If you’re a runner, odds are pretty good that you’ve been injured at some point in the last year or two. Journalist Christopher McDougall has an interesting and no doubt controversial explanation. It’s your shoes, he says. There’s too much of them: too much cushioning, too much arch support, too much stabilization, too much everything.
McDougall makes a case in his new book, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. To be fair, most of Born to Run is not really about shoes at all. The book begins with a simple question — McDougall wants to know why his foot hurts so much after running one day — and it ends with a high-altitude foot-race showdown between one of the world’s best ultramarathoners, some perpetually hungover but speedy college kids, and elders of a reclusive indigenous Mexican tribe. (You might be surprised who wins.) But one of the most commonly recurring notes in the book is that good runners have good technique, not fancy equipment. You don’t see Olympic marathoners in thick-soled running-shoe clunkers.
McDougall grew skeptical of running shoes after visiting a series of experts on the science of running shoes and finding… that he couldn’t find very much science at all. Cushioning doesn’t seem to reduce foot impact, he’s told in the book by the very few doctors who’ve studied this stuff. And adding unnecessary foot cushioning and support can cause new injuries by tampering with your natural gait.
I talked to McDougall about what he learned, and what he recommends for the chronically pained recreational runner.(Jargon alert: Pronation is when your foot rolls inward as you walk or run. Supination, or underpronation, is when it doesn’t do this enough.)
[This interview has been edited for length.]
TIME: I started thinking after I read your book: When I first got my first pair of fancy running shoes at an expensive running store, I was told I had a very neutral [pronating] foot. Then over the years that’s turned into, “Well… you supinate a little bit,” and then that turned into, “Oh you supinate a lot!” And now finally it’s turned into, “I don’t know if we can do anything about your supination. You’re just naturally that way.”
CD: I hear this and it makes my head steam with frustration. It’s just gibberish. It’s all nonsense.
TIME: So what do you tell people – whether they’ve read your book or not – when they tell you that they like running, but “I’m just not built for it,” or “I get hurt all the time?”
CD: If it’s in person, I just point to myself. I’m 6’4″. I weighed over 230 lb, and I was told in clear terms by one of the best sports medicine doctors in the country: “You should not run.” It’s hard to find anyone who’s a less likely candidate for running than I am. That was expert medical opinion. But it’s not true. It’s so easy to turn it around.
You’ve pinpointed two of the biggest obstacles — two of the harmful misconceptions out there about people’s bodies. One is that you need to have a certain body type to do an activity. It’s utterly false, particularly with running. No one ever says you’re not built to go swimming, or you’re not built to play golf. Only in the most natural, accessible activity of all is there this artificial barrier. The second thing is all this mumbo-jumbo baloney about foot-strike patterns. The fact that you can go into four different stores and get four different diagnoses speaks to — I hate to even introduce the word ‘science’ to this conversation — but the inexact science that it is. This is going to piss a lot of people off, but it’s basically college track runners working part-time jobs, who’ve been given a 10-minute demonstration from the running-store owner, and from that they’re picking out something from a wall of preposterous products. If you run properly, pronation is not a factor. If pronation is not a factor, the whole premise of the running-shoe industry is now obsolete.
TIME: Wait. When you say pronation is not a factor, you mean that people don’t do it without the shoes or that it’s not problem when they do?
CD: Well a bit of both. No. 1, there’s never been a study that indicates that pronation does anything wrong. Even if you are a heel-striker who over-pronates, there’s no evidence that actually does anything. We just say all pronation is bad; therefore you need to correct it. That may or may not be true. Second, if you land properly on your forefoot with your foot underneath your hips, there is no pronation, or only a tiny little bit of pronation. You’re going to land just below your small toe and you will rotate over to your big toe. But you’re not going to be doing this gigantic thing where you land on your heel and roll all the way over your arch to your big toe.
TIME: That only happens when you have a ton of cushioning under your feet?
CD: Right, you can’t run that way in your bare feet, or in a minimal shoe. So if you run in a minimal shoe all that mumbo jumbo stuff is off the table.
TIME: What do you wear when you run?
CD: Usually nothing. I’m in New York now. I’m going for a run later in Central Park–
TIME: Please wear something if you’re going to be running through Central Park.
CD: I’ve actually run through the City in my bare feet and didn’t have a problem. But when I’m not barefoot I like to wear the Vibram Five Fingers shoes.
TIME: When you started running barefoot, did you feel like the retraining process was difficult, or did it feel natural?
CD: I went about it the wrong way. What you’ll see over and over again is podiatrists or sports medicine doctors or physical therapists, who say: Barefoot running may be OK sometimes, but before you try it you should work your way down with gradually thinner and thinner soled shoes. That’s what I did. It doesn’t do anything. I was fortunate to have really great barefoot coaches. But only when I broke my toe and I couldn’t get my Five Fingers on anymore and I had to run barefoot then, yes, you almost instantly figure everything out. Within a half mile everything makes sense. If you’re hunched over it won’t feel good and you’ll straighten your back. If you’re leaning too much on one leg that leg will start to hurt and you’ll even out. As long as you’re willing to relax and not push it, the transformation is very natural.
TIME: Have you had much response at all from running-shoe companies since the book came out?
CD: You know I haven’t, which really indicates to me that I’m right. If these guys had anything, they’d be hitting me with a Howitzer and they have not said a word. It really frustrates me. Step up and address the issue. Either I’m right or I’m wrong.
TIME: Certainly the way you wrote it, it sounds like you feel there was never satisfying evidence behind [running-shoe science].
CD: That’s the bewildering thing about it. I think it’s a house of cards. It seems like it’s built on something, but you look around and where is it? Where’s the foundation? And then it dawns on you. Come to think of it, I never did see an ad that said this shoe would actually do anything. You’ve never seen an ad that says, “Buy this shoe because it will decrease your chance of knee injury,” or, “It will help your tendinitis.” Somehow they convey the message that the shoes are beneficial without ever saying so. Frankly, I’ve got to call out the other side of the running industry too: the running magazines, and the running-store owners, and the podiatrists. They’re the ones who are really giving this message. You pick up any issue of Runner’s World and it’s full of garbage: “Wear this for this, and this for this.” I don’t know where they get it from because there’s no scientific evidence that backs any of it up.
TIME: In the book you write about how and why humans might have evolved to be runners – in particular this idea that humans are very efficient at dispersing heat because we can sweat, unlike just about every other animal. I was wondering: have you ever tried to run down an antelope?
CD: [Laughs] No. I’m intrigued. The thing that stymied [one of the people I wrote about in the book] is you need to have the tracker skill. You need to have a wide open expanse, you need a lot of heat, and you need to know which animal you’re chasing [so that it doesn't get caught in a pack.]