By Christopher Cudworth
In 1975 during my senior year in high school, a tweak of my left achilles tendon threatened to end my track season in early April. To my father’s eternal credit, he created a lift in my left track spike using a small bit of padding and a shard of brushed denim. It was a near perfect fix and I finished the season injury free.
This was an early recognition that something was wrong with the basic biomechanics of my body. There are very few runners and cyclists for whom structural flaws are not a problem. That means the farther you go, the greater your risk of injury from repetitive stress and the torque caused by oppositional forces and weight imbalance in your body.
Chiropractors must really love people who run and ride. We’re each a solo science experiment in a test to see how long it takes for the body to break down under repetitive stress. The runner with a pronation issue in one or both feet will soon enough have knee and hip problems. The cyclist with a strength imbalance will create knee problems over thousands of pedal strokes. It’s not just possible. It’s inevitable.
And the solution, we all believe, is in the shoes we wear for our activities.
Last year I purchased a bike fitting from a Specialized shop that included an assessment of my biomechanics. The bike fitter sat my butt on a sit-bone tester and then measured my legs and ankle angles. She threw a pair of Specialized inserts into my cycling shoes to better position my legs.
But guess what? Even “specialized” adaptations like that do not entirely accomplish their stated mission of injury prevention. Even pro cyclists come down with knee, ankle and hip injuries. The more and harder you ride, the more likely you will experience repetitive stress injuries. All the massage in the world can’t fix a body out of alignment. It has to start deeper than that.
Going back to the early 1970s, we can see how running shoes have evolved. That gives us some perspective on what we’ve been sold and why. At that moment in history, running flats were minimalist affairs. They had gum rubber souls a half inch thick at the heel and flat without tread across the arch to the forefoot. That was it. That was what we wore to train day in and day out.
I was young and had good form. So I did not get injured even when running on the asphalt around the high school for miles at a time. We even did intervals in those shoes on those surfaces.
Many runners got shin splints. Their solution? Rigid plastic heel cups. Interesting.
Then the adidas SL72 flat came out and the modern running shoe era began. And from there running shoe evolution took off. Nike and other companies experimented with shoes that played with podiatry and biomechanics. But here’s the kicker: No shoe can be generically designed to suit all runners. We’re all too unique and flawed as human beings to stick our foot in a shoe and have that be a cure for what ails us.
And what ails us? The four primary flaws we all face are as follow:
1. Strength imbalance. Any weakness results in oppositional torque that will lead to injury.
2. Structural flaws. The likelihood of our skeletal system being symmetrical is low.
3. Form imperfections. Running and cycling require form strategies in sync with strength training to avoid risk repetition.
4. Training. Errors in type, pace and volume of training result in repetitive stress.
So you can see that relying on your shoes alone to contain the risks of running and riding injuries is naive at best. The harsh truth is that it’s rather stupid.
That is not to say that letting your shoes get too old or not paying attention to what you’re wearing on your feet is a good idea. What shoes can do is reduce the spectrum of repetitive stress on your body.
See, when shoes break down in running or when your foot is not positioned well on the bike pedal, every movement is compromised to the point where your body is bearing weight in an oppositional fashion. That’s what pulls muscles and joints out of alignment, leading to injury.
So rather than look at your athletic training from the bottom up, perhaps it is time to consider building yourself up from the top down. Then your shoes can perform the role for which they were designed, as a foundation, not the soul (or sole) support of injury prevention.
Here’s how it works. If you’re serious about injury prevention, this is what you have to do.
1. Train for strength first, then endurance.
It only makes sense. A strong body is one that can endure. A weak or imbalanced body will not survive the process, but will break down.
2. Train for form. Health and speed will follow.
Too many athletes do not make the connection between form and a healthy body. But the same goes for speed. If you have bad or inefficient form, your body simply can’t go faster.
3. Be mindful.
Running or riding “practice” often proceeds with a rather mindless effort in which you follow along with everyone else without paying attention to what you’re doing with your own body. That leads to injury because you aren’t in control of your own effort. Be mindful of your training load, your training pattern and your workout response.
When you consider these three principles you will begin to understand that the shoes you choose to wear suddenly change in perspective.
#1: If you’re training for strength and then endurance you want cushioned foundation under you if you’re running. In cycling you want to make sure you have your pedals and clips aligned each spring. Inspect clips for wear and make sure there is rotational flexibility as you build your early season miles.
#2: Building a base in running means increasing the time you run in order to add cardiovascular and muscle fitness to your training foundation. Usually that means longer runs at a moderate pace. It is highly important as you fatigue that you do not “fall apart” at any point and allow the body to swing out of alignment. That sets you up for injury.
Same goes for cycling. When you’re fatigued after three hours in a training ride it is easy to begin mashing the pedals, putting strain on your lower back and stressing your knees. That’s how you get hurt.
Form is important, especially when you’re tired.
#3: Think about what you’re trying to accomplish each day in training. Make the commitment to follow your plan. If you have a coach, have that conversation if you have doubts. It is far better to be cautious and smart than to be determined and get hurt.
And take the long view. Always be mindful that a workout shortened or missed may feel like a failure to you today. But if you apply these principles of strength, form and mindfulness in your training you will succeed over the long term.
Only now you can take a look at your feet and start to think about what you want down there to carry you along. A pair of shoes for training. A set of racing shoes to wear on the track and to rehearse race pace.
And for cycling you realize your shoes are a direct translation of everything going on in your body from your hands on the grips all the way through your lower back to your knees, ankles and feet. Your goal is to become one with the bike because you are literally attached to it. If your feet need orthotics to keep that in alignment, then get them. Otherwise injury is inevitable.
You can do this. You just need to look at your body and training in a more holistic way.
I’m hurt right now, so I’ve got work to do in analysis, strength training and mindfulness. Despite all knowledge, we all have to go back to the drawing board now and then. A million factors can throw us off. From age to work or driving ergonomics, many things can throw us off. All the more reason for mindfulness.
But don’t expect your shoes to cure it all. That’s asking too much of anything.