Running the wrong way

February, 18, 2011
2/18/11
11:39
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
I first read it last summer. By then it was well on its way to becoming just about the biggest deal ever to runners.

You might have heard of Christopher McDougall's book "Born to Run." It has so changed the leading edge of American running that among some serious runners now it's just called "The book." (Google or YouTube it -- a mighty and pitched battle, inspired in large part by the book, rolls on.)

"Born to Run" is built around worthy anecdotes focused on a remote Mexican tribe of super-runners. But the meat of the manuscript is the idea that the way almost everybody runs is just plain wrong. Inefficient, it causes injury, and -- most offensive of all -- it's a contrivance. A modern invention.

Before 1966, writes McDougall, it was not common at all to have your heel strike the ground first. That started, basically, with Nike co-founder and track coach Bill Bowerman:
His experiments left Bowerman with a debilitating nerve condition, but also the most cushioned running shoe ever created. In a stroke of dark irony, Bowerman named it the Cortez -- after the conquistador who plundered the New World for gold and unleashed a horrific smallpox epidemic.

Bowerman’s deftest move was advocating a new style of running that was only possible in his new style of shoe. The Cortez allowed people to run in a way no human safely could before: by landing on their bony heels.

McDougall explains in detail that the arch of the human foot is one of nature's great shock absorbers. By landing on the midsole, runners can engage it to their great benefit. Landing on the heel, on the other hand, puts all kinds of forces where nature never intended them.

Reading this book left me unable to run in a manner I considered "normal." I thought about every step, every day, and basically felt dumb -- with all that book learnin' jangling around in my head -- if I continued striking, as I had for decades, on my heels.

Six months later, I'm the owner of things like Ijinji toe socks and Vibram five fingers. My kids think I own those products to amuse them (gloves for your feet!) and while that's a benefit, I have them because they're designed to let the foot work in a more natural manner. Landing on the midsole with each step is my new norm, and running is less taxing on my body than ever. I dont' just believe McDougall is on to something, I feel it.

Research cited in McDougall's book and elsewhere suggests that such a shift in running form will so a lot to reduce the likelihood that I'll get injured running.

But then, of course, having had this personal transformation in running form that McDougall, I couldn't help but notice that ... NBA players run. All over the court, all the time.

Should NBA players be running differently? Could we be reducing NBA injuries with these kinds of things?

On HoopSpeak, John Converse Townsend does not split hairs, suggesting that just as NBA players hone their form shooting or coming off screens, they really ought to start honing their running form. It's a fascinating conversation that might sound a bit out-of-left-field in basketball today, but that I suspect will hang around the sport for years, just as it is now front and center in running.

Henry Abbott | email

TrueHoop, NBA

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