Running footware technology goes back to

2011-05-25 00:00

THE first Comrades Marathon was run in 1921 from Pietermaritzburg to Durban with Bill Rowan the inaugural winner in eight hours, 59 minutes — a time that has spawned the birth of the sought-after sub nine-hour medal.

But it was in the following year that the race attracted perhaps the most famous and most innovative competitor of its history — Arthur Newton.

This five-time winner was much more than a runner — he was a thinker, a man who analysed, planned and implemented strategies to succeed in the tasks he set.

Many of the ideas and beliefs that Newton developed are the core of strategies for today’s runners.

One such example relates to shoe technology. In Newton’s day, and indeed up until the late 1970’s, runners had no option but to run in very flexible, unstructured shoes such as plimsolls, or takkies.

These offered little or no support to the feet and primarily followed the form of the stride both longitudinally and in the transverse or torsional way. Over 10 000 runners completed the first 60 years of this great race in nothing better.

The early 1980s saw the birth of the technical running shoe. As the years progressed, shoes offered greater control of the natural running stride, putting more rigidity into the heels, then into the sole and then under the medial arch.

Such innovations were based on studies that showed that some runners and joggers suffered from excessive movements of their feet.

Add to this that the average person in the massive U.S. and, to a lesser extent, European markets was gaining weight. More people were taking up jogging, which in truth is a bastardisation of the natural running style and tends to emphasise a heel–toe movement.

In the U.S. you are a giant in the sport if you complete a marathon. Only a small percentage of runners there line up for a marathon and of them only about 50% of all marathoners in, say, the New York Marathon, finish under five hours, whereas nearly 100% of runners in South Africa finish in that time limit.

Since it is reasonable that in any population there will be a small percentage (usually about five percent) who fall outside the norm, then of course there are people who require additional control in their shoes, but the vast majority of runners should follow their natural running style.

Combined with a change in lifestyle that put more people seated behind a desk and computer for a greater number of hours each day, the use of overly constructed shoes has resulted in a growing number of injuries. It is not the running per se that causes the injury, but the tightness and distortion of hours of sitting plus the inappropriate running shoes.

Do the comparison: it has taken around 14 million years of evolution for humans to develop a miracle of the foot with its spring-like arch. Yet in the past two decades the manufacturers have developed a rigid plate that goes directly under the medial arch to prevent it from doing exactly what evolution want it to do — stretch and recoil.

Such plates (for lack of a better or more cursory term) prevent the runner from adopting a natural running style and require more effort to run at the same speed.

Given that control shoes work against the natural foot movement, it was no surprise that injuries were increasing.

Is it not ironic that two of South Africa’s athletic giants chose to ignore the “new technology”? Bruce Fordyce won his first few Comrades running in highly flexible, lightweight New Balance racers. And who forgot to strap planks of wood to Zola Budd’s (Pieterse) feet when she won bare-footed?


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