Sole cushioning interferes with the brain’s ability to sense the ground properly, due to the slowing of its response;
Sole cushioning camouflages the body’s reaction and adjustment to the discomfort caused by bad form and movement. For example: a runner would not continue to heel strike for long when running barefoot;
Runners strike the ground much harder in their cushioned sole shoes, because the cushioning reduces their ability to discern and moderate shock;
Tapered, narrow and pointed shoes create all kinds of foot issues such as bunions, hammertoes, heel pain, metatarsalgia, Morton's neuroma, black toenails, etc.
From this information we can conclude that running shoes should never have extra sole cushioning because it diminishes the runner’s performance. Running shoes, or any other shoes, should have room for the toes because that allows them to keep their functionality.
What is running: the shoes or the feet?
When we understand that running is executed, first and foremost, our two own feet, the shoes become secondary. As a proof, try to catch a toddler who doesn’t want to go to bed; he’ll surprise you with his speed!
Maybe we need to re-learn how to run without shoes as we did when we were kids. Many authors of natural running techniques will be happy to help. The process can be long and for some people can be very painful to retrain their atrophied achilles that wore elevated heel shoes for too many years. Strengthening your feet has to be part of the solution too.
The greatest soles we’ll ever run on were given to us at birth. Our bare feet talk to us every day, whether we run or sprint or walk or stand. They correct our posture, control our pace, and show us how to move comfortably. Sealing our toes in a tapered running shoe doesn’t tell them how to run. Stuffing our heels into an elevated hiking shoe doesn’t teach them how to hike. Our own two feet are capable of any action no matter what surrounds them. Adding more padding and cushions and forcing them into unnatural shapes only makes it harder for them to express when something’s wrong.
Wherever we travel, we want our feet to feel protected--from the elements, the terrain-- and the less that stands between them and the ground, the more control we have over each step we take.
There are three steps we recommend for our customers when they receive their first pair of SOMs:
Don’t over-tighten when lacing up. Your feet should be free to move once inside, never trapped or sealed in.
Stand up tall and use the balls of your feet to lean forward until gravity takes hold.
- Allow gravity to pull your upper body, while your feet propel you from behind. Think of how the Roadrunner moves in every Looney Tunes chase. His head stays forward, while his feet do all the work from behind. This will naturally activate the fronts of your feet, rather than straining the heels.
What we have learned over the years is that many of our customers really do rediscover their original sense of motion when they put on SOMs for the first time. We encourage people in general to rediscover their original sense of motion with their own bare feet. Take in the initial sensation. What does it feel like without shoes? Is it uncomfortable? Test what your limits are, and how much further you want to go free of shoes. The experience is valuable, as it grounds you and obligates you to connect and slow down; not a bad thing in today’s fast-paced world.
Once you have reconnected with your own feet, given them a chance to rebuild their muscles, and you understand the difference between heel striking and mid/forefoot running strikes, you can think of SOM Footwear as a running shoe. Our Trailhead model is perfect for the track or trail, but not matter which you choose, your SOMs will offer as little interference as possible to your feet and to your posture. In SOMs, your feet can do the work they were designed to do and SOMs will be their best friends.
To learn more about the steps you can take when adjusting from traditional footwear to SOM shoes, please check out our blog, New to Barefoot Shoes?